The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Washing Dishes Late at Night” is a poem in free verse consisting of just seventeen lines, only three of which contain more than five words. The setting is the poet’s home, and the title further limits the action to the kitchen. The title also indicates the time, “late at night,” when it is natural to be tired, to have one’s defenses down. The speaker is busy washing dishes, a task so routine that it leaves her thoughts free. There is another person in the room, whom she sometimes addresses. Since both the poetry and the prose that Kathleen Norris writes are highly autobiographical, one can be fairly certain that her companion, who is described as living with her, is her husband.

Although the poem is divided into three parts of almost equal length, it does not develop chronologically or even logically. Each section provides more information about the action while, at the same time, interpreting it.

Thus, after beginning with a simple, factual title, the author, in the first section of the poem, turns subjective, asserting that a “room tips.” This comment is followed by some relevant facts: The room about which the poet is thinking has just been “rearranged.” A logical explanation for her unease could be that, looking at the new arrangement, she feels that it has some aesthetic defect, perhaps a lack of symmetry or balance, which would, indeed, make one feel that it was tipping. On the other hand, the poet might just need...

(The entire section is 435 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Washing Dishes Late at Night” is written in a terse, uncluttered style. The words are simple and commonplace. Norris uses nouns such as “room,” “lovers,” and “arms and legs,” and verbs such as “tips,” “rode,” and “dip.” Because so many of her words are monosyllabic, the poem has a terse, even an abrupt, quality. In the first line (“The room tips”), for example, two of the three syllables are stressed. Although there is more of a lilt in the occasional longer lines in the poem, such as “Where we have rearranged it” and “Their unencumbered arms and legs,” most of the lines resemble the initial one. The last three lines of the poem are heavily stressed: Out of eleven syllables, six, perhaps even seven, are accented, and of ten words, all but one are single syllables. As a result, although the poem concludes without a solution, it does end with a strong statement. There is no question about the doubt the two characters are experiencing at the end of the poem.

Similarly, there is nothing unclear about Norris’s images. The dirty dishes, the pictures, and the “pale light,” as well as the room, whose importance is indicated by the fact that it is referred to in each section of the poem, are all, quite evidently, drawn from the poet’s own everyday experience. Even the “arms and legs” of the naked “lovers” and the fairy tale “dragon” or “horse” are hardly obscure. It is important to note, however,...

(The entire section is 520 words.)