Washing Instructions

This entry is part 8 of 10 in the series The Laundry Poems


trust us. we are mechanics
of the first degree
from “our name is mike” by j.lewis

The kitchen sink: eight cubic
feet, two each way by two feet
deep, with two outdoor spigots
set into its steel back-wall
well above the highest water
level possible. Steel splash-
guard protecting the wall
on the right side, a bright

overhanging sconce light,
and the counter on the left
side rolls away, leaving plenty
of room for rag-towels
to protect the floor. Kitchen
sink that, like most of us,
has to serve more than one
purpose to earn the floor-space
it takes up. Double-duty.

Heavy duty. Because that
machine whose job it is
to do the washing comes with
permanent disclaimers, warning
labels that proclaim:

No washer can completely
remove oil. Do not dry anything
that has ever had any type
of oil on it. Le non-respect
de ces instructions peut causer
la muerte, un explosion, o

Check. I have a thought, dismiss
it with a slight regret. Recite
one hundred times: I will not
write to Maytag asking what they
mean, “do not dry anything….”

I am envisioning asking if
a thing has been so unlucky as
to have actually had oil on it,
how is one to keep it from
eventually drying out all by
itself? And when it does, are
they seriously warning me

that it will be like in
secondary school, in chemistry,
when we thought it would be
interesting to extract
the phosphorus from its safe-place
underwater in a jar and leave
it on the steel counter?
(That was interesting indeed.)

I am envisioning an attic
filled with two-gallon
pickle jars, greasy shirts
and jeans, all safely soaking
to keep them from exploding,
an occasional embroidered
name patch pressed sad and wet
against the inside of the glass.

Wisdom from some desert father
offered up by Thomas Merton:
It is not because evil thoughts
come to us that we are condemned,
but only because we make use
of the evil thoughts.
I complete
my hundred recitations of this
reassurance while I gather up
all the dangerously greasy

laundry. Gasoline and avgas,
solvent, tractor fluid, diesel…
and for balance, one pale green
fine linen dishtowel that got too
friendly with manual spray pump
used for squirting olive oil. It all
goes in the waiting sink.

This isn’t the kind of sink that’s
lined up on a window with a view.
This is a sink that gets right
down to business, and when
the hot spigot runs for just
six seconds, the steam would
make a window useless anyway.

I begin the layering:
the jeans and shirts, the worst
of the grease spots pointed
up. Then I tear off the card-
board top of a small box
of cornstarch and distribute
the fine powder fairly evenly,
making sure to not miss any
places thick with grease.

Then I pour in two litres
of soda (don’t believe anyone
who tells you it has to be
brand Coca-Cola, any cheap
generic carbonated containing
citric acid does just fine).
Then a cup of hand-wash
dishsoap. Then hot water.

Final layer is the rack
from an old Weber to hold
the clothes beneath
the surface of the steaming
murky stew. Turn on the vent
fan. DO NOT forget this.
Walk away. Come back
two hours later when it no
longer looks so angry, use
tongs to lift the grill
and pull the plug. Rinse.
Rinse. Rinse. Rinse. Rinse.

Then wash as usual.
Tumble dry low.

Read the whole series of laundry poems.

Laundry poem ending with lines from James Brush

This entry is part 7 of 10 in the series The Laundry Poems


You have kept your treasures
sewn into your hemlines
Kristen Berkey-Abbott, Exercising Freedom

The 80-pound puppy’s been
following me from room
to room
licking the outer
seam of my jeans
just above the knee.
As the means of his investigation
slowly soaks in against
my thigh, I stop
to give him my attention
and thoughtfully consider
what exactly
he is doing.

He is not yet a full year
old, and doesn’t have a grasp
of personal space
or boundaries. (As far as
he’s concerned, we’d all do better
in this world if we stayed
glued together
at the hip.) And so, with no
inhibitions, he’s been reading
my diary, the moments
of my personal history
left out in the open
when I rinsed my hands too
briefly in the sink, then
wiped them on my jeans.

He’s reading cumin
and cilantro, pepper-bean-tomato-
and-zucchini tacos. He’s
been reading and, as young
readers do, letting what he’s reading
transport him
into an imaginary place
where dogs not only are
permitted in the kitchen, but
get to share in meals
prepared there, maybe even
their own chairs right
at the table.

Or maybe not. Perhaps
something gets lost in translation.
But, to facilitate moving
more easily through the day
I go ahead and wash
my hands again and change.

And now it’s time to tend
to laundry, and as I take each
item out of the hamper, turn
the pockets, I begin to look
at each more closely. (The puppy’s
right beside me, delighted
to be teaching this old
dog new tricks.) Together,
we examine closely a plaid shirt
my husband wore while working
on the neighbor’s barbed wire
fencing. It’s black-and-red-
and-gray plaid flannel,

not one to show much
surface evidence, but puppy
sniffs insistently at the cuff,
and so I stop and sit
down on the floor
to look more closely.

The family that reads together…
Never mind. What is this darker
stain that wasn’t there before?
It appears in splotches, something
that was wet and spread, then
dried. And here, a tear
along the sleeve I hadn’t seen.
Perhaps dried blood? The mister
has not said anything to me
about getting any injuries. We turn
the page, set that one into
the washer and extract the next:
an olive green bandana, one of those
he takes with him as handkerchiefs.

This has a dark patch on it
and tight creases, like a tie-dye
project, and puppy tastes
it briefly and whines a tiny
bit and turns his head away.
This one’s still a bit damp from
something and I sniff it, catch
the briefest whiff: steel? spinach?
iron? blood. Barbed-wire fencing.
A snag, a bleeding gash,
a staunching. A wound hidden,
left unmentioned. So here’s me:

sitting on the washroom floor,
also reading someone’s diary,
noticing things I’d never really
noticed about laundry. My old
jacket smells like
incense and french fries now.

We keep reading the news.

Closing lines are from “The Monotony of Ice” by James Brush. Read all the laundry poems here.

Laundry Poem #6: Spring Turning

This entry is part 6 of 10 in the series The Laundry Poems


At the beginning of spring
gardening the snakes, indigenous
and invasive, the harmless
and the poisonous, they all emerge,
and in that half-hour before dinner
that’s reserved for washing up,
I join them, five-foot-long

python with my upper
body draped protectively
across the top of the open
washer drum. I hiss insistently
at my beloved resident hobbit
as he’s stripping off his garden-
muddy clothing: what has it got
in its pocketses?

We do this every evening, it’s
routine. And then he turns his pockets
out to check, and occasionally
I’m actually justified in asking.

This dark orange fungal mass
that he extracts looks decidedly
suspicious, but he explains
excitedly that that’s the magic
of it: some other mushroom,
lactarius or russula, inedible
on its own, gets invaded by this
other hypocreaceae fungus which
somehow eats up all the poison,
transforms the mushroom that might
have made you ill or killed you

into food. This parasitic hypocreaceae
fungus sort of cooks it, like it’s
boiling a lobster, and when it’s
orange-red all over, then you
know it’s safe to eat.

Ah. Okay, I did not know this,
and am feeling hungry, but more
so for the dinner that’s waiting on
the table than for a spongy orange
parasitic mass. Here, I’ll wrap
it in a napkin and put it on
your desk. We can continue
identification of weird things
from the garden after dinner.

And (to myself in silence as
I swaddle up the thing) I think:
so glad this bit of strangeness
didn’t wind up in the washing.

Inspired by Dave Bonta’s Lilium martagon. P.S. The lobster mushroom is a real entity.

Read the previous poems in the series.

Laundry Poem #5: Inverted Voodoo

This entry is part 5 of 10 in the series The Laundry Poems


It arrives, as it always does eventually,
that awkward moment in casual
conversation with someone newly
met, that point at which they’ve told
you a bit about themselves, and since
you yourself have not been saying
much, have not volunteered
to introduce yourself more fully,
that awkward moment when the other
party really cannot carry the conversation
on alone, and begins to ask a few
casual questions about you, and then
you have to choose to either ante
up or leave the table…

…but this time, I am given a reprieve
of sorts, by a rip in the fabric
of the universe. Or more
specifically, a rip in the sleeve
of a dress-white shirt that looks quite
new. A young man stands holding up
the offending sleeve. For a moment he
is speechless, then he says: I am
the best man. The wedding is this evening.
I can’t afford another shirt, I don’t
get paid till Thursday. I don’t…

He stops, and before he finds more
words to wrap around the panic-wound,
both the barkeep and myself
are reaching. The barkeep is extracting
money from the till…but I am quicker
on the draw, stand up and drag the bar
stool back a little further from
the bar, hold up a needle
and a spool of thread, and I say:
Give it.

He starts to speak again, and I say:
Go away. The gentleman will page you
when your shirt is ready, and there’s plenty
of time to get it done if you
don’t distract me.

He disappears. The bar disappears, as
does my coffee, and the sounds
of jukebox music, conversation,
all such inputs fade away as
I turn myself inward in preparation
for the magic-making. Needle threaded,
thread pulled smooth, a sleeve
turned inside out. This is inverted
voodoo, this piercing of the broadcloth,
not for harming but for healing.

Invisible stitches, each a tiny
planting hiding along the seam, each one
carrying a wish, a blessing.
Drawing the stitches firmly here,
but not so tightly that they pucker, I
am sowing a white-thread furrow
no one else can see: here I pierce
the soil and plant a seed

— (may this young man
be reassured) and another
–(may he always feel standing up
for a friend is a thing of importance)
— (may he always be in reverent
awe of weddings, and all they represent)
— (may the bride and groom
be likewise)
— (and remain so, in awe of their own
marriage, and all it represents)
— (and if there come children,
may they teach them kindness)
— (for other
— (for all living
— (may they raise them
to respect all that breathes like we do)
— (and all
that breathes invisibly)
— (may these
stitches carry blessings)
— (may these
stitches carry hope)
— (may these
stitches hold)


The prayer is planted.
I break the thread and turn the sleeve.

Read the previous poems in the series.

Laundry Poem #4: Suds

This entry is part 4 of 10 in the series The Laundry Poems


You know the beginning of certain
dreams by the signals they send—
Chime ringing behind one door
at the end of a long hallway
from “Found” by Luisa A. Igloria

A different year, a different state,
a different bar…this one called
Suds, and open early, from 8 AM

to midnight six days, and 1 PM
to 10 on Sunday. It occupied one
end of an old strip-mall, really
two business locations: the watering-

hole on the corner, and an adjoining
washeteria, one with no apparent entry.
My first visit was an accident, or rather,

just to ask to use their phone to call
one in, a fender-bender on the corner
I’d just passed (no one hurt, but both
the drivers asked me please to stop

somewhere and ring the police). No cell
phones then, but payphones in transition:
some a quarter, but sometimes still

a dime. When I stepped in, first thing
I heard was a chime, followed by
the proprietor (in a formal voice
befitting any maître-d’) announcing:

Number Four. Your laundry is ready.
I thought I’d misheard, but followed
the young woman who’d stood up from

a wood table on which sat a small
red pyramid emblazoned with a 4. She
broke off the conversation she was
having with a friend and headed

toward the back, around the corner
of the bar and through a door into
a sort of airlock with two phones,

one-dollar-or-five-dollars change
machine, and three adjoining entries:
Ladies, Gents, and Laundry. I rang
the police as promised, then explored…

Behind door three, sixteen machines,
eight each to wash and dry, each with
a painted number beside the coin-feeder.

Above the rows, a CCTV camera panned
slowly back and forth above the status-
of-operation lights, and as dryer number
five was winding down to come in for

a landing, again the chime and maître-d’
announcing: Number Five. Your laundry.
I fell in love. It was such a practical,

delightful way of doing. I stepped back
through the airlock, sat at the bar and asked
if I could maybe get a coffee. While
the barkeep poured, he kept an eye

on a little screen beside the register.
Then he came over, said: All clear till
Number One is dry. Your first time here?

We got to chatting casually, he said he
was the owner actually, and had a couple
other barkeeps who’d come in now and then
to spell him, but mostly he was there.

We were interrupted for two Michelob,
another shot of Dewar’s, and a double
shot of fabric softener in a paper cup.

The bar was slightly damp, my coffee mug
had slipped a bit. He toweled it up, gave
me a cardboard coaster, one with a picture
of a painting: Degas. A Woman Ironing.

(The closing coaster is a nod to Neil Creighton’s poem “Ironer.” See the previous poems in the series here, here and here.)

Where the West Begins

This entry is part 3 of 10 in the series The Laundry Poems


(continuation of a series which began with “Because I Sort of Knew Him” and “What’s In a Name“)

but I have been alone
here at the present
infinite spot
from “Sitting Place” by Dave Bonta

There was another brother
I’d met at that same bar, who some
years later, turned out to be
the hillside neighbor
of the man I said I’d marry.

We shall leave the brother nameless
(in keeping with our policy
of anonymity, but if you need
a form or frame of reference, think
of him as Snoopy’s brother Spike.)

I was kneeling on last year’s Yellow
Pages (my way of recycling) in front
of a Coleman cooler whose hinges had
gone bad. I was pulling out clean jeans
and wringing out the blue-gray water.

He came wandering over the hill
and leaned on my truck and watched
me. I kept wringing. (He was the one
come visiting, not me, so I kept on
doing until he got around to speaking.)

A man in the desert’s a good thing
he said. A man and his dog
in the desert. Add a woman
and a clothesline and it gets different.
Then you have a g-ddammed homestead.

I finished wringing, stood up and took
my basket over to the tow-rope I’d
strung up between the trailer
awning and the bumper of my truck,
began to pin wet jeans and shirts up

on the slippery divide between that
untamed frontier and civilized.

What’s In a Name

This entry is part 2 of 10 in the series The Laundry Poems


(sequel to “Because I Sort of Knew Him“)

He kept his chin up
no matter what, weathering
all weather.
from “Crushed” by Dave Bonta

When I am working, sometimes
there’s tension and frustration,
sometimes supervisors or
customers will shout at the shirt,
call its name out with a string
of expletives.

Inside the shirt, I am safely
anonymous, and protected.
No one ever actually gets
to shout at me.


When I am working, sometimes
it’s tedious and repetitive,
nothing to hold my interest, so
I pretend I am a spy working

Within my cover identity,
I then become attentive to every
thing and every one around me,
and as I occupy my mind
with this, the mindless work
gets done.


When I am working, sometimes
it is challenging, feels perhaps
a bit beyond me, overwhelming,
and I feel uncertain, hesitant.

But then I remember that I am
a superhero, and already in
my costume, my hero-name
clearly visible right there
on my lapel, and then I can
tap right in to the superpower
secrets and proceed
with confidence.


Make no mistake: I DO go
to the laundromat, and wash
my boxers, socks, and jeans.

Shirt-selections from St. Vincent’s
are more about some other things
(and a bit about not ironing).

Because I Sort of Knew Him

This entry is part 1 of 10 in the series The Laundry Poems


I took the lift even though I wasn’t
really hitching, and the walk was four miles
only, and the bags I carried were not heavy…

but I accepted when he pulled over
to the corner where I was waiting
for a light to change because I sort of knew

him, had exchanged nods and light conversation
at the bar where I would go some evenings
to sip a cup of coffee slowly, letting

echoes of a day of au pair service, echoes
of children’s squeals and tribulations
seep out of my mind, surround myself

with other adults quietly unwinding themselves
in the dimmer light, transitioning from day-
work to head-home-at-night identities.

I knew where he was going, and when he’d
seen my baggage, he’d assumed (correctly)
I was headed for St. Vincent’s goodwill thrift

to drop off a sack of clothing being donated
by the parents of my charges. And he, whose name
I never really knew exactly, was going there

to do his version of the laundry: every
weekend, he’d go to the rack of heavy cotton
shirts from uniforms, brown and gray and olive

green, small medium large XL 2X, dark blue
and khaki, short-sleeved shirts with buttons,
each emblazoned with someone’s first name.

Each week he’d drop off seven shirts in
the donation bin, carefully select a crisply
ironed long-sleeved white (from which I surmised

he either went on a date on Saturday night,
or church on Sunday morning); one plain solid
color t-shirt for daytime-wear on Saturday;

and five work-shirts, each with a different
identity stitched on directly over the heart.

Written in response to Dave Bonta’s “Une Semaine de Bonté” and Luisa A. Igloria’s “Refurbished.”