Through this poem, the speaker provides readers with a brief insight into the emotional landscape of a home. Between the speaker and the other woman in the poem, there is a great deal that goes unspoken. It’s clear that someone, a male figure in their lives, perhaps a father/husband, has passed on. In ‘Black Silk,’ they find a tactile and textile memory of that person.
Explore Black Silk
‘Black Silk’ by Tess Gallagher is a thoughtful poem about loss and the d ‘Black Silk’ by Tess Gallagher is a thoughtful poem about loss and the different ways that people deal with it.
The speaker addresses the fact that someone else, another woman, is always cleaning. This is a habit that’s likely evolved out of the loss at the heart of this poem. While cleaning, she finds an old black silk vest that belonged to the person who passed away. It’s not stated explicitly, but this person could be a husband to one of these women and the father to another. Or another relationship might exist between them.
The two lay out the vest and smooth out its wrinkles. The speaker tries it on while the other cries. The poem concludes with the speaker noting that she should go comfort the other woman but ends up standing still in the bathroom.
You can read the full poem here.
She was cleaning—there is always
that to do—when she found,
at the top of the closet, his old
silk vest. She called me
to look at it, unrolling it carefully
came back and the little tips
that would have pointed to his pockets
lay flat. The buttons were all there.
In the first lines of ‘Black Silk,’ the speaker begins by describing how, while always cleaning, someone (only referred to as “she”) found “his old / silk vest.” This is treated as something quite precious. The speaker describes how “she” rolled the vest out and called the speaker in to look at it. She handled it with care, and they spread it out on the kitchen table.
Each moment in this scene is described in detail and with a precision that reflects the character’s movements. They smoothed out the wrinkles, pressing their hands against the fabric and Formica countertop. The vest was flattened, the buttons are present, and the “little tips / that would have pointed to his pockets / lay flat.” It’s clear that every step in this process is important.
I held my arms out and she
looped the wide armholes over
crying so I stood back in the sink-light
where the porcelain had been staring. Time
to go to her, I thought, with that
other mind, and stood still.
The speaker, who is focusing on her perspective at this point, puts on the vest and goes into the bathroom to see how it looks. Although it’s not stated explicitly. It seems quite likely that the vest belonged to her father, someone who has passed away. She and her mother or perhaps a sister or other female relative (the latter is the “she” mentioned in the first lines) are examining it and dealing with the emotions it brings up.
The speaker’s narration shifts into slightly more abstract language at the end of the poem. Here, she notes that the other woman in the poem, perhaps her mother, is crying in the other room. She stands in the bathroom, knowing that she should go back and comfort her. But, one mind or way train of thought/way of dealing with the world outweighs the other. She stays in the bathroom, standing still, dealing with her emotions in her own way.
Structure and Form
‘Black Silk’ by Tess Gallagher is a twenty-five-line poem that is contained within a single stanza of text. The lines are written in free verse. This means that the poem does not follow a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. Despite this, there are a few examples of rhyme within the text. For instance, “over” and “never” at the ends of lines fifteen and sixteen.
Throughout this piece, the poet makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Enjambment: can be seen when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines four and five as well as lines fourteen and fifteen.
- Alliteration: occurs when the poet repeats the same