The Message in I Wash the Shirt

Sophomore (College 2nd year) ・English ・MLA ・5 Sources

The poem I wash the shirt was written by Anna Swirszczyniska, a Polish poet, in the book luminous stuff. The poem may be classified as a prose elegy. It's a brief, sad poem about her plight. It was written posthumously by Swir's daughter after her father's death, and it is regarded as Swir's own poem. This essay interprets and analyzes the general context of Anna Swir's poem I wash the coat. I wash this shirt is an allegory poem written in the first person persona that figuratively represents the author's thoughts. Swir talks in a first-person perspective; she uses herself being a daughter of a poor family in during the world war two. The author describes the character of her father as sweaty from the hard painting work he used to do while alive. She uses her dad’s figure as an antagonist in the poem and links him to the simple things she does. She washes her father’s shirt smelling the dead father’s sweat; this even shows the relationship that used to exist between the author and her father.

There are two main characters in this poem. Swir, the persona in the poem is the main protagonist and her dead father as the antagonist. Swir in her poem introduces herself washing her dad’s shirts, this task seemed personal thus Swir kept this poem for so long. Swir is an open character; she is so open about herself, “I washed his shirts and underwear” (6). She discloses very private parts of her life as she washes her father’s shirt and underwear. Swir is emotional in this poem, she writes that “for the last time. Washing this shirt / I destroy it / forever” (14-16). In the other poems of Swir in the book Luminous Things, Swir features her dad as a gentle man with cultural pride to his own people. Despite the poverty that hit his people, Swir exposes her dad as a hard worker. Swir continued the image on her poem I wash the shirt; she explains that her father did the art of painting historical themes and religious themes. Swir perceived a strong association in her father’s daily work and pride and as she washes her clothes, it reminded her of him.

Swir as a young girl in the period of the World War II witnessed a lot of death and destruction, she considered life compelling and wrote about simple existence acts, “for the last time I wash the shirt” (1). This introduction showed how simple Swir decided to be, how private she decided to go. The dead father’s identity is evoked by the scent in his clothes washed by Swir, this showed how she was interested in the simple acts like breathing, walking, sound and even smiles.

Swir had a message of life and aspect of life. “I breathe it in” (13), in this line she pictured the strength and joy of life. Breathing also evokes grief of the speaker as she performs some simple tasks. She explains that joy and enjoyments in life are for some time. Humans breathe, breathing is the basic thing for human life, it brings strength, joy and all sorts of existence acts. “I breathe it in/ for the last time. Washing this shirt / I destroy it” (13-14). The scent is still familiar to Swir after decades; she identifies it with only one body she ever knew. The body is no longer there, she pictures washing the father’s shirt as destroying his remnants.

The author visualizes the odorless paintings of her father, “now / only paintings survive him” (17-18). This shows the role of hard work on the living. Swir can only relate her father to the paintings after she is gone. However, the paintings evoke grief; she acknowledges the toil of her father in a war age poor community with very less to survive. She uses odorless to symbolize the lifelessness of the demised father. This emphasizes on the necessity of breathing to human beings. This clear image of the dead father and the paintings plays an important role in depicting the human nature of remembrance.

The author has a message on death. In her introduction to the poem, Swir is a little emotional “for the last time I wash the shirt/ of my father who died” (1-2). She acknowledges the death of her father as a past; this depicts the human simple life fact. When an individual die, they are gone and the living has to move on. “I destroy it forever” (15-16), she says this with finality; she has accepted the death of her father and has to move on. In this, Swir exposes the nature of humans, she gives them a sense of finality in death and the necessity to drop things and move on.

Swir compared the livings to have a lively presence. This can be shown by the movement and expressions made by the living things. “From among all bodies in the world, / animal, human, / only one exuded that sweat” (10-12). Swir used to watch her busy dad move around painting; she compares the life human being movements to that of an animal. However, she acknowledges with grief that the life father is not there anymore, as much as his paintings show a lot about him, he is gone, and the moving, life in the painting area is no longer there.

The shirt used by Swir in the poem brings the emotional character of the author. It symbolizes the personal relationship that existed between the continued long after the father died. Swir alliteration “the shirt smells of sweat” (3), exposes the intimate smell that creates Swirs’ personal connection with her father. She also showed how her dad was unique in a way while alive, “from all the bodies in the bodies in the world, / animal or human, / only one exuded that sweat” (10-12).

Swir creates a vivid imagery in her conclusion of the poem. “Only paintings survive him, / which smells of oil” (18-19). In this, the persona hints yet a new aroma to create a vivid reminder of the father. “Smell of oils” (19) this image creates a rather impersonal view of the current situation of the persona, she, however, prefers the paintings as still an output of the father more preferable than the sweat of the clothes. In coming to terms with her grief, the protagonist hopes that by washing the shirt, she could metaphorically forget her father’s memories.

In conclusion, Swir teaches us that even though life ends, memories still endure. In her personal life expression in the poem, Swir’s father dies but Swir has something to remember him, she discloses some fascinating memories that seem very private to the father-daughter relationship. Swir seems emotional about the memories that she has to do away with some. Swir discloses the simple activities in life that may not be easily disclosed by a person, but they play an important role in the social and personal life.

Work Cited

Swir, Anna I wash the shirt (1996). Web. Retrieved from Accessed 29th March 2017

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