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Two Fun Poems: Elisavietta Ritchie's "Sorting Laundry" and Terrence Winch's "Social Security"

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1961.

 Elisavietta Ritchie

Elisavietta Ritchie

Ritchie’s Colorful Clothes and Winch's Colorful Fear

While Elisavietta Ritchie offers a humorous look at folding laundry, and at the same time dedicates a tribute to the love she enjoys with her long-time husband, the poem captures a moment in time that is both serious yet holds quite a bit of humor.

The colorful clothes, the shapes of the odd things that turn up in the wash, and the manner in which the speaker evaluates the objects provide the many layers of meaning for readers and listeners.

Terrence Winch's "Social Security" might be a bit misleading at first. There is not one reference to the government program with that title. Instead the issue is security in its sense of "safety" vis-á-vis dangers such as criminals, diseases, and even heavy metals.

As Ritchie's speaker found humor in the mundane chore of clothes folding, Winch's speaker finds humor in the lack of safety that modern society seems to suffer.

Both poems function on the two levels of the amusing and the serious, while engaging the reader's imagination, giving the reader back his/her own experiences, as all good verse is wont to do.

Elisavietta Ritchie’s "Sorting Laundry"

Elisavietta Ritchie's poem, "Sorting Laundry," consists of 16 unrimed tercets that plays out in six movements. The speaker is taking her listeners/readers on a tour of her life through the simple act of folding and putting away her laundry.

Elisavietta Ritchie’s "Sorting Laundry"

Folding clothes,
I think of folding you
into my life.

Our king-sized sheets
like tablecloths
for the banquets of giants,

pillowcases, despite so many
washings, seems still
holding our dreams.

Towels patterned orange and green,
flowered pink and lavender,
gaudy, bought on sale,

reserved, we said, for the beach,
refusing, even after years,
to bleach into respectability.

So many shirts and skirts and pants
recycling week after week, head over heels
recapitulating themselves.

All those wrinkles
To be smoothed, or else
ignored; they're in style.

Myriad uncoupled socks
which went paired into the foam
like those creatures in the ark.

And what's shrunk
is tough to discard
even for Goodwill.

In pockets, surprises:
forgotten matches,
lost screws clinking the drain;

well-washed dollars, legal tender
for all debts public and private,
intact despite agitation;

and, gleaming in the maelstrom,
one bright dime,
broken necklace of good gold

you brought from Kuwait,
the strangely tailored shirt
left by a former lover…

If you were to leave me,
if I were to fold
only my own clothes,

the convexes and concaves
of my blouses, panties, stockings, bras
turned upon themselves,

a mountain of unsorted wash
could not fill
the empty side of the bed.

Commentary on Elisavietta Ritchie’s "Sorting Laundry"

The speaker is performing a simple household task that reminds her of important events in her long marriage. She turns that mundane chore into a tribute to her husband.

First Movement: The Drama of a Mundane Chore

The speaker begins her drama as she is in the process of putting clothes away after they have been laundered. The process of folding the clothes reminds her of taking her spouse into her life.

The "king-sized sheets" remind her of their "king-sized" bed, and she likens those sheets to "tablecloths / for the banquets of giants." The pillowcases, she claims, "still / hold[ ] our dreams," "despite so many washings."

The couple still lies in bed and discusses their hopes and dreams, even after a long marriage.

Second Movement: Gaudy Towels

The speaker comes to beach towels that she finds "gaudy," that were "bought on sale." The bright "orange and green, / flowered pink and lavender" colors seem to retain their "gaudiness" even after years of bleaching. And although they had claimed these towels were only "for the beach," they seem to be using them as everyday towels.

Third Movement: Tumbling to Clean

The speaker then observes the "many shirts and skirts and pants" that move weekly through the wash "head over heels." They always come out wrinkled and have to be ironed, but lately the style has been to leave wrinkles, so she can "ignore" them.

Fourth Movement: The Pairing of Socks

The speaker then comments on the many socks that she put "into the foam" together "like those creatures in the ark," but after the wash, they are "uncoupled," and her task is to make them "paired" again. Sometimes items shrink, but through sentimentality, they find those items hard to part with "even for Goodwill."

Fifth Movement: Pocketed Surprises

The speaker then remembers all the times she has been confronted with items left in pockets that unintentionally went through the wash. They all clink on the "enamel" inside the wash tub: matches, screws, paper clips still attached to "dissolved" paper "clogging the drain."

She also finds money, "well washed dollars," still "legal tender" still "intact despite agitation." There is also "one bright dime" that was "gleaming in the maelstrom." And then she has also sighted a "broken necklace of good gold // you brought from Kuwait."

