Pushcart XL: Sue Ellen Thompson, “My Father’s Laundry” (poem) from Summerset Review, Winter 2015

When my mother died, my father discovered
he could not fold a fitted sheet. Patiently,
I showed him the appropriate technique,
but in the months, then years, that followed,
I would find the bottom sheets he’d laundered
spread out on the guest room bed,

~~Complete poem available online at Summerset Review

What lovely rhythms in this poem. The first five lines flow gracefully in more or less pentameter, but then that sixth line comes in like the stop sign it is in single syllables that pound out a four-beat bar. It calls to mind the first part of the second line, in fact, which is also a bit more staccato, emphatic. Pay attention, those lines say to me as I read it aloud. I emphasize them without intending to.

I also like the enjambment of the second stanza, in two separate places. Because it’s such a short poem, I can’t copy it all, but there’s a link above where you can see what I mean. Those two socks, disappearing into one as two lines disappear into one. And the last two lines, the heart of the poem tucked away as the unfolded sheets tuck away his grief. The title brings to mind “dirty laundry” but this laundry is clean and pure as love.

I love this idea of incompetence as a message, and in this case, a sweet and poignant one. I’ve heard that women have used incompetence for centuries as ways of attracting men (I wouldn’t know; the men I always wanted to attract were far more interested in exceptional ability, perhaps because of the myth). When I first left home, I sent my checkbook to my father for balancing (yes, we used to balance checkbooks back in the olden days) not because I couldn’t do it – I hated doing it, but I was perfectly capable of it – but to let him know, in terms he could understand, that I was fine. And in this poem, incompetence likewise maintains a connection, perhaps the only connection possible. It also delivers reassurance: I’m not alone.

The poem is from Thompson’s 2014 collection They, a portrait of a three-generational family all dealing with changes and the feelings that erupt in the wake of the unfamiliar.

I’m very happy to see Summerset Review get some Pushcart love. I have a slight passing acquaintance with editor Joe Levens (to the extent that I know his name, though I doubt he knows mine) from my Zoetrope days; he even contributed to a Zin post on second person. And a couple of pieces from the magazine appear on my Online Fiction Sampler page.


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