Roger Gilbert: On "Shirt"
"No Histories but in Things: Robert Pinsky's Rhizomatic X-Rays."
Over the past two decades American poets have increasingly turned to history in an effort to extend the reach of poetry beyond narrowly aesthetic and expressionist parameters. Yet most contemporary poets continue to distrust the conventional narrative forms largely abandoned early in the century. One solution to the problem of including history without narrating it has been to maintain the focus on ordinary material objects and artifacts inherited from modernism while deepening and thickening their historical implications. Among recent poets who have explored the historicity of everyday objects is our current Poet Laureate, Robert Pinsky. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Pinsky's object poems is their refusal to posit a singular, genetic, linear history for the things they ponder. In the terminology of Deleuze and Guattari, Pinsky's histories are rhizomatic rather than arboreal; rather than tracing the branching pathways that issue from a single root, they map the multiple lines of historical meaning and process that converge in some deceptively simple object: a shirt, a saxophone, a window. In doing so they open a fresh perspective on more broadly human history as well, suggesting that it cannot be reduced to a set of self-contained narratives or traditions, whether geographically, ethnically or economically delineated. Pinsky's work seeks to imagine history as an infinitely complex web rather than a collection of discrete stories, while exploring the moral implications of such imagining for our view of human culture and society.
"Shirt," a poem from Pinsky's 1990 book The Want Bone, is his fullest attempt to locate a common object in history, to see it both as a material presence and as a ghostly embodiment of invisible forces and lives. Widely praised since its first appearance, the poem is a genuine tour de force, a work that invents a new genre yet feels inevitable, even classic. The poem's classicism may have to do with its deeply traditional roots. The literary evocation of a made object and its history reaches back to Homer's descriptions of Achilles' shield and other storied weapons. These epic interludes evolved into the ekphrastic lyric, a poem that meditates on a painting or other work of visual art, typically moving between imaginative engagement with a represented scene and contemplation of the work's aesthetic form and craft. The most famous instance of the genre is certainly the "Ode on a Grecian Urn"; perhaps the most distinguished contemporary examples are Elizabeth Bishop's wonderful poems about amateur paintings. Pinsky deviates sharply from this genre by taking as his subject not a singular work of art but a mass-produced artifact. Even more significantly, he substitutes for the play between physical surface and representational depth a rhythmic oscillation between minute details of the object's fabrication and various aspects of its history. In effect Pinsky's historicizing vision transforms the shirt from a blank, mute, unstoried artifact into a text or picture as dense with images of distant times and places as Keats's urn.
The poem opens with a series of isolated noun phrases that meticulously register the shirt's physical features, savoring not only those features themselves but their specialized, esoteric names:
The back, the yoke, the yardage. Lapped seams,
The nearly invisible stitches along the collar
Turned in a sweatshop by Koreans or Malaysians
Gossiping over tea and noodles on their break
Or talking money or politics while one fitted
This armpiece with its overseam to the band
Of cuff I button at my wrist.
Here Pinsky establishes the pattern he will continue to follow for the course of the poem, smoothly modulating from the tangible physicality of the shirt to an imagined or inferred scene of its production and then back again. This transition is managed in large part through grammar, as the floating nouns of the first line give way to a past participle ("turned") that transports us to the Asian sweatshop, and is in turn succeeded by gerunds ("talking," "gossiping") that evoke the scope and autonomy of the workers' lives. Throughout the poem nouns anatomize the fixed materiality of the shirt while verbs indicate its place in the flux of historical process. Accordingly the poem's syntax keeps shifting between discrete, contiguous noun clauses that name the shirt's visible components with scientific precision, and embryonic narratives whose accretive phrases track unpredictable swerves of action and causality.
The return to the physical immediacy of the shirt is signalled by the deictic "This" as we cross the line break from "fitted": "This armpiece with its overseam. . . . " Having once been admitted into the poem's field of vision, however, images of human agency continue to inform the speaker's awareness of the shirt. Now rather than enumerating the object's physical components, as in the first line, the same grammatical form serves to expand our sense of the human labor that has gone into the shirt's production:
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 flames
On the ninth floor, no hydrants, no fire escapes--
The placement of periods in these lines plays a crucial role in establishing provisional word groupings that enact small dramas of association. In the first sentence, an imperceptible transition from human to object is effected by the word "wringer," which echoes the previous terms "presses" and "cutter," both names of specific workers, while semantically linking itself to the next word "mangle," a machine. Because "wringer" can denote both a person and a machine, it marks the point at which the two categories bleed together. The next sentence mixes three mechanical terms with a social term, "union," surprisingly placed not at the end of the sequence, where it would naturally lead in to the next words, but in the middle. The word thus interrupts what would otherwise seem a straightforward catalogue of sewing machine parts, suggesting that technological and human concerns can't be so neatly compartmentalized. Conversely, by giving "the code" a sentence to itself Pinsky highlights its difference as a purely discursive object.
The mention of the fire code naturally leads to thoughts of its violation, thus introducing the poem's most sustained foray into history. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory was the scene of a notorious labor disaster that pointed up the indifference of industrialists to the safety of their employees and galvanized New York's working class. Pinsky's treatment of this event is striking for its lack of political context and interpretation; rather than dwelling on its role in the labor movement, he chooses to incorporate an eyewitness account that offers a strangely romantic view of the carnage:
The witness in a building across the street
Who watched how a young man helped a girl to step
up to the windowsill, then held her out
Away from the masonry wall and let her drop.
And then another. As if he were helping them up
To enter a streetcar, and not eternity.
A third before he dropped her put her arms
Around his neck and kissed him. Then he held
Her into space, and dropped her.
(It should be noted that this passage is taken nearly verbatim from its source, including that haunting streetcar simile.) In focusing on the terrible lyricism of this act rather than either the gruesome effects of the fire or the socioeconomic conditions that led to it, Pinsky might well be accused of aestheticizing history, keeping his distance from its intractable violence so as to more readily assimilate it to the even-toned, meditative measure of his poem. Such an accusation has its force, but in my view does not do justice to the poem's larger project. Pinsky's aim is neither to recount a particular history in all its horror nor to reflect on its political repercussions, but to show us how much history lies behind all the things we touch and see. We can't become convulsed with rage every time we put on a shirt, but we can make room in our experience of everyday objects for a fuller sense of their relation to the world, to the vast web of stories that connect us to each other and the past.
Perhaps this is to say that for Pinsky aesthetic and historical ways of seeing don't preclude one another, though either may dominate at a given moment. The poem's return to the aesthetic presence of the shirt is mediated this time by another poem, as the description of the young man jumping from the factory window, "air filling up the legs of his gray trousers," triggers a memory of Hart Crane's suicidal Bedlamite, "shrill shirt ballooning" (from the "Proem" to The Bridge). These twinned images of violent death give way to an incongruously cheerful observation about the shirt's design:
Wonderful how the pattern matches perfectly
Across the placket and over the twin bar-tacked
Corners of both pockets, like a strict rhyme
Or a major chord.
The unabashed aestheticism of these fines may seem troubling in the wake of the Triangle Factory passage, and surely it's meant to. Like most good poets, Pinsky is asking us to hold contradictory perspectives in our minds at once: to feel the shirt's historical resonance, including its place in the long story of labor and exploitation, while also recognizing its beauty and elegance as a formal object. His adducing of rhyme and harmony solidifies the implicit analogy between shirt and artwork while hinting at the broader logic behind the poem's excursions into history. Just as Crane's Bedlamite "matches" the man falling from the Triangle factory, so the Korean workers of 1990 match the Triangle workers of 1911; history has its own rhymes and chords, its own patterns and symmetries.
Pattern provides the impetus for the poem's next historical digression:
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, tamed
By a fabricated heraldry: MacGregor,
Bailey, MacMartin. The kilt, devised for workers
To wear among the dusty clattering looms.
The intrigation of historical and aesthetic lines becomes especially knotted in this passage: factory owners draw on a pseudo-epic to devise an ersatz visual tradition as an instrument of control, while a garment with totemic cultural status arises out of purely economic exigencies. In this Foucauldian scenario poetry, pattern and power are fused into a single densely woven fabric.
The poem's next historical moment leads us even deeper into the belly of oppressive power:
The planter, the picker, the sorter
Sweating at her machine in a litter of cotton
As slaves in calico headrags sweated in fields:
The allusion to slavery is fleeting, and as with the poem's previous historical episodes Pinsky refrains from overt moralizing, giving us only a quick flash of visual memory. Yet in making this link he insists on the shirt's implication in all phases of history, including its worst injustices. This particular shirt may not be a product of slave labor, but neither can the conditions of its making be wholly divorced from those that preceded it. Pinsky makes this point more concretely in the next lines:
George Herbert, your descendant is a Black
Lady in South Carolina, her name is Irma
And she inspected my shirt.
Like Hart Crane and Ossian, Herbert enters this poem as the representative of a tradition of making both distinct from yet strangely bound up with the making of shirts. Pinsky may have in mind Herbert's "The Collar" as a playful point of contact, but his claim here is also a more literal one: this black woman, whose name (presumably Irma Herbert) appears on a small slip of paper in the shirt's pocket, might well be a direct descendant of George Herbert, given America's complex histories of emigration, slavery, rape and miscegenation. The fact that a plausible if conjectural genealogy can be traced from a working woman in South Carolina to a 17th century English poet and cleric affords further evidence of history's tangled, rhizomatic texture, its refusal to dispose itself in neatly combed parallel lines.
The poem ends as it began, with a simple string of noun clauses, yet now every term has acquired new weight and resonance:
The buttonholes, the sizing, the facing, the characters
Printed in black on neckband and tail. The shape,
The label, the labor, the color, the shade. The shirt.
"Sizing," "facing," and "characters" reverberate with all the questions of scale, knowledge, and agency explored in the poem. The penultimate sentence, however, is surely the richest in its play of sound, form and meaning. The chain of five nouns has the feel of a word ladder, each term transforming itself into the next through small phonetic alterations; thus the diphthong of "shape" carries over into "label," whose first syllable in turn passes to "labor," and so on. This process evokes the metamorphic flux of history itself as represented in the poem, its widely removed places and events merging in their variable blends of sameness and difference. The crucial pair here is clearly "label" and "labor," encapsulating as it does the endlessly complex relations of thing and history, object and agency, name and act. But equally significant is Pinsky's choice not to end the sentence there, instead moving us back into the aesthetic realm with "color." The last word of the sentence, "shade," carries all its senses of shadow, hue, and ghost, holding the visible and the invisible in volatile solution. The fact that it differs by only one letter from the first word, "shape," suggests that these terms form a closed loop both of language and of thought. The same loop is implicitly present in the poem's final sentence, "The shirt," which invites us to begin the journey again that leads from thing to history and back, a process that could be called informed looking. The poem models a way of looking at and thinking about ordinary objects that is both reflective and relaxed, entailing neither an intolerable level of moral awareness nor a purely aesthetic gaze oblivious to history, but recognizing that the aesthetic and the moral form the inextricable warp and woof of all made things, whether poems or shirts.
Copyright © 2000 by Roger Gilbert. Published here by permission of the author.