Shirt

Editor’s Note: I’ve spent most of this day considering the reasons for this holiday. It does far more than mark the traditional end of summer. Yes, there is a kind of melancholy over the sunset on Labor Day, at least I always felt that when I was in my public school years.

In my grandmother’s day, it also meant the official end of permission to wear white shoes!

Although much has changed, some things persist. For me, one of those persistent truths is the necessity of remembering why we celebrate this Day in the first place.

I don’t usually assign “homework” with the POTW, but I urge everyone to look up a bit of history on Labor Day, and even delve into the allusions in this week’s poem. I think you’ll not only enjoy it, but you may learn something to share with friends.

 

The back, the yoke, the yardage. Lapped seams,

The nearly invisible stitches along the collar

Turned in a sweatshop by Koreans or Malaysians

 

Gossiping over tea and noodles on their break

Or talking money or politics while one fitted

This arm piece with its overseam to the band

 

Of cuff I button at my wrist. The presser, the cutter,

The wringer, the mangle. The needle, the union,

The treadle, the bobbin. The code. The infamous blaze

 

At the Triangle Factory in nineteen-eleven.

One hundred and forty-six died in the flames

On the ninth floor, no hydrants, no fire escapes —

 

The witness in a building across the street

Who watched how a young man helped a girl to step

Up to the windowsill, then held her out

 

Away from the masonry wall and let her drop.

And then another. As if he were helping them up

To enter a streetcar, and not eternity.

 

A third before he dropped her put her arms

Around his neck and kissed him. Then he held

Her into space, and dropped her. Almost at once
He stepped to the sill himself, his jacket flared

And fluttered up from his shirt as he came down,

Air filling up the legs of his gray trousers —

 

Like Hart Crane’s Bedlamite, “shrill shirt ballooning.”

Wonderful how the pattern matches perfectly

Across the placket and over the twin bar-tacked

 

Corners of both pockets, like a strict rhyme

Or a major chord. Prints, plaids, checks,

Houndstooth, Tattersall, Madras. The clan tartans

 

Invented by mill-owners by the hoax of Ossian,

To control their savage Scottish workers, tamed

By a fabricated heraldry: Mac Gregor,

 

Bailey, MacMartin. The kilt, devised for workers

To wear among the dusty clattering looms.

Weavers, carders, spinners. The loader,

 

The docker, the navvy. The planter, the picker, the sorter,

Sweating at her machine in a litter of cotton

As slaves in calico headrags sweated in fields:

 

George Herbert, your descendant is a Black

Lady in South Carolina, her name is Irma

And she inspected my shirt. Its color and fit

 

And feel and its clean smell have satisfied

Both her and me. We have culled its cost and quality

Down to the buttons of simulated bone,

 

The buttonholes, the sizing, the facing, the characters

Printed in black on neckband and tail. The shape,

The label, the labor, the color, the shade. The shirt.

 

Robert Pinsky

From The Want Bone, c 1990

 

  1. Find an item in your environment and create a poem praising everything that went into its creation and everyone who took part in that.
  2. Create a poem or journal entry in which you infuse something of history into the making of a favorite thing in your possession. This can be especially fun if you have a collection of something you have accumulated over time. 
  3. Write about how you celebrated Labor Day when you were younger. What did it mean to you then? Explore your current feelings about this holiday.
Copyrighted material. Reprinted for educational/therapeutic use.
Writing Prompts Copyright © 2015 Featherstone, All rights reserved.

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