A quintessentially human collection of poems, Holly Harris
Somewhere a cleaner
23 August, 2021
Laborious jobs create the best artists. While the body is at work scrubbing, vacuuming or wiping, the mind is free to play with words. If nothing else, Somewhere a cleaner could exist solely to prove this point.
Poetry anthologies are often susceptible to thematic clashes. Somewhere a cleaner could’ve fallen victim to this trap. It would’ve been easy for this collection to do so, because the poets themselves held conflicting emotions about the topic. Some hated the work, others loved it – a few identified themselves as cleaners first, people second.
No matter the feeling, however, all had problems with the industry. Individual struggles were carried by the collective of authors; poets that do not speak at all of their strife are few and far between. Each cleaner had a story that highlighted an issue of the job. At a point, the testimonies become too similar to write off as coincidence. Page after page, I was left considering the people behind the words. It was this overarching narrative that made Somewhere a cleaner so quintessentially human.
One of the most insightful looks into this idea came from Feana Tu’akoi’s Happy in my work. She describes singing as she cleaned, and how it was misinterpreted by a guest. He’s glad to see “a young person so happy in her work!”, and Tu’akoi halts. “I sang not because I liked to clean,” she wrote, “but because I liked to / sing.” This line stayed in my head. It makes perfect sense to me, and as a teenager, I can relate to avoiding things I like for fear of misconception. This poem tackles what is expected of a cleaner – that they should be unseen and unheard – and reminds readers of how ridiculous these expectations are. Why shouldn’t a girl sing for her own enjoyment?
Tina Shaw’s Baby Grand is possibly my favourite of the collection. It’s told from a young mother’s point of view, and socio-economic class plays a big role in her situation. She’s much poorer than the family of the house she cleans. Despite little knowledge of the occupants, she’s aware that they have children. As such, the cleaner doesn’t feel out of line asking if her ill four year old daughter can accompany her to the house. The people who own the house decline. Shaw laments this. Everything feels intentionally dirtier as she imagines her child stuck at kindy. In the last lines of this poem, the cleaner walks “out of the house / leaving the door unlatched behind me.” It’s an impactful message. How easy would it have been for the occupants to allow a child with a cold into their house while they weren’t even home? Shaw had gone out of her way to reassure the family that her girl wouldn’t be a nuisance.
Leaving the door unlatched is such a small action, but it’s the most power this cleaner holds over her employers. It invites others in the neighbourhood to teach this family a lesson she feels they deserve, while keeping her own hands clean. One can argue the morality of such a prospect, though the root of the issue is ultimately what should be addressed instead. This cleaner should’ve had countless other ways to help her position, and she didn’t.
Somewhere a cleaner weaves a wide array of languages, cultures and experiences into a solitary class struggle. What made this collection so touching was the inclusion of every poet’s story. I couldn’t help but root for those who’d written.
Little sentences made me smile; “I am now living my dream” was one that came up astoundingly often, from authors looking back on their lives. Today, too many cleaners remain underpaid and underappreciated. Somewhere a Cleaner will have me fighting on their side forever.
- Holly Harris is a year 11 student at Napier Girls’ High School.