Archival Features, Poems

Rod Jellema: “A Note to the Swedish Mystic Who Wrote that ‘the Wash is Nothing but Wash’”

This one began, as many of my poems do, with the stirring of a childhood memory brought to mind by a present  experience. Behind our summer place, an old farmhouse in Lake Michigan dunelands, passing our ancient grapevine, I caught the aroma of rising steam that mixed hot grape leaves and my wife’s swim suit and towel, spread out there to dry.

The scent, blended with fresh lake breezes, took me fifty miles and seventy years downshore, to my Uncle Harry’s cottage, where I spent my best summer days as a young teenager.  I’ve remembered the mysterious, almost intoxicating smell on hot days there that wafted from his big tangled grapevine. It was wet towels, hot leaves, swim suits, and also the fresh lake air gently lifting the leaves from beneath. There was almost certainly something vaguely spiritual, blended with something indistinctly and beautifully sexual, in the memory that has stayed so long.

In his little book of poems, translated from the Swedish, Tommy Oloffson, a true heir of the Swedish mystic Immanuel Swedenborg, is very much au courant with perhaps thousands of poets in the West who ally themselves with the monist thinking and art that comes out of the East. His fine little poem about a clothesline of laundry strung out in the wind is mostly in praise of the wind, air, breath, moving spirit. I thought immediately of Richard Wilbur’s great poem about the same subject, “Love Calls us to the Things of this World.” But Wilbur’s poem is not at all ethereal. His clothesline is “all awash with angels,” but seizes the heft of the physical – laundry for lovers and nuns in dark habits and for the backs of thieves.

The physical stuff – the laundry – that  Oloffson tries to transcend – “the wash is nothing but wash” – is what I now know to catch and hold.  I resist the lure of the immaterial. Memory from youth matures into insight. The second grapevine, and my wife in material detail, and even words themselves incarnate as ink on paper – these embody the holy, and “the wind is nothing but wind.”

Oloffson’s poem, in mid-course, became the catalyst that got me unstuck, uncertain as I was about where to go with my two grapevines. His poem gave mine something alluring and strong to push against. It forced me once more to create, rather than to talk about, an old theme of mine: how the disembodied spirit is made real by inhabiting physical bodies. –Rod Jellema

A Note to the Swedish Mystic Who Wrote that “the Wash is Nothing but Wash”

It’s here again—that late afternoon wind
off the lake. It rises up and offers
incense of lifted hot grape leaves
infusing a laundry-like steam
of wet towels and swimsuits
tossed on the vine to dry. Above, two herons,
buffeted toward inland horizons,

and now she is walking up the two-track road
from the mailbox, slowly, reading a letter.
Once again I know what’s holy is not wind,
it is leaves and wet clothes, words on paper,
waves breaking off their sentences, her hair
blown across her mouth, her own way of walking.
The wind, Tommy Olofsson, is nothing but wind.


Rod Jellema‘s Incarnality: The Collected Poems, 1970 – 2010 is forthcoming in the Fall of 2010 (Eerdmans). He is the former director of creative writing at the University of Maryland. His last book, A Slender Grace, won the Towson University Prize in Literature.