This poem was written well before the 1990-91 Iraq-Kuwait War. Kuwait, before this war, was an oil rich cosmopolitan country, here signaling expensive, fine gold jewelry. She also comments on "the strangely tailored shirt / left by a former lover . . ."—a line that seems oddly out of place in this poem, yet realistic.

Sixth Movement: A Declaration of Affection

An apparent indiscretion was forgiven and/or well tolerated by the couple. She declares that if her mate ever left her, and she had to fold "only my own clothes," even "a mountain" of washed laundry could not "fill / the empty side of the bed."

Terrence Wince - at the KGB Bar in New York City - October 2008

Terrence Wince - at the KGB Bar in New York City - October 2008

Terence Winch's "Social Security"

Winch's speaker plays with the notion that things in the past were better; it was especially better that people felt safe in the past but not in the paranoid present.

The poem features three free verse paragraphs (versagraphs) and becomes particularly erudite in the final versagraph with its allusions to classical mythology and historical figures.

Terence Winch's "Social Security"

No one is safe. The streets are unsafe.
Even in the safety zones, it's not safe.
Even safe sex is not safe.
Even things you lock up in a safe
are not safe. Never deposit anything
in a safe-deposit box, because it
won't be safe there. Nobody is safe
at home during baseball games anymore.

At night I go around in the dark
locking everything, returning
a few minutes later
to make sure I locked
everything. It's not safe here.
It's not safe and they know it.
People get hurt using safety pins.

It was not always this way.
Long ago, everyone felt safe. Aristotle
never felt danger. Herodotus felt danger
only when Xerxes was around. Young women
were afraid of wingéd dragons, but felt
relaxed otherwise. Timotheus, however,
was terrified of storms until he played
one on the flute. After that, everyone
was more afraid of him than of the violent
west wind, which was fine with Timotheus.
Euclid, full of music himself, believed only
that there was safety in numbers.

Commentary on Terence Winch's "Social Security"

The speaker offers a social commentary on the issue of safety past and present.

First Versagraph: Safety and the Nature of Things

The speaker in Terence Winch's "Social Security" begins with exaggerations, claiming tongue-in-cheek that "No one is safe. The streets are unsafe." Lest the reader miss the overstatement, he continues, "Even in the safety zones, it's not safe."

Of course, the exaggeration contains a rather enormous element of truth, that nothing in the physical universe is ever permanent and whole as it might delude humanity into thinking.

Still the speaker proceeds playfully, focusing on the repetition of the word "safe" which appears in all but the final line of the eight-line first versagraph.

He claims that even things a person might put into safe-deposit boxes are not safe. His concluding lines make the unusual observation that even at baseball games people are not safe nowadays.

Second Versagraph: Unsafe Darkness

The speaker then offers his own experience with the lack of safety. Even in his own home, he fumbles around in the dark locking doors and windows, and then rechecking to make sure he locked all of them.

He reiterates, "It's not safe here. / It's not safe and they know it"—apparently acknowledging his family, who along with him, understand that their own home is vulnerable.

However, to take the tension off the real possibility of one's home not being safe, he infuses a humorous diversion, "People get hurt using safety pins."

Of course, they might, but not really very hurt, and likely not very often. Still, the exaggeration and reality of the issues of safety continue to collide for this speaker as he unveils his fears about those safety issues.

Third Versagraph: The Safety of the Past

In the final versagraph, the speaker offers examples to support his concocted claim that safety in the past was not so compromised as it is today. He exaggerates again by asserting, "Long ago, everyone felt safe."

The speaker cites Aristotle as a historical figure who never felt danger. Of course, he offers no example of support, because he has none.

The speaker has to know that Aristotle would, in fact, have felt at least as much danger, possibly even more, than we feel today because of the precarious political struggles that were playing out around him.

The speaker feels on safer ground to say that the first historian "Herodotus felt danger / only when Xerxes was around." Herodotus, of course, wrote about the Persian King Xerxes' invasion of Greece in the fourth century B.C.

Another example of past fears vs today's fears is that back in the past, "Young women / were afraid of wingéd dragons, but felt / relaxed otherwise." Now, of course, women are fearful every time they venture out.

The speaker's next example of ancient fear alludes to the character Timotheus from a poem by John Dryden, "Alexander's Feast," demonstrating the calming effect of music.

The speaker finally caps off his hilarity by invoking Euclid, asserting that the mathematician, who was "full of music himself," had put his faith in "safety in numbers," which remains even today a universal bit of advice for those who go about, especially after dark.

© 2022 Linda Sue Grimes