Paola Corso’s poems about women’s work and lives bring to life an intimate and fragile world without a hint of sentimentality. Take “Step by Step with the Laundress”:
- Hang a taut line. Keep a clothespin in your mouth as if smoking a cigarette while your work friend Donna finishes your hoagie because her daughter ate hers and you gave yours up for adoption. (7)
In Corso’s collection of poems, The Laundress Catches Her Breath, the lexicon of laundry is elevated to an elegant and sophisticated poetic form. Corso’s lyric approach to the quiet and invisible labor of women creates art and beauty out of the grime and dirt of the everyday and the effort it takes to make things clean again.
The book is divided into three sections — “Inhale,” “Hold for Ten Seconds,” and “And Exhale” — that together shape a narrative that engages in an intertextual way with issues of class, race, cultural identity, life-threatening illness, sexism, labor, and death. The poems are dynamic and evocative:
When she wakes up
and she follows it before it shatters
into pieces. (36)
At the same time they are explicit in their sympathies for working class histories and lives, so that it comes as no surprise that the collection won the Tillie Olsen Award for Creative Writing in 2012:
Not like those Italian girls
in New York City, cugine at the shirtwaist factory
trapped behind a locked factory door
so they couldn’t leave with a fancy blouse in their pocketbook. O shows her
girls leaping from sewing table
to sewing table across the floor
choking in a smoky cloakroom
as their dresses catch fire
pushed to the ledge by the flames. (55)
No doubt, laundry — the wash — is foundational to the entire book. In fact, the poems that make up the collection could be said to even be organized like carefully hung clothes on a laundry line: tautly arranged by form and style, with careful attention to the nuances and overlaps of color and light coming from each piece.
And yet, so many other details hold these poems together. For starters, practically every poem has a reference to breath. From the tragic health consequences of factory labor and cigarette smoking to the meditative space of reflection, the very act of breathing brings a measured rhythm to Corso’s writing. Further, the poems are linked through the specificity of place, people, and emotion. The collection is made up of poems set among a white, mostly Italian ethnic, working-class community of western Pennsylvania. The localized references are many and unambiguous: Eat-n-Park, Giant Eagle, The Point, steel mills, the Pirates, etc. But Corso’s poems reach well beyond the quotidian experiences in and around Pittsburgh.
If we could say that a book of poetry has a single protagonist then Corso’s would be a woman, a laundress, who is struggling to get out from under her father’s domineering hand while weighed down by minimal opportunities and the mindless repetition of unskilled work and service labor. To say that the labor described in these pages is of both the underpaid and unpaid varieties would be an understatement. While the focus is on the daily struggles of our laundress, the men and women she is surrounded by — both in spirit and in the flesh — are typically no better off. Steel workers, coal miners, construction workers, garment workers, waitresses, fire fighters, and all kinds of union and non-union laborers are honored by the way Corso writes the challenges of their lives into existence. And yet Corso’s is a gendered reading of labor, and she is quite aware of the double or triple work shifts women take on.
Corso is also quite conscious of the transnational nature of much of the community she brings to life, connecting her Pittsburgh laundress’s exploration of self to the character’s southern Italian background. In a rather dreamlike tour of the coast of Sicily, Corso takes readers away from the three rivers and straight to the cliffs overlooking the sea at Tindari (Sicily), giving shape to the hallowed tale of the Black Madonna of Tindari and the energy many find from her image and story.
Throughout this collection, Corso’s skill with language is apparent in how she moves her poetry from a narrative style to a free-form lyricism as her protagonist more courageously takes hold of her own life, “to exhale the ghost inside her” (67).
Laura E. Ruberto
Berkeley City College