'Sweeping Beauty' Cleans Up With Poetry 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; the poems of are peppered with harsh realities.
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'Sweeping Beauty' Cleans Up With Poetry

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'Sweeping Beauty' Cleans Up With Poetry

'Sweeping Beauty' Cleans Up With Poetry

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

In this hurricane season which has turned out to be a season of evacuation, resettlement and cleanup, it's ironic that a collection of poems about housework has just come out. It's called "Sweeping Beauty" and all the poets are baby boomers. One of them, Faith Shearin, writes, `My mother despises what can never truly be done, so she does not care for cooking or cleaning.' NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg has more samples.

SUSAN STAMBERG reporting:

When my father was dying, I hauled out the cleanser and scrubbed away at the gritty windowsill of my childhood bedroom. When our son left for college, I organized and then reorganized every single bookshelf. Housework can be therapeutic, satisfying, enervating, relentless. It is also formative. Joy Harjo, one of the poets in "Sweeping Beauty," writes, `The world begins at a kitchen table. That world can be expansive or oppressive.' Here's the beginning of Julia Kasdorf's poem. `When our women go crazy...'

Ms. JULIA KASDORF: `When our women go crazy, they're scared there won't be enough meat in the house. They keep asking, "But how will we eat? Who will cook? Will there be enough?"'

STAMBERG: Julia Kasdorf goes on to describe how it is when our women are sane. `Sane, they can tomatoes and simmer big pots of soup for the freezer.' The poem ends...

Ms. KASDORF: `Their refrigerators are always immaculate and full, which is also the case when our women are crazy.'

STAMBERG: Oh, Julia. The thread throughout, whether crazy or sane, is the tyranny of being the one who provides the food, the one who feeds.

Ms. KASDORF: Right. Right. And it's not just the labor of producing the food, but it's the constant mindfulness. You're always thinking ahead, `Well, you know, what about the next meal? What about the next day?'

STAMBERG: And lives depended on the housework of Julia Kasdorf's farm women.

Other poets in this collection have far less dramatic responsibilities and plenty of questions. Dorianne Laux wonders, `What good does it do anyone to have a drawer full of clean knives?'

Ms. ALLISON JOSEPH: Oh, I agree with her. I hate housework so much.

STAMBERG: This is poet Allison Joseph.

Ms. JOSEPH: Because it all does come undone, as Dorianne's poem implies. You just have to do it over and over and over again, and as the poet, the thing I wanted to do over and over again is write.

STAMBERG: In her poem "Kitchen," Allison Joseph recalls the most important room of her Bronx childhood.

Ms. 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 teacups in the sink.

STAMBERG: In the house of her dictatorial father, Allison Joseph learns the power of plantains and yams and hot sauce, foods from her mother's Jamaican homeland. Here's the last verse of "Kitchen."

Ms. JOSEPH: `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.'

STAMBERG: Did you keep all of your mother's kitchen things?

Ms. JOSEPH: I couldn't. Writing this poem was the way of keeping it. I think poets try to hold on to things through words that you can't actually physically hold on to, but I have pieces.

STAMBERG: Pamela Gemin of the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh is the editor of "Sweeping Beauty: Contemporary Women Poets Do Housework." She likes Holly Iglesias' poem "Feeding Frenzy,"(ph) a portrait of '50s fun in the kitchen, meals cooked while wearing capri pants, a Camel cigarette smoking on the windowsill. One section called "The Birth of Ranch Dressing" serves up iceberg lettuce coated in orange French dressing, then Italian, then Russian, blue, Thousand Island and then...

Ms. HOLLY IGLESIAS: `Like domestic astronauts, we were launched into new orbits, Mother mixing spice packet with vinegar with oil in the Hidden Valley cruet proclaiming, "It's Ranch. It's homemade." What Ranch, what state was left unsaid? We suspected Nevada and worried at the thought of her in western togs perched on a split-rail fence flirting with a cowpoke while she awaited her divorce from our father.'

STAMBERG: The punch of divorce, the slam of wars at the dinner table, the shroud of a bed sheet. Editor Pamela Gemin says women's poems of housework are peppered with harsh realities.

Ms. PAMELA GEMIN (University of Wisconsin Oshkosh): I think right now the authentic voice coming from the kitchen is female. I once in a while will read a poem by a man about cooking, but it's very celebratory. It's never at all resentful or even contemplative. It's mostly, `Isn't garlic wonderful? And aren't I great for learning about basil and marjoram?'

STAMBERG: And yet for many of these baby boomer poets, there is beauty in housework, comfort in all the rituals of ironing, sweeping, the occasional scrub.

Ms. KASDORF: Particularly somebody like me whose work for money involves reading and writing and thinking and teaching.

STAMBERG: Again, poet Julia Kasdorf.

Ms. KASDORF: For me, housework becomes a refuge because it's physical work, it's creative work. And certainly there is on top of a day job, it can be a burden, but there are moments when hanging laundry on the line feels like a great escape.

STAMBERG: What about the impulse to clean in a crisis? Allison Townsend(ph) makes her bed with especially tight hospital corners. This is something she learned from her mother, and she does it in those weeks after her mother dies.

Ms. GEMIN: Yeah, there are a couple of poems in the book that mention I guess what could be called housework binges.

STAMBERG: Editor Pamela Gemin.

Ms. GEMIN: People are craving order and some kind of meaning and, you know, want something to make sense, can sometimes find that in straightening and organizing and cleaning the house.

STAMBERG: They're trying to make order out of chaos, trying to make things better. The poems in this collection are about the tyranny of housework and its healing powers, simple, sometimes mindless repetitive tasks essential and unpaid that can have the ability to restore. "Sweeping Beauty: Contemporary Women Poets Do Housework"--it's published by the University of Iowa Press.

I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.

INSKEEP: You can find poems from "Sweeping Beauty" at npr.org including a poem here called "Entropy."

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

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