"One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture
and, if possible, speak a few reasonable words." ~Goethe

~ also, if possible, to dwell in "a house where all's accustomed, ceremonious." ~Yeats

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Winnow the Dreams

Sun and Wind on the Roof, 1915
John French Sloan, 1871 - 1951

“Oh, let there be nothing on earth but laundry,
Nothing but rosy hands in the rising steam
And clear dances done in the sight of heaven."

Love Calls Us to the Things of This World
The eyes open to a cry of pulleys,
And spirited from sleep, the astounded soul
Hangs for a moment bodiless and simple
As false dawn.

Outside the open window
The morning air is all awash with angels.

Some are in bed-sheets, some are in blouses,
Some are in smocks: but truly there they are.
Now they are rising together in calm swells
Of halcyon feeling, filling whatever they wear
With the deep joy of their impersonal breathing;

Now they are flying in place, conveying
The terrible speed of their omnipresence, moving
And staying like white water; and now of a sudden
They swoon down into so rapt a quiet
That nobody seems to be there.

The soul shrinks

From all that is about to remember,
From the punctual rape of every blessed day,
And cries,

“Oh, let there be nothing on earth but laundry,
Nothing but rosy hands in the rising steam
And clear dances done in the sight of heaven."

Yet, as the sun acknowledges
With a warm look the world's hunks and colors,
The soul descends once more in bitter love
To accept the waking body, saying now
In a changed voice as the man yawns and rises,

"Bring them down from their ruddy gallows;
Let there be clean linen for the backs of thieves;
Let lovers go fresh and sweet to be undone,
And the heaviest nuns walk in a pure floating
Of dark habits,
keeping their difficult balance."

by Richard Wilbur

Click to hear poet Richard Wilbur read this amazing poem
and explain how he was inspired by the idea of the floating laundry.

Another painting by artisit John French Sloan ~ also inspired by laundry!
Red Kimono on the Roof, 1912

See also:
1. additional perspectives on Wilbur's poem
2. interesting blog post on "Love Calls Us"
3. clever little analysis for beginners

And a few more connections:

1. Contemporary poet, Barbara Kunz Loots describes the tension between possibility and duty with elegant simplicity. For her the "infinite possibilities" are "delicate grain" and the "infinite duties" are "the plain bread of day."

How hard it is to winnow the dreams from waking,
To watch the gold illusion drift away
And turning to the delicate grain of morning
Grind it into the plain bread of day.

by Barbara Kunz Loots

2. Last week on facebook, epigrammatist and collage artist Michael Lipsey captured the same idea in this fetching visual. Is it a beaver, as in "busy as a beaver" (infinite duty)? Or is it a groundhog, as in if I don't like what I see, I'm not coming out! Maybe it is not the bright sunshine so much as the it is the sheen of infinite possibility that causes the groundhog to shrink from its shadow and run away, overwhelmed. Perhaps love does not call the groundhog to the things of this world.

"There's an in between time when you wake up,
hanging onto the dream, but beginning to remember
things you need to do today." ~ Michael Lispsy

When I read Lipsey's caption concerning the "in between time," I couldn't help thinking of what Loots says about watching "the gold illusion drift away," as the dreamer sifts the wheat from the chaff; and of the "astounded soul" in Wilbur's poem, hanging "bodiless and simple," waiting to rejoin the waking body for another round of mundane errands. At first "the soul shrinks from all that it is about to remember" -- the repetition, the banality, the laundry. But after a few moments of semi - wakeful debate, "the soul descends . . . in bitter love" to accept the reality of the day at hand. Similarly, we rise up "in bitter love" to embrace each day, despite a thousand misgivings. The voice in both poems is resigned yet optimistic: the grain is delicate, the laundry is sacred, the day redeems itself.

3. Our friend Eileen was reminded of her E. B. White "To - Do - List" fridge magnet:
"If the world were merely seductive, that would be easy.
If it were merely challenging, that would be no problem.
But I arise in the morning torn between
a desire to improve the world
and a desire to enjoy the world.
This makes it hard to plan the day."

As Eileen puts it, White vacillates between enjoyment and accomplishment, as do the sunstruck groundhog (though maybe not the industrious beaver), the reluctant dreamer, and the astounded soul. The vacillation makes it "hard to plan the day" -- but not impossible. One way or another, even if only by "habit" (Wilbur's pun), we accept the challenge of the sun, yawn, rise, go forth day after day, keeping our "difficult balance." I especially like the way that Wilbur's conlcusion can actually be found in his title: "love call us to the things of this world."

Next Fortnightly Post
Wednesday, August 14th

Between now and then, read
my shorter, almost daily blog posts

Looking for a good book? Try
my running list of recent reading


  1. As I sit in Steven's living room on the last day in Mpls., the last day of my "Midwestern sojourn," as you called it, I am torn between working on my book, answering e-mails, and watching "Coco Avant Chanel." Possibilities and duties indeed. XO, V.

  2. Michael Lipsey writes: "From time to time people ask me what kind of animal that is in the collage. Funny how many different species of animals look almost the same up close...except us."