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Shirt 

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 armpiece 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
inspired by the hoax of Ossian,
To control their savage Scottish workers, tamed
By a fabricated heraldry: MacGregor, 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

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