'Sweeping Beauty' Cleans Up With Poetry

The cover. Credit: University of Iowa Press.

Editor Pamela Gemin is an assistant professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. Her poetry collection Vendettas, Charms, and Prayers was a Minnesota Voices Project winner from New Rivers Press. University of Iowa Press hide caption

itoggle caption University of Iowa Press

Housework is a chore for many, and a pleasure for some. Poet Faith Shearin's mother sees it as the former.

"My mother despises what can never truly be done," Shearin writes in the book Sweeping Beauty. "So she does not care for cooking or cleaning."

Love it or loathe it, domestic work is a common experience and it's celebrated in Sweeping Beauty — Contemporary Women Poets Do Housework.

The punch of divorce, the slam of wars at the dinner table, the shroud of a bed sheet; editor and contributing poet Pamela Gemin says women's poems of housework are peppered with harsh realities.

And yet, for many of these baby boomer poets, there is beauty in housework. They find comfort in the rituals of ironing, sweeping and the occasional scrub.

A selection of poems from Sweeping Beauty:

Upper Peninsula Landscape with Aunts

By Pamela Gemin

Home from casino or fish fry,
the aunts recline
in their sisters' dens,
kicking off canvas shoes
and tucking their nylon footies
inside, remarking
on each other's pointy toes
and freckled bunions.

When Action 2 News comes on

they shake their heads and tsk tsk tsk

and stroke their collarbones.

The aunts hold their shoulderstrap purses

tight into their hips

and double-check their back seats.

The last politician they trusted

was FDR, and only then

when he kept his pants on.

The aunts won't be dickered down,

they’ll tell you a buck is a buck,

as they wash and rinse freezer bags,

scrape off aluminum foil.

The aunts know exciting ways

with government cheese,

have furnished trailer homes

with S&H green stamp lamps and Goodwill sofas;

brook trout and venison thaw

in their shining sinks.

With their mops and feather dusters

and buckets of paint on sale,

with their hot glue guns and staplers

and friendly plastic jewelry kits,

with their gallons of closeout furniture stripper,

the aunts are hurricanes who'll marbleize

the inside of your closets

before you've had time

to put coffee on.

The aunts are steam-powered, engine-driven,

early rising women of legendary

soap and water beauty

who’ve pushed dozens of screaming babies

out into this stolen land.

They take lip or guff from no man,

child, or woman; tangle with aunts

and they'll give you what for times six

and then some: don't make them come up those stairs!

And yes they are acquainted

with the Bogeyman,

his belly full of robbery and lies.

The aunts have aimed deer rifles

right between his eyes, dead-bolted him out

and set their dogs upon him,

or gone tavern to tavern to bring him home,

carried him down from his nightmare

with strong black tea, iced his split lips,

painted his fighting cuts with Mercurochrome.

And they have married Cornishmen and Swedes,

and other Irish, married their sons and daughters off

to Italians and Frenchmen and Finns;

buried their parents and husbands and each other,

buried their drowned and fevered and miscarried children;

turned grandchildren upside down

and shaken the swallowed coins loose

from their windpipes; ridden the whole wide world

on the shelves of their hips.

The aunts know paradise is born

from rows of red dirt, red coffee cans,

prayers for rain. Whenever you leave

their houses, you leave with pockets and totes

full of strawberry jam and rum butter balls

and stories that weave themselves into your hair.

Some have already gone to the sky

to make pasties and reorganize the cupboards.

The rest will lead camels

through needles' eyes

to the shimmering kingdom of Heaven.

__________

Kitchen

By Allison Joseph

I remember this as her kitchen,

the one room in our house where no one

questioned my mother's authority—

her cast iron pots bubbling over

on the stove, cracked tea cups

in the sink. How I hated

the difficult oven always hanging

off its hinges, so loose a clothes hanger

rigged it shut, gas range whose flames

leapt beneath fingers when I turned

its knobs too quickly, floor tile

that never came clean no matter

how much dirt I swept from its

cracks. This was her domain—

kitchen for frying fish

and stewing chicken, for rice

and peas, plantains and yams,

for grease and hot sauce and seasoned salt.

