The Poem

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 435

“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.

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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 time to get used to the changes. After this down-to-earth reference in the second line of this section, however, the present disappears and, with it, the real world. In the last three lines of the section, the poet harks back to a time that she admits seems like a “fairy tale.” The use of the past tense is significant; evidently, that golden age is now no more than a memory.

The second part of the poem begins with explicit references to sensual experiences. Now, however, there is a conflict: While the room clings to these memories, the man addressed is eliminating them by hanging “new pictures.” Meanwhile, the poet is working at her own chore.

In the first line of the final section, there is a dramatic change of subject. It now appears that the writer’s primary concern is not furniture arrangement but the creative process. The poem about “faith” that she was trying to write has been blocked, evidently because of something in the atmosphere. The poem ends with the husband and wife again together, but what they share is uneasiness and fear.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 520

“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, that while all of the images are concrete and familiar, some of them represent the world of the here and now, and others represent the realm of memory and imagination.

Another stylistic device that has thematic implications is the frequent shifts from one personal pronoun to another. “Washing Dishes Late at Night” begins with a reference to the couple’s uniting: “[W]e” worked together on the room. Then, in the second section, there is a rather surprising shift. The “lovers” of the preceding stanza are spoken of in the third person, not once, but twice. The poet immediately proceeds to a description of the present, with “You” (presumably her husband) involved in one activity, “I” in another. The final section brings them back together, with “our,” “we,” and “Both of us.” It is evident that the pronouns in this poem were not selected by accident. Instead, they are clearly meant to serve as directional signals, signifying the development of thought and feeling from line to line, section to section.

In prose works such as Dakota: A Spiritual Geography (1993) and The Cloister Walk (1996), Norris has emphasized one of the important lessons she has learned during her own spiritual awakening: If life is understood as being, above all, a matter of one’s relationship with God, everything in this world is significant. This faith is reflected in Norris’s poetry. One should never think that her imagery and syntax might be merely incidental or ornamental. For Norris, the purpose of form is to illuminate theme just as the purpose of everything in God’s creations is to demonstrate his goodness and power.

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Themes