Ironing: Fire Married to Steel


In Praise of Ironing

(Oda Para Planchar from Plenos Poderos, 1962)

by Pablo Neruda, poet, diplomat, 1904-1973, Chilean

translated by Alastair Reid, Scottish poet and translator, 1926-2014




Poetry is pure white.




Hanging out the laundry to dry (The Gennevilliers Plain), 1875, oil on canvas, and detail.  Berthe Morisot,1841-1895, French.  National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC 




It emerges from water covered with drops,
is wrinkled, all in a heap.






A Woman Ironing, 1876-87, oil on canvas, and detail.  Edgar Degas, 1834-1917, French.  National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC





It has to be spread out, the skin of this planet,



Antique irons from an antique emporium in Kingston, NY, 2015.

I remember from my Ethiopian childhood the irons which had a cavity and a covering.  Hot coals would be placed in that cavity.  Probably an Italian model?   A lot of work.




has to be ironed out, the sea’s whiteness;







Branded Irons, 2000, scorched plywood panels.  Willie Cole, American born 1955.  Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia

The artist, an African American, sees the iron in many ways. 

His mother and grandmother kept house for others and would often ask him to fix their broken irons.

  Branding has a place in slavery.  And rows of irons lined up bring to mind bodies in slave ships lined up and ready for transportation. 

Slavery created huge cotton wealth, of course, for the United States: slaves branded with irons – something so dark – transformed into the brightest white, ready for washing and ironing. ‘Pure innocence returns out of the swirl’ as the poet says below.

The metal base of an iron is called a ‘sole plate’ and the artist has also made art which addreses the iron’s piece parts standing in for soul and body. 

The artist has also taken an interest in the images conjured up by the vent holes in such sole plates and has suggested what images these create for him.

Vent holes. These, also, conjure entry ways deep, into our earth and into our minds.




West Country (UK) shepherd’s smock, 19th century and earlier. Undoubtedly linen.  A photograph posted by Elizabeth Baer (died 2016), a British antiquarian textile dealer. who taught us so many things in her appreciation for and care of textiles.



and the hands keep moving, moving,





Iron, 1962, encaustic on wood.  Jasper Johns, American born 1930.  Philadelphia Art Museum



the holy surfaces are smoothed out,
and that is how things are accomplished.




A Woman Ironing, 1873, oil on canvas.  Edgar Degas, 1834-1917, French.  National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC




Every day, hands are creating the world,
fire is married to steel,






Domestic I.D. IV, 1992, steam iron scorch and pencil on paper, mounted in recycled wooden window frame.  Willie Cole, American born 1955.




and canvas, linen, and cotton come back
from the skirmishings of the laundries,






American Domestic, 2016, digital pigment and serigraph, and detail. Willie Cole, American born 1955. Pennsylvania College of the Fine Arts


The painting above refers, of course, to one of the most famous of American paintings (below):  American Gothic.

The African-American couple have been reduced to cyphers: they are there to work:  the one in the field and the other in the house.  It is all about cotton and servitude.  The markings on the woman’s smock have been transformed into the shape of the iron. 

The man is not in front of the woman or in any way more important than she is. He has no more autonomy or agency than she does.  They are equal in their servitude. 




American Gothic, 1930, oil on beaverboard.  Grant Wood, 1891-1941, American.  Art Institute of Chicago



and out of light a dove is born –








Woman Ironing , and detail, 1904, oil on canvas.  Pablo Picasso, 1991-1973, Spanish.  Thannhauser Collection, Solomon R. Guggenheim, NY





pure innocence returns out of the swirl.






Cotton, 1997, etching and aquatint.  Kara Walker, American born 1969. Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia







2 thoughts on “Ironing: Fire Married to Steel

  1. A magnificent, moving and beautiful collection. Somehow redemptive. Thank you for this unique and imaginative arrangement!

    1. Thank you, Susannah! I think that women transformed everything they did into sacred tasks because they did not have much of a choice about what else they could do and because what they did and do are necessary to the creation and maintenance of life!

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