Only she could make that faulty

oven door stay, only she could master

the fickle flames of the rangetop,

only she could make those worn dishes

and chipped plates fill a table

with food so rich and hot

my father could not complain.

And though I am her daughter, this house

no longer hers, her body deep in holy ground,

I know she'd want me to save all this—

decades of platters and saucers, plates,

glasses—every chipped cup, tarnished fork.

__________

Perhaps the World Ends Here

By Joy Harjo

The world begins at a kitchen table. No matter what, we must eat to live.

The gifts of earth are brought and prepared, set on the table. So it has been since creation, and it will go on.

We chase chickens or dogs away from it. Babies teethe at the corners. They scrape their knees under it.

It is here that children are given instructions on what it means to be human. We make men at it, we make women.

At this table we gossip, recall enemies and the ghosts of lovers.

Our dreams drink coffee with us as they put their arms around our children. They laugh with us at our poor falling-down selves and as we put ourselves back together once again at the table.

The table has been a house in the rain, an umbrella in the sun.

Wars have begun and ended at this table. It is a place to hide in the shadow of terror. A place to celebrate the terrible victory.

We have given birth on this table, and have prepared our parents for burial here.

At this table we sing with joy, with sorrow. We pray of suffering and remorse. We give thanks.

Perhaps the world will end at the kitchen table, while we are laughing and crying, eating of the last sweet bite.

__________

The Idea of Housework

By Dorianne Laux

What good does it do anyone

to have a drawer full of clean knives,

the tines of tiny pitchforks

gleaming in plastic bins, your face

reflected eight times over

in the oval bowls of spoons?

What does it matter that the bathmat’s

scrubbed free of mold, the door mat

swept clear of leaves, the screen door

picked clean of bees' wings, wasps'

dumbstruck bodies, the thoraxes

of flies and moths, high corners

broomed of spider webs, flowered

sheets folded and sealed in drawers,

blankets shaken so sleep's duff and fuzz,

dead skin flakes, lost strands of hair

flicker down on the cut grass?

Who cares if breadcrumbs collect

on the countertop, if photographs

of the ones you love go gray with dust,

if milk jugs pile up, unreturned,

on the back porch near the old dog’s dish

encrusted with puppy chow?

Oh to rub the windows with vinegar,

the trees behind them revealing

their true colors. Oh the bleachy,

waxy, soapy perfume of spring.

Why should the things of this world

shine so? Tell me if you know.

__________

Entropy

By Faith Shearin

My mother's kitchen was asleep.

Our family didn’t gather there:

we lived and ate in our bedrooms

hypnotized by the blue lights of TV.

But, in her kitchen, pots and pans

floated, belly up, in the week-old

water, and our garbage, smiling,

outgrew its bag. All of this very

slowly, as if in a dream. My mother

despises what can never truly

be done so she does not care for cooking

or cleaning. If one cooks a fine dinner

one must wash the dishes to cook

a fine breakfast to wash the dishes

to cook a fine lunch and so on. My mother

explained this one afternoon in the basement

where the laundry grew around us like trees.

Our jungle-home was a metaphor for

my mother giving in to entropy.

When wine spilled on the couch and we

laughed as the stain unfurled,

we were embracing chaos. When we

fell asleep with the lights on

and the TV talking, we were

the weeds in our own garden.

My mother's kitchen was haunted.

Her refrigerator leaned to one

side and made only brown ice.

Her biscuits were as flat as plates.

But none of this mattered because

we were forgetting ourselves

even as we were becoming ourselves.

We pursued truth, beauty,

the meaning of life while

my mother's kitchen discovered

decay. All this unraveling—

moldy food, newspapers

piling up to the ceiling.

We loved each other like that:

bananas going black on the counter,

lines coming in around our eyes.

__________

From Sweeping Beauty: Contemporary Women Poets Do Housework, edited by Pamela Gemin, published by the University of Iowa Press. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.

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