It’s Hard to Keep a Clean Shirt Clean

By June Jordan 1936–2002 June Jordan

Poem for Sriram Shamasunder
And All of Poetry for the People

It’s a sunlit morning
with jasmine blooming
and a drove of robin redbreasts
diving into the ivy covering
what used to be
a backyard fence
or doves shoving aside
the birch tree leaves
a young man walks among
the flowers   
to my doorway   
where he knocks   
then stands still   
brilliant in a clean white shirt

He lifts a soft fist   
to that door   
and knocks again

He’s come to say this   
was or that   
and what’s   
anyone of us to do   
about what’s done   
what’s past   
but prickling salt to sting   
our eyes

What’s anyone of us to do   
about what’s done

And 7-month-old Bingo
puppy leaps   
and hits   
that clean white shirt   
with muddy paw   
prints here   
and here and there

And what’s anyone of us to do   
about what’s done   
I say I’ll wash the shirt   
no problem   
two times through   
the delicate blue cycle
of an old machine   
the shirt spins in the soapy   
suds and spins in rinse
and spins   
and spins out dry   

not clean

still marked by accidents   
by energy of whatever serious or trifling cause   
the shirt stays dirty
from that puppy’s paws

I take that fine white shirt   
from India   
the threads as soft as baby   
fingers weaving them   
and I wash that shirt   
between the knuckles of my own
two hands
I scrub and rub that shirt
to take the dirty

At the pocket   
and around the shoulder seam   
and on both sleeves   
the dirt the paw   
prints tantalize my soap   
my water my sweat   
invested in the restoration   
of a clean white shirt
And on the eleventh try
I see no more
no anything unfortunate
no dirt

I hold the limp fine
between the faucet stream
of water as transparent
as a wish the moon stayed out
all day

How small it has become!
That clean white shirt!
How delicate!
How slight!
How like a soft fist knocking on my door!
And now I hang the shirt
to dry
as slowly as it needs
the air
to work its way
with everything
It’s clean.
A clean white shirt
nobody wanted to spoil
or soil
that shirt
much cleaner now but also
not the same
as the first before that shirt
got hit got hurt
not perfect
just beautiful

a clean white shirt

It’s hard to keep a clean shirt clean.

June Jordan, “It’s Hard to Keep a Clean Shirt Clean” from Directed By Desire: The Collected Poems of June Jordan (Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2005). Copyright C 2005 by The June M. Jordan Literary Trust. Used by permission of The June M. Jordan Literary Trust,

Source: The Collected Poems of June Jordan (2005)

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Poet June Jordan 1936–2002

Subjects Jobs & Working, Activities

 June  Jordan


One of the most widely-published and highly-acclaimed African American writers of her generation, poet, playwright and essayist June Jordan was also known for her fierce commitment to human rights and progressive political agenda. Over a career that produced twenty-seven volumes of poems, essays, libretti, and work for children, Jordan engaged the fundamental struggles of her era: over civil rights, women’s rights, and sexual . . .

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SUBJECT Jobs & Working, Activities

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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