It’s Hard to Keep a Clean Shirt Clean

Poem for Sriram Shamasunder
And All of Poetry for the People

It’s a sunlit morning
with jasmine blooming
easily
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
when
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
was
not
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
together
and I wash that shirt
between
between the knuckles of my own
two hands
I scrub and rub that shirt
to take the dirty
markings
out

At the pocket
and around the shoulder seam
and on both sleeves
the dirt the paw
prints tantalize my soap
my water my sweat
equity
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
cloth
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
anymore
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, www.junejordan.com.
Source: The Collected Poems of June Jordan (2005)