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Shirt Tales

Former Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky shares a poem about the labor that goes into a shirt.

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    This space is full of electronic equipment and machinery. In the past, the building has housed garment industry sweatshops, as, of course, many still do.


    This is my poem, "Shirt."

    The back, the yoke, the yardage. Lapped seams,The nearly invisible stitches along the collarTurned in a sweatshop by Koreans or Malaysians

    Gossiping over tea and noodles on their breakOr talking money or politics while one fittedThis arm piece 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 flamesOn the ninth floor, no hydrants, no fire escapes–

    The witness in a building across the streetWho watched how a young man helped a girl to stepUp to the window sill, then held her out

    Away from the masonry wall and let her drop.And then another. As if he were helping them upTo enter a streetcar, and not eternity.

    A third before he dropped her put her armsAround his neck and kissed him. Then he heldHer into space, and dropped her. Almost at once

    He stepped to the sill himself, his jacket flaredAnd 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 perfectlyAcross the placket and over the twin bar-tacked

    Corners of both pockets, like a strict rhymeOr 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, tamedBy a fabricated heraldry: MacGregor,

    Bailey, MacMartin. The kilt, devised for workersTo wear among the dusty clattering looms.Weavers, carders, spinners. The loader,

    The docker, the navvy. The planter, the picker, the sorterSweating at her machine in a litter of cottonAs slaves in calico headrags sweated in fields:

    George Herbert, your descendant is a BlackLady in South Carolina, her name is IrmaAnd she inspected my shirt. Its color and fit

    And feel and its clean smell have satisfiedBoth her and me. We have culled its cost and qualityDown to the buttons of simulated bone,

    The buttonholes, the sizing, the facing, the charactersPrinted in black on neckband and tail. The shape,The label, the labor, the color, the shade. The shirt.

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