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Women’s Work

October 26, 2020

Two poems by UA Fanthorpe

      

Degas painted dozens of “La Repasseuse” Woman Ironing pictures. The one Fanthorpe refers to (right above) is in the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool. It’s the last in a series of three of this particular pose. The George Bernard Shaw quote is from the play Man & Superman.

Woman Ironing

I thought I knew what was coming when he said,
He wanted to do my likeness at the ironing.
I live in the city, people tell you things. Me looking at him,
It would be, across the ironing board, my hair and my eyes
In a good light, and something a bit off the shoulder

But it wasn’t. He rushed around drawing curtains
Made it hard to iron. O yes, I had to keep ironing.
He need to see the strength, he said. Kept on
About my dynamic right shoulder, then left it out
Though you can see where he ought to have put it.

Come on, what’s-your-name, he kept saying,
Show us that muscle power! That’s what I’m after.
I might’ve been an engine, not a person
No, I didn’t take to him, I’m used to rudeness,
But he was making such a sketch of me.

If someone’s paying you, it isn’t easy
To speak your mind. Still, Sir, I said,
I really don’t want to see my hair like that,
all scraped back, like a hot person’s hair,
And anyone can tell that under my arms I’m sweating.

Hair? Sweat? That’s how it is when you iron,
Says he. You’re not here to tell me what to do.
I’ll make you permanent, the way you look
When you’re ironing. O yes, he says, I’ll show you
The way you look when no one’s watching.

UA Fanthorpe

Mother Scrubbing the Floor

She had a dancer’s feet, elegant, witty.
We had our father’s, maverick spreaders of dirt.

Dirt from London, dirt from Kent
Mud, dust, grass, droppings, wetness, things,
Dirt barefaced, dirt stinking, dirt invisible.

Whatever it was, she was ready:
The rubber kneeler, clanking galvanised bucket,
The Lifebuoy, the hard hot water.

Let me! we’d say, meaning Hate to see you do this.
Too old. Too resentful. Besides, you’ll blame us
That you had to do it.

She never yielded. We couldn’t do it right,
Lacking her hatred of filth, her fine strong hands.

Don’t want you to do this, she said. Don’t want you to have to.
Just remember this: love isn’t sex.
But the dreary things you do for the people you love.
And ‘Home is the girl’s prison,
The woman’s workhouse.’ Not me; Shaw.

I do remember. I stand where she knelt.

UA Fanthorpe

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