Shirt Poem by Robert Pinsky


Rating: 3.6

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. 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 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. Almost at once

He stepped up to the sill himself, his jacket flared
And 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 patern matches perfectly
Across the placket and over the twin bar-tacked

Corners of both pockets, like a strict rhyme
Or 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, tamed
By a fabricated heraldry: MacGregor,

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

The docker, the navvy. The planter, the picker, the sorter
Sweating at her machine in a litter of cotton
As slaves in calico headrags sweated in fields:

George Herbert, your descendant is a Black
Lady in South Carolina, her name is Irma
And she inspected my shirt. Its color and fit

And feel and its clean smell have satisfied
both her and me. We have culled its cost and quality
Down to the buttons of simulated bone,

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.

Craig Mckenzie 06 June 2005

Brilliant, the way he shuttles between the shirt and all that surrounds it. I love this poem, even though it seems very somber and dark.

2 3 Reply
Edward Kofi Louis 13 March 2017

The yoke! ! Thanks for sharing this poem with us.

0 4 Reply
Bernard F. Asuncion 13 March 2017

Nice poem... thanks for sharing.....

0 4 Reply
Banu Dai 18 December 2012

Amazing.........never knew one could write like this, u inspire!

1 1 Reply
Tom Allport 13 March 2017

a brilliant historical poem of the making of a shirt and the struggles that people encounter in it's manufacture.

1 1 Reply
Julia Luber 25 March 2019

Wear a t-shirt that says " My Parents Went To and all I Got Was This T-Shirt From a Sweat Shop! " Actually, great poem and I enjoyed all the specifications and itemizations; I do think clothes are a worthy thing to write poetry about and you do so with painstaking rhythm and poetry well indemnified to the grueling enslavement of tedious work. Nice- I like poems about clothes.

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Edward Kofi Louis 13 March 2018

The Witness! ! With the muse of life. Thanks for sharing this poem with us.

0 0 Reply
Glen Kappy 13 March 2018

A good example of a poem on, a meditation on, an object. pinsky takes us on an interesting journey beginning and ending with, simply, a shirt. -GK

0 0 Reply
Savita Tyagi 13 March 2018

Brilliant and heart touching!

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Bernard F. Asuncion 13 March 2018

Such a brilliant write by Robert Pinsky👍👍👍

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