Topic: Analysis of Karen Press’s Glimpses of women in overalls The title of the poem lends itself to how the poem is constructed. “Glimpses” of four different aspects of the women’s lives are given, in short, image rich parts. Each aspect is given a ‘heading’ as such, giving the reader a clear picture on the context of the stanza(s) that follow. live-in” is the aspect of how the women live their life with their employers on their property, “off duty” is the aspect of the women in their own quarters, yet not truly their own, the third aspect “one of the family” is how the women see themselves, and are seen, within the employers family dynamic. “Women in overalls” leaves one with the strong image of working women, and as most of Karen Press’s poems are written in the context of the apartheid era, it would be safe to assume that they are black domestic workers. Chapman, 2002: 446) The poem is written in free verse and makes extensive use of alliteration and consonance throughout. This is immediately evident in the first stanza with the use of the‘t’. The repetition of the‘t’ gives the reader the image of a cat lightly walking on a hot stove, which lends to the image of the “tin” being “too hot”. Similarly the repetition of the ‘c’ in the last line of the stanza allows the reader to almost feel the “cold”. Chapman 2002: 446 line 2-4) This first stanza gives the reader some insight into how the domestic worker experienced something as simple as eating, but I feel that it also gives us an inkling on how they experienced life in general. There are two extremes in this stanza; on the one hand the scorching heat, and on the other the cold that causes fat to coagulate immediately. For many black South Africans of that time, that is how life was; working in the heat during the day, and going home to small tin shacks that held no warmth at night.
The second stanza is rich with imagery and metaphors. There is also an example of synesthesia in the line “to seep like perfume”. (Chapman 2002: 446 line 6)It is also in stark contrast to the first stanza. While the first stanza gives us the image of poverty, “tin”, the second gives us the image of wealth “china”, happiness and warmth “moist cells that glow with pleasure”. There is also a comparison in how the food is experienced; on the one hand “coagulation” gives us the image of blandness while “incredible flavours” gives us the sense of variety.
This directly relates to how the two cultures or people lived. The second aspect of the poem, gives us a glimpse into the private or “off duty” time of the worker. In this instance the setting is in the workers bedroom as is indicated by the phrase “the door bursting open”. This phrase also shows us that their “off duty” does not strictly mean not working. The last three lines of stanza three are short and unfinished questions. There is however no need to complete them as they speak volumes and convey the meaning exactly as they are.
All three ‘questions’ are accusatory in nature, and could have any multitude of endings. The workers fear their employers coming to call on them for any wrongs they may, or may not, have done. It also leaves one with the idea that the worker is used as a scapegoat for mistakes made by the employers or their children. The ‘heading’ of the fourth stanza implies that the worker is one of the family, however the reality is shown to the reader in the lines that follow.
The worker is only part of the family in terms of living on the property, they form part of the “outline” and are expected to be seen and not heard (“quietly”). The alliteration of the ‘s’, in this stanza almost makes it shout Shhhh. This idea takes us back to the last stanza where the worker was compared to a child (Chapman 2002: 446 line 10), and in the apartheid era, adults were of the idea that children were to be seen and not heard. Workers are there to be used as a tools to “sharpen the brilliance” of their employers houses and possessions.
They are there to keep things “dust free”. The final aspect deals with the workers themselves. We are shown how the worker struggles ,“on heavy legs”, to hold up the “bridge” of the two sides to the their life. It reveals how, on the “right arm”, the workers care for their employer’s families, animals and lifestyles, “supporting untold numbers of children and their parents, maltese poodles…” (Chapman 2002: 446 line 23-24) This arm is referred to as “strong” which could imply that the work itself requires strength, or that being made to do work they do not eally enjoy, while being paid minimal salaries, requires that the worker have a strong mind and heart. The word “untold” in line23 lends to the idea that the worker has worked for many different families, and it could also indicate that they care for their own children as well as children in their communities. This was and still is quite common among many black families – One woman will work to feed and cloth her sister’s children as well as her own. The other side of a workers life is portrayed as a “jointed…cracked wing” that is “reaching into the mist”.
I have sat for quite some time trying to ascertain what Karen Press wanted to convey with these images, and to me personally, it is the dreams and hopes of the worker that were broken and had to be “jointed” to carry on into the unknown and unclear, “mist(y)” future. The dreams and hopes of the domestic worker are portrayed as the “nests” created by the pigeons, the “soft-throated rumblings” could be the inner voice of each worker protesting against being used and neglected, however these protests go unheard as they are “barely audible”.
This for me again points back to the politics of the Apartheid era. The concerns and opinions of the black people were not heard or taken into account when making decisions for the country and government. The poem, in its course, challenges the conventional forms of poetry to construct a lyrically intense piece of literature in which Karen Press is able to convey the emotions and feelings of a subjugated people. Bibliography Byrne, Deirdre. 005. English Studies: Themes in English language Studies. Study guide for ENN311M. Pretoria: University of South Africa Byrne, Deirdre. 2005. Themes in English language Studies. Tutorial letter 101 for ENN311M. Pretoria: University of South Africa Chapman, M, ed. 2002 (reprinted 2008). A New Century of South African Poetry. Cape Town: Jonathan Ball (reprint of 2002 Ad Donker edition). Rena Korb, 2001. Short Stories for Students, GaleGroup, 2001