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The poem “I Wash the Shirt” by Anna Swir is a nineteen line composure that vary greatly in length. It is a short poem but one that is rooted deeply in the author’s private life. Having been born in poverty in the Warsaw during the Nazi occupation of Poland, Swir’s poems have concentrated on the themes of motherhood, sensuality, World War II and themes of her private life (emotions, sensuality and female body). During World War one, Swir joined the polish resistance movement and worked as a nurse and during which she wrote her poems for underground publications. The experience during her childhood and during the time of war greatly influenced her poetry. The poem “I Wash the Shirt” is significantly rooted in her private life.
In the poem, Swir describes washing her deceased father’s shirt, an act that she personalized and managed to put down as a poem. She makes readers understand the circumstances she went through in her private life after the death of her father. The personal sense of the poem made her keep it to her self and only published by her daughter after her death (Milosz, 67). The poem is appealing to senses in the way the poet directed her emotions. The shirt in the poem is a symbol of the personal relationship she had with her father. It is a depiction of remembering the departed loved ones. The poet used several poetic styles such as alliteration to allude to this personal connection the girl had with the father’s shirt. She writes in the third line that thus “The shirt smells of sweat” (Milosz, 65). This alliteration conveys the strong scent that appeal to senses of the reader and further strengthens the connection between father and daughter following the father’s death.
The poem is so emotional because it represents a girl who having lost her father, is going through a grieving process. She is forced to look at the things he left behind and at the same time forced to wash off the sweat from clothes that remind her of the father. In second stanza she begins “From among all bodies in the world,–animal, human,–only one exuded that sweat” (Milosz, 65) to reflect the strong relationship that existed between them to the extent that the speaker developed a unique way of distinguishing her father from other worldly bodies.
The personal connection the poet has with the shirt through the smell of sweat is closely connected to the father. With this in mind, she knows that washing the shirt will metaphorically take away all the memories she had associated with her father. She therefore writes in the fifth and sixth line of the second stanza of poem that “Washing this shirt–I destroy it–forever” (Milosz, 65). Washing the shirt in one instance is seen as destroying the only link the girl has with the father, but in another instance, washing the shirt can be seen as a new climate of hop for the speaker. In this case, the speaker is coming to terms with her personal grief and thus opening the door for new experiences.
She destroys the shirt so as never to smell the scent that makes his father come alive again and decides at the end that the only thing that “survives his father” are the paintings and the smell of oil on them. The speaker at this point hints that the smell of oil is yet another scent that will remind her of her father. The smell created here is impersonal as they are merely a recreation of the speaker’s father by a painter. This is different from the natural smell her father had that enabled her to distinguish him “among all bodies in the world– animal,–human” (Milosz, 65).