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The Poem “Domestic Work” by Natasha Trethewey Essay

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Updated: Oct 23rd, 2021

Natasha Trethewey’s poem “Domestic Work, 1937” gives an impression of life for women in 1937. The poem tells the story of a woman who evidently cleans houses for a living all week long and only has one day off a week to take care of her own house. Although she has to spend her day off cleaning her own house, her attitude, grounded deep within her own Christian faith, is much different in her own house than in someone else’s. This attitude of a hard-working woman, well-grounded in her Christian faith and yet longing for a change in her life, is illustrated through the imagery presented, the allusions to religious tenets and the changing meter of the poem.

One of the few options women had to earn money was to work as a maid in some domestic capacity, as the woman in Trethewey’s poem does as is shown through the imagery. This begins with the title of the poem, which presents the woman’s activities as ‘domestic work’ rather than employment, housekeeping or some other term that would make it seem more like a choice. One of the longest stanzas of the poem presents seven lines of unrhymed verse that illustrate the effort she has to put forth as she “stared down her own face / in the shine of copper- / bottomed pots, polished / wood” (3-6). The poem tells the reader that she does this all week while experience tells the reader that a shine glossy enough to reflect a face in this way requires a great deal of effort. Her attitude, as well as her frustration, is shown in the face she closes the toilet lid on that says “(let’s made a change, girl” (8). Although she longs for something different, there are not many options available for her.

The woman’s strength is found in her Christian faith, which is demonstrated through several allusions to religious concepts. Although the church clothes are starched and ready for her Sunday morning off, the woman opts to spend this time leaving the clothes hanging while she sets “a record spinning / on the console, the whole house / dancing” (11-13). As she cleans her own house, the woman pulls upon basic Christian tenets such as “Cleanliness is next to Godliness” (16) and “Nearer my God to Thee” (22) to honor her Sunday while fulfilling her own sense of right and order.

That the woman is wanting change is expressed throughout the poem, reinforced by a changing rhythm as one progresses from one stanza to the next. The first stanza speaks outright about the change the woman wants while the next stanza reinforces the plodding beat of her weekly life with a repetition of seven lines and a single declarative statement. However, following her involvement with her own house as mistress of her own time and environment, the rhythm begins to pick up, the stanzas become shorter and the words become more lighthearted. Although she’s still working hard, now she is able to “beat time on the rugs” (23) while she works and still dreams “for something better” (26), such as the day when she can wear her Sunday clothes to attend church instead of using her only free morning as the only time she has to clean her own space.

This poem illustrates how women must do what they can to earn their way in life. The woman in this poem worked hard doing drudge work but longed for a change in her life. Trethewey used descriptions of housework to show how the woman felt about her job. Trethewey also uses imagery to show the reader how the woman really feels. She makes allusions to religious scripture to indicate the woman’s feelings such as that she is able to feel closer to God when she is able to determine her own schedule. However, readers can see a working woman wanting more out of life as the tempo of the poem speeds up to dance in time with her desires, wishing she could have more moments free like this.

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IvyPanda. (2021) 'The Poem "Domestic Work" by Natasha Trethewey'. 23 October.

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