Robert Pinsky

(October 20, 1940 / New Jersey)

Shirt - Poem by Robert Pinsky

-->

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.


Comments about Shirt by Robert Pinsky

  • Kumarmani Mahakul (3/14/2017 12:06:00 AM)


    Awesome and intestreting. Thanks for sharing. (Report) Reply

    0 person liked.
    0 person did not like.
  • (3/13/2017 9:10:00 PM)


    well-researched and well-expressed (Report) Reply

  • Seamus O' Brian (3/13/2017 5:23:00 PM)


    This poem seems somber and dark because it is. The author brilliantly contrasts the details of an everyday item with the inhumanity engaged to bring such an item into our closets. This work is a rife condemnation of the exploitation of the sweat-shop employees whose lives are exsanguinated for our opportunity to enjoy the gloss of a bone-simulated button and a stiff collar.

    Powerful socio-political commentary, and I must agree, Lantz, that it is a grave misfortune that such a message be mis-perceived as a homily to the qualities of a shirt.
    (Report) Reply

  • Lantz Pierre (3/13/2017 3:08:00 PM)


    Do any of the commenters on this site realize the political content of this poem? I'm heartened that some are moved by the aesthetics of it, but the aesthetics are informed by the sad historical facts, facts that remain contemporary in different product manufacturing. The Triangle Shirt fire was a catastrophic event at a sweat shop in New York City. It was the impetus for new laws and regulations protecting workers. Protections that are not that old, but that do not extend to the countries where products are still made for consumption in America. Where workers are subject to slave labor and dangerous working conditions. The poem speaks to event that changed labor and safety laws in America but did not change the conditions for the people who produce those products for American consumers today who live and work under other flags today. Their are altogether too many people on this site reading poems that don't have a fukking clue what they're commenting on. That kind of illiteracy disgusts me. (Report) Reply

  • (3/13/2017 1:53:00 PM)


    After reading this poem I think I will appreciate the efforts of the seamstress and tailors much more..The young man who saved those ladies is a hero.. (Report) Reply

  • Muzahidul Reza (3/13/2017 12:26:00 PM)


    The back, the yoke, the yardage. Lapped seams, (Report) Reply

  • Anil Kumar Panda (3/13/2017 11:28:00 AM)


    This is wonderful poetry. Enjoyed thoroughly. Thanks for sharing and Congrats. (Report) Reply

  • Rajnish Manga (3/13/2017 9:49:00 AM)


    This is incredibly original. How a piece of our daily apparel attained its global status.
    Houndstooth, Tattersall, Madras. The clan tartans
    (Report) Reply

  • Indira Renganathan (3/13/2017 9:36:00 AM)


    Makes me read again and again for several times....the shirt, its history, the environment...all awesome awesome..
    a brilliant theme, very unusual, interestingly written....superb
    (Report) Reply

  • Tom Allport (3/13/2017 3:55:00 AM)


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

  • Bernard F. Asuncion (3/13/2017 3:37:00 AM)


    Nice poem... thanks for sharing..... (Report) Reply

  • Edward Kofi Louis (3/13/2017 1:55:00 AM)


    The yoke! ! Thanks for sharing this poem with us. (Report) Reply

  • (12/18/2012 1:23:00 AM)


    Amazing.........never knew one could write like this, u inspire! (Report) Reply

  • (6/6/2005 2:25:00 PM)


    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. (Report) Reply

Read all 14 comments »




Read this poem in other languages

This poem has not been translated into any other language yet.

I would like to translate this poem »

word flags

What do you think this poem is about?

Read poems about / on: money, girl, fire, kiss



Poem Submitted: Monday, January 13, 2003



[Report Error]