Monday, September 15, 2014

I Wash the Shirt

I Wash the Shirt

by Anna swir

Translated by Czeslaw Milosz & Leonard Nathan

For the last time I wash the shirt
of my father who died.
The shirt smells of sweat. I remember
that sweat from my childhood,
so many years
I washed his shirts and underwear,
I dried them
at an iron stove in the workshop,
he would put them on unironed.

From among all bodies in the world,
animal, human,
only one exuded that sweat.
I breathe it in
for the last time. Washing this shirt
I destroy it
only paintings survive him
which smell of oils.

The famous Polish poet Anna Swir has written some of the most beautiful and deeply stirring poems I have come across. Her poems dives deep into the frailty and the power of a woman's spirit.Her
  poetry is devoid of usual poetic embellishments and is purposeful, direct and simple with profound reverence for life.She often paints pictures in your mind so real and tangible that it is guaranteed to leave you gasping for emotions that you may not have known existed within you.

The belongings of the dead, especially clothes, evoke an intense emotional response when the deceased was intimately attached to you. I loved the emotional fervor she brings into a shirt left behind by her father. Throughout the poem, the shirt is symbolic of the remnants of a personal relationship between the father and the daughter that continues after his death. The alliteration in “the shirt smells of sweat” conveys the pleasantly intimate scent that makes personal connection with the daughter. The line "from all the bodies in the world, animal or human, only one exuded that sweat" reflects the uniqueness of her father and their binding relationship. 

She finally destroys the shirt by rough washing thereby metaphorically removing the precious memories associated with the shirt (“washing this shirt I destroy it forever”) and dispelling her father's haunting presence that returns with every washing. While it can be seen that washing the shirt will destroy precious memories, it can also be seen as a way to open a new chapter in her life by coming to terms with her grief. 

She decides at the end that the only thing that "survives [her father]" are his paintings that smell of oil, whereby the narrator is probably hinting at this being yet another aroma that would vividly remind her of her father, just as his sweaty clothes. Perhaps, the images created in “smell of oils” are very impersonal as the paintings are merely artistic output of her father, which is bearable, compared to the smell of sweat on the shirt which is natural and distinctive.

Source: Talking to My Body by Anna Swir. Translated by Czeslaw Milosz & Leonard Nathan
Painting by  Fernando Amorsolo


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