Grace V. S. Chin’s “The Clothesline” [Read the poem here]
(First published in Issue #5 of Cha)
Life is bleak, dreams are futile. That is the underlining theme of Grace Chin’s “The Clothesline”. The poem depicts a poverty-stricken domestic setting of a mother carrying out her chores on the yard, and a small boy who accompanies her.
The first stanza establishes the somewhat gritty circumstances that they are in; on the clothesline in the yard ‘grey rags hang / twisted on the line; the daily / hand washings cannot completely erase / the years of dirt and grime’ (L4-L7). Meanwhile, the woman’s son sits naked on the ground with a ‘bloated tummy’ (L11), an obvious sign of malnourishment (L17-18). The mother picks up the child and they head to the kitchen where a dreary breakfast — leftovers from last night’s dinner, which itself consisted of salted fish and rice – is being ‘stir-fried in a grease-blackened wok’ (L16). The boy whimpers in hunger and the mother attempts to sooth him with ‘a broken tune from her childhood’ (L22).
The poem is mostly about the mother, having lived her life and seen her dreams tarnished like the clothes that she washed. The ‘years of dirt and grime’ apply equally well to her aspirations in life. The last stanza emphasises this notion: ‘Tomorrow, the clothesline will stir again, strung / with the hopes and half-remembered dreams / that flutter, defiantly, in the stillness of the day’ (L26-L28). The reader is left wondering if there is still some hope in those dreams of hers, a defiance that still survives day by day. It would appear futile for the mother to entertain her childhood dreams, yet she does: the song she uses to sooth her son is another reminder of her own childhood, or better days when her dreams were still fresh.
The son, on the other hand, is still in a state of innocence and has his dreams intact, or even yet to form. While his mother hangs the clothes, he ‘squats in a corner, thrusting / naked buttocks into the brown earth, claiming / the small patch for his own’ (L8-L10), a metaphor of his ambition in life, to have something of his own and to make a mark in the world. However, reality dispels this notion of autonomy soon enough from his mind, when his mother swoops him up and he tries to seek sustenance from her breast, yet finds none. The disappointment and hunger ‘contort his youthful visage’ (L25) just as life is sure to contort his dreams.
There is very little romanticism in Chin’s poem. The family did not deserve to be poor, yet they are. They work hard and do what they have to do to survive, and if one is to look for any optimism in the poem the only thing one finds is that at least their situation does not seem to deteriorate, but is rather going to stay the same the next day. But then again, perhaps it is the reader who is used to live in relative luxury who perceives this situation as miserable, despite the fact that such conditions are what the majority of human race has endured tens of thousands of years. The mother’s and subsequently the son’s expectations from life may have tarnished, but not vanished, and they still live on, and the beginning of the poem seems to even imply a certain level of pride: ‘The clothesline stirs slowly / in the stale morning heat, dripping / with the sweat of an honest / woman’s work.’ (L1-L4)
Honesty, perseverance, caring for one’s family. Behind the realism of the poem, a faint glimmer of humanity shines through.
Grace V. S. Chin is a Malaysian who used to reside in Hong Kong. She currently teaches English literature and language at the University of Brunei Darussalam. In her spare time, she occasionally writes poems and short stories to amuse herself and her pet budgies.