LYRIC INVESTIGATIONS Rebecca Cullen “How to Hang Washing”

It must be spring. There should be blackthorn/ blossom, a smudge of sun across your cheek.//From your patch of earth, you’ll hear the crest/of chatter from the playground at the school.//These pegs nip snugly, in time with magpie/calls as your arms lift, stretch, clip, repeat.

from NEW POETRIES 7: an anthology edited by Michael Schmidt (Carcanet, 2020.

FIELD OF REFERENCE The best of politics seeks to make good in the more moderate domestic middle, but the problem of tyranny merits special mention: on going to an extreme it seeks to generate an oblivion to the possibilities of an agapeic service, beyond sovereignty and servility. Agapeic service is itself something extreme, but in daily domestic life it is also a secret and intimate “therapy” against tyrannical will to power. WILLIAM DESMOND The Intimate Universal, 188.

Lyrics, especially very short ones, carefully create their own “extreme” or individual contexts (betweens) to forge the sense of unity of meaning and understanding we call poetry. In her introduction, Rebecca Cullen describes her shortest as between a prayer and a news brief.

Take “How to Hang Washing.” The framing begins with the surprise that hanging washing requires a set of instructions. Yet each of the three stanzas depends on the rules of different sets of grammatical rules. In the first, the verbs are governed by must and should. The second stanza proceeds from necessary conditions: you will. That use of will may easily go unnoticed but suggests the unconscious. In the final stanza, grammar expands to include the figural this. The very clothes pins take on a reflexivity and refer to the words of the poem.

All this verbal art happens unobtrusively. And that’s the point. Hanging clothes on the line follows “unconscious” rules as in a Wittgensteinian language game. Look again! It’s springtime, children are playing, magpies call, and your habitual acts are part of the music of time. In a poem of carefully varied subtle metrical features, the actions of “your arms” are named by punchy mechanical formulae: lift, stretch, clip, repeat. It’s all a game.

The point seems not to be that hanging clothes on the clothesline is an impersonal “game” because habitual act. This is a vision poem. Read mindfully it has an intense inwardness. I find a key to one of the deeper configuring aspects in the FRAME OF REFERENCE. Modern art reveals the presence of conceptual consciousness, often exposing ideological rigidities. It must do so to allow the unified flow from the meanings of the words to the understanding of the mindful reader. But this “unity” has a mimetic function: it represents a shift from conventional construction to a “passive” reception of finite otherness. Desmond uses the double Eros/agape to sort this change of aspect. The mindful reader of “How to Hang Washing” catches a glimpse of an “underlying” original “agapeic” image which accounts for the strange luminosity of this poem. The war against the loaded concept or “universal” of tradition is waged in behalf of the intimate universal.

We live in a time of tyranny and lies are routine. It can be a relief to lose oneself in simple tasks.

Author: Tom D'Evelyn

Tom D'Evelyn is a private editor and writing tutor in Cranston RI and, thanks to the web, across the US and in the UK. He can be reached at D'Evelyn has a PhD in Comparative Literature from UC Berkeley. Before retiring he held positions at The Christian Science Monitor, Harvard University Press, Boston University and Brown University. He ran a literary agency for ten years, publishing books by Leonard Nathan and Arthur Quinn, among others. Before moving to Portland OR he was managing editor at Single Island Press, Portsmouth NH. He blogs at and other sites.

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