Poem of the Week / Harpo Marx’s Washing Machine

Leah Pilowsky spins the story of finding a poetic voice.

Harpo Marx’s washing machine

Leah Pilowsky

I wrote the poem on it
during the third spin cycle
I wrote the words on the cabinet’s left side in big,
black, crooked letters: At first
I was sure it was in fact Groucho’s washing machine
and it
would refuse to wash for me when I wanted and wring
wrinkled smiles from me I’d promise to iron
and never would but
for some reason it turned out to be Harpo’s machine
though without adopted children in every window
and without a harp to the glory of the state of Israel
but also without words, yes, now there’s no doubt, it
was always Harpo’s washing machine I knew
and with which I became
one flesh.

From Pilowsky’s second book, “Listening To Me Too, Now,” (Keshev, 2013).

***

Israeli poet Leah Pilowsky was born in 1970. Her first book, "Art Is" (2009, Kvar series, Pardes Publishing) won the Teva Poetry Award in 2010. Last week at the Helicon Sha’ar Festival in Haifa she was awarded the first Rami Ditzanny Prize for Poets at the outset of their careers.

Here, Pilowsky takes a look at how a poet finds her voice. Up to “crooked letters,” the poem evokes the lonely hours of adolescence, watching a machine go round and round as you wait for the load to finish so you can get on with your chores. You succumb to the urge to put your mark on the surroundings with whatever skills you have acquired. The assumption that it was Groucho’s machine reflects a young writer’s fear of being devastated by criticism – Groucho Marx was king of the nasty remark. However, the machine turns out to be Harpo’s.

In the Marx Brothers’ 1949 film “Love Happy” (which is also noteworthy for having been Marilyn Monroe’s first cinematic appearance), the villain played by Raymond Burr tortures the silent but musical brother Harpo in a washing machine. In the poem, the instrument of punishment is turned into an instrument for the good and one with more than one window onto the world; in real life Harpo and his wife adopted four children.

“To the glory of the state of Israel” refers to the closing phrase of the speeches made by the torch-lighters selected annually to participate in the official Independence Day opening ceremony. The poet rejects “official” language, thought and symbolism, including the harp, which figures in Israel’s official and unofficial iconography.

Yet the poet does not reject the entire tradition of the Hebrew language. In the final lines, she uses the word “know” in the biblical sense of carnal knowledge, and sends the reader back to the finale of the Creation story in Genesis 2:24: “Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife, and they shall be one flesh.” Leaving one's childhood and cleaving to the cleansing and the silence make a voice possible.

Pilovsky, by the way, has an excellent speaking voice. Listen to her read some poems in Hebrew:

Musing:

*In the line “for some reason it turned out to be Harpo’s machine” – what is the reason?  

Natan Wasserman