Essay

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(How Poems Work, February 2006)
This poem is one of an 11-part collection entitled “Elles” that won PRISM International’s Earle Birney Prize for Poetry (2000) and was shortlisted for the National Magazine Award for Poetry (2000). Based on the series by the same name, produced in 1896 by Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, each poem takes on the voice of the woman featured in the lithograph. They are residents of a brothel, yet each poem reveals the woman separate from her profession; these are women caught in ordinary activities: waking, dressing, bathing….

This poem is one of an 11-part collection entitled “Elles” that won PRISM International’s Earle Birney Prize for Poetry (2000) and was shortlisted for the National Magazine Award for Poetry (2000). Based on the series by the same name, produced in 1896 by Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, each poem takes on the voice of the woman featured in the lithograph. They are residents of a brothel, yet each poem reveals the woman separate from her profession; these are women caught in ordinary activities: waking, dressing, bathing.


This poem is one of an 11-part collection entitled “Elles” that won PRISM International’s Earle Birney Prize for Poetry (2000) and was shortlisted for the National Magazine Award for Poetry (2000). Based on the series by the same name, produced in 1896 by Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, each poem takes on the voice of the woman featured in the lithograph. They are residents of a brothel, yet each poem reveals the woman separate from her profession; these are women caught in ordinary activities: waking, dressing, bathing.
In “Woman Washing Herself–The Toilette”, Shreve utilizes the conscious construct of an interior monologue to take us out of the physical scene–Toulouse-Lautrec sketching a nude woman–and into the more intimate thoughts of the speaker. Swiftly, we are introduced to a woman who distances herself from sitting for an artist by contemplating her relationship with God: “How we/bargain with God over tragedies/that may never happen”. This simple, surprising inclusion of religion causes us to reconsider the subject of the woman. She is transformed from a nameless, faceless body to a substantial character with specific fears: “take an arm if you must, but leave me/two good legs”. Toulouse-Lautrec, arguably the catalyst for the lithographs and subsequently the poem, is only briefly mentioned, relegating him to the periphery of this haunting poem: the focus of the poem is further sharpened on the character of the woman bathing.
Ostensibly, the poem is a poem of the body. Words such as “arm”, “legs”, “back”, “breasts” and “body” frequent the work until we are overwhelmed with the possibility of the woman’s naked form. The inclusion of the wash basin, as well as the very act of washing in the fourth stanza, heighten this to a sensual poem; we are consumed with the woman’s body, both in terms of artistic expression and human perspective. The speaker’s confession at the end of the poem, “Me, I adore/breasts”, reaffirms her awareness of her own body, as well as its effect on viewers. The request for the artist’s help in washing, “I asked him to put down/his crayon and wash that bit in the middle/I almost can’t reach” further humanizes the speaker, deftly avoiding the stereotypical construct of a nude posing for an artist.
The poem, at five stanzas and 110 words, is relatively short. Economic use of language boils the poem down to necessity: there is nothing here to detract from the central image of a woman at a washbasin with her breasts exposed in the mirror. The free verse form, as well as the large expanses of white space, add to the airy quality of the poem, effusing it with the same delicacy as the lithograph itself. Unusual line breaks place emphasis on specific words or images, guiding us through the geography of a young prostitute’s inner thoughts.
With purposeful language and imagery, Shreve takes us into the world of prostitution from a fresh angle. The women here are not exploited, but rather explored as individuals.

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