Joseph Bathanti, NC Poet Laureate from 2012-2014, created this poem which is the prompt for the 2015 Art Showcase competition. Students should use this poem as the inspiration for their submissions.

Brooks Brothers Shirts

Ten hours a day,
my mother hunched downtown
in Brooks Brothers tailor shop - fretting
cuffs and belt loops, pleats, vents,
button-holes, lapels into ruthless
wool suits, unthinkably expensive,
for men who spent their days unsoiled,
whose soft hands never raised a callous.
After she punched out,
caught the streetcar, and high-heeled home
two icy downhill blocks
from the Callowhill stop,
she often breezed in with packages:
icy broadcloth shirts she’d monogrammed
with my initials,
swathed in smoky silvery tissue.
The deep navy boxes piped in gold,
the gold band that bound them,
and in their centers
the Brooks Brothers coat of arms:
a golden ewe lowered on a sling
into a sacrificial grail.
The Agnus Dei.
My mother dressed me like a prince.
“Apparel doth proclaim the man,”
I’d one day read in Hamlet.
Those luscious shirts:
the forbidden glory of plenty
(of too much, really),
they privileged me
among my parents’ oppressors.
Every day with neckties, blazers,
oxblood penny loafers, Princeton
wave that swooped my yearning brow,
I wore them to school: yellow, blue, pink,
charcoal and burgundy pin-stripe, tattersall,
blinding ecclesiastical white.
I wore them to church.
I adored those shirts,
my immaculate patrician destiny.
My mother washed them by hand,
hung to dry in the winter sun,
spritzed with water from an Iron City pony,
then shelved them in plastic bags
overnight in the freezer.
She loved them as much as I did
My father, a steelworker, a crane-climber –
he loved them too.
He didn’t want me to get my hands dirty.
He wanted me to work for myself.
My mother ironed in the cellar
where my father shaved
out of an enamel basin with hot water
from the washtub, a small mirror
on a nail pounded into the block wall
he whitewashed every year.
On his work bench she stationed
a sleeve board for the long tedium
of the crease, true as a plumb line,
dabs of starch at collar and cuff,
shots of steam from the iron’s black button,
Mother’s needle hand steering
the hissing wedge just shy of scorching
the frozen fabric (which is the charm).
My shirts were sharp enough to bring blood.
Monday through Friday school,
then Sunday, High Mass,
the shirts awaited me, dangling on hangers
from the cellar’s copper ceiling pipes,
the six of them in a skirmish,
nudging one another in the darkness,
complicit in my certain future,
swaying slightly, like a slow dance,
in the heat vent’s tepid whisper –
at their throats the oval writ:
Brooks Brothers Makers Est 1818.


 Joseph Bathanti


“Brooks Brothers Shirts” in The Progressive (September 2010), Madison, WI.