Weekend Poem: The Shipfitter’s Wife by Dorianne Laux

How does she do it? The sensual imagery and physicality of this poem doesn’t get any less intense with several re-readings. Although, “reading” doesn’t quite seem to be the right verb for it. This is not a poem you just read. You actually live it – the sight, sound, taste, smell and touch that it evokes are a physical experience.

This poem is likely one of Dorianne Laux’ most popular poems and from her third collection, ‘Smoke‘. As with most of her work, it is steeped in realism. And, while the main theme is that of love, it gives us both the ugliness and the beauty of the objects it describes – as if to show how a real love accepts both. That is contrary to the more popular belief that lovers idealize each other and see only each others’ best. This may be true in the early stages, but, with a married couple such as this, for love to endure so deeply, it must go beyond idealization, as Laux shows us so stunningly.

Also, like many of her other poems, this one deals in everyday, familiar images. But, it is the way that she brings us to them, with that sharp and unexpected perspective, and makes us see them fresh, as if for the first time.

So, ultimately, the poem’s triumph is in how it engages us, the readers, deeply and permanently, by creating a physical, mortal impact. As Robert Frost once said:

The right reader of a good poem can tell the moment it strikes him that he has taken a mortal wound – that he will never get over it. That is to say, permanence in poetry, as in love, is perceived instantly.

The narrator is the titled wife and the poem describes the coming home of her blue-collar husband after a long workday. Or, rather, it is about how she receives him when he gets home.

With the first two lines of “I loved him most” and “when he came home from work”, the poem draws us into an intimate relationship between these two people. That the wife’s love is so intense when the husband returns home implies both a release and relief from the day’s separation.

Next, we learn that he is a pipe-fitter and this information imparted very casually with a description of his curled fingers. That they are still in this stance after he has stopped working gives some indication of how hard, almost breaking, the task must be (and, indeed, in a later line, she refers to his “cracked hands” as well). Then, our eyes travel up his denim shirt, which, we see, through the wife’s eyes, is sweaty and smells of the ocean. This is our first view of the husband through the wife’s eyes.

Then, the poem shifts from a passive observation to an act of intimacy. The wife goes and sits by her husband on the bed. The cataloging of details continues as she reveals more of the husband’s appearance to us – grease and all. Her absolute love for him needs no words. All we need to know, as Laux shows us, is how the wife takes his work shoes off, gently and slowly stroking his tired, dirty feet and calves. In this particular image, there is just a slight hint of the famous Biblical image of Mary Magdalene washing Jesus’ travel-worn feet – a selfless act that asked for nothing in return and sought simply to express love quietly.

That final section is, of course, a description of an act of physical consummation. Every word choice is so particular, don’t you think, in conveying the physical act itself as well as the sights, sounds, tastes of the man’s world? Using the ship analogy to its fullest, Laux shows us how the wife accepts her husband entirely. There is no exchange of words between them, yet, their union is as complete as it could be between two human beings.

I often find myself reading this poem as a piece of music — a symphony in three movements. The overture or allegretto being the first part, where we see the husband coming home, the wife feeling her rush of love for him acutely and intensely and the various details of his fingers and shirt becoming the staccato beats that give the movement its force. Next, the andante or interlude, the middle part, where the wife sits by him and slowly helps him undress. Here, things slow down a bit as we rest on the shoes coming off and the feet, ankles, calves being caressed. And, the final part would, of course, be the allegrissimo con moto, a quickening of pace and motion where both wife and husband come together, with the wife absorbing all his sensations and perceptions and becoming one with his world. There are much sharper and stronger staccato rhythms and sounds all rising to a glorious crescendo here: foreman’s voice clanging off the hull, metal sparking, and, especially with that ending litany of object words — clamp, winch, torch, whistle. And, with “the long drive home”, we take that much-needed gasp of breath.

Read the entire poem like that — a piece of music in three movements — and it will leave you physically spent as you sit there, I promise you.

The Shipfitter’s Wife

I loved him most
when he came home from work,
his fingers still curled from fitting pipe,
his denim shirt ringed with sweat
and smelling of salt, the drying weeds
of the ocean. I’d go to where he sat
on the edge of the bed, his forehead
anointed with grease, his cracked hands
jammed between his thighs, and unlace
the steel-toed boots, stroke his ankles
and calves, the pads and bones of his feet.
Then I’d open his clothes and take
the whole day inside me — the ship’s
gray sides, the miles of copper pipe,
the voice of the foreman clanging
off the hull’s silver ribs. Spark of lead
kissing metal. The clamp, the winch,
the white fire of the torch, the whistle,
and the long drive home.

~ by Dorianne Laux, from ‘Smoke‘

[P S — Laux recounted, in this interview, how the New York Times rejected the poem for being too racy. Their sad loss.]