Marjorie Perloff’s recent description that heavily emphasizes its negative features brings forward its oddity. The poem begins as its third-person speaker wakens in a bright morning suddenly to believe that the air is "awash with angels." This is not a fleeting impression: it is pursued over two of the 5-line stanzas that make up the poem. But the notion, of course, cannot be sustained. When the wind suddenly dies, it is revealed that the angels are mere laundry lent temporary animation by the wind, and the illusion is broken. A sense of loss, regret and anger spills over into the fourth stanza in which the poet yearns for there to be "nothing on earth but laundry … clear dances done in the sight of heaven." But as the sun rises and the poet more fully awakens, "in a changed voice" he brings the poem to a close by distributing advice that is suffused with a sense of largesse. The idea of angel-laundry is no longer held tightly, as one clings to the last remnants of a lovely but fading dream: it is imaginatively distributed to all in a celebratory spirit in which Wilbur is nonetheless poking fun at himself or at the need to furnish a "climactic" ending to his poem. His seriocomic pronouncements mix wryness with pomposity:
"Let there be clean linen for the backs of thieves;
Let lovers go fresh and sweet to be undone,
And the heaviest nuns walk in a pure floating
Of dark habits,
keeping their difficult balance."
The poem may be said to move "dialectically" with this final statement presenting itself as the earned resolution, the harmonious product of the process unfolding as the work moved from idealism to realism to this pragmatic compromise in which real bodies wear real clothes. But the poem’s charm lies in the half-smile Wilbur wears throughout the performance. As correct as the poem is, there is something slightly foolish and even trivial about it – laundry as angels? The rising sun solving all? Then the closing benediction and the zany distribution of the laundry – clothes for the backs of thieves who should be punished on their backs, sweet clothes for lovers who will just take them off right away, and dark habits for nuns who should not find their balance difficult to keep?
… It is notable, as Perloff observes so sharply, that that the laundry-experience is so blissfully intangible. Richard Eberhart, one of the poets commenting on the poem for Ostroff’s 1957 symposium, nearly undoes the whole poem with a single down-to-earth remark: "I ought to add that it is a man’s poem. Certainly not all women would like a laundry poem which pays no heed to hard work and coarsened hands. They might say, poet, have your ruddy dream, but give us better detergents" (5). Yet it seems essential for the opening vision to be as remote and unreal and other-worldly as possible. It opens with a fantasy that is rich with an unvoiced guiltiness – a longing to be free of the messy individuality of persons, to be the single subject in a world of things in which all the objects are graceful and dance in the light. The poem’s first half performs its freshening, illuminating false-dawn recovery of the world of the angelically unreal in order that we may turn out from it to accept the chastening discovery of the "truth" of the morning world in which clothes are worn by humans, not inspirited by angels. The essence of this poetic is to offer first refreshment, then reality. The artist’s world is here linked to the ephemeral, the marginal, to the world of women’s work and children’s games. When that world is withdrawn, the effect is shattering: there is a sense of emptiness that overwhelms, and there is rage in the heart. "Blessed rape" resembles a curse that the disgruntled figure hurls at the world. It is what happens next, however, that is the central point of the poem. The poet does not remain cast down, for the reality is that this is not just a dream or a daydream in which the loss of a moment of supernal loveliness is truly shattering, even embittering. It is, instead, a poem that is very much staged: Wilbur as (in Perloff’s words) "producer" now goes on to demonstrate the advantage of the poetic turn, which is that it is possible to take up that pure moment of origin with which the poem opened, even to lose it for a moment or to find that it has become utterly intangible, but then to invoke that opening instant, in a new way and on a new level, wherein what is lost is recovered and what had been overturned as empty is now understood as filled.
The ending, of course, is not supposed to be the least bit sober. Thieves, lovers, nuns are thrown together quirkily, as if they all might find things to say to each other – and from Augustine’s view (as a one-time libertine whose writings were foundational for the Catholic church) they surely do. If Perloff is in some way right, then, to accuse Wilbur of silliness, and even unreality, why then was the work so welcome in its time? While Perloff’s theory that the poem exemplifies an interest in "equipoise" and "universality" goes along with a dismissive narrative that paints Wilbur as a bland craftsman in an era committed to deliberate acts of forgetfulness, it is unlikely that so abstract a project would have the deep appeal of this poem. In its time, the poem accomplished a task more arduous and more pointed, nicely demonstrating the distinction between the world of dreams like daydreams (which is also the world of mass culture), and the world of dreams which is the world of poetry (if not also Augustinean idealism). When a daydream-like dream is over, the resulting plunge back into reality resembles the collapse in which angels are exposed as just a mistake: emptied out, the spirit is downcast, the absence of its once-glittering vision disorienting and dismaying. As daydream, the vision cannot be reconstituted. And were Wilbur not producing a poem, the experience would end in the darkness of this plea that also resembles a curse: "Oh let there be nothing on earth but laundry …" But the turn that Wilbur makes transforms his experience into poetry – it is that displacement and repossession of the vision by conceiving its local application. Poetry’s real dreams down-size deep dreams and accommodate them to actuality. Of course the possibility that the turn cannot be taken is also explored in the poem, long enough for us to recognize those feelings of loss and disorientation that accompanies the recognition that something wonderful which we had thought to have made our own turned out to have been just as impossible as it had seemed. That moment of despair and loss is what the poem plays off and moves against. What is most "real," then, in the poem is just that sensation of having been cheated or left behind: not the wild belief that the air is filled with angels, which of course must be proven to be a fantasy, but rather that sharp pang of loss in which the fantastic turns out to be merely what it was – the fantastic. That is not a moment that is particularly limited to the 1950s, though the sense that abundance is not enough, that the combination of wealth and free time did not necessarily deliver happiness, was an important discovery that seems to have been made over and over in the course of the postwar years. When Wilbur demonstrates how to recoil from that keen disappointment, how to recover by inventively assuming the role of someone who drolly distributes feelings of largesse and pleasure, then he is not only modeling how to act but he is also acknowledging the negatives and positives of a world in which the abundant is continually presenting us with moments of intense pleasure that may just as abruptly turn fleeting.
Here as in other poems, Wilbur continues in his role as the postwar poet whose sense of audience encompasses those still new to poetry. He can recognize and address the experience of feeling aesthetically cheated by a vision too impossibly-alluring, but what is more, he can responsibly point a way beyond the moments of dislocation and anger. Perloff’s claim that "the actual ‘things of this world,’ in 1956, are studiously avoided" (86) is only true if those "things" are limited to "the real hands of laundresses, hands that Eliot," Perloff adds, "half a century earlier, had envisioned as ‘lifting dingy shades in a thousand furnished rooms.’" (86) But Wilbur has long advanced past that half century, and when Wilbur sighs over "Rosy hands in the rising steam" he is mocking himself and his longing for an unreal perfection. Remarkably suited to the limits of a culture of abundance, few poems dealt more smartly with worldly things circa 1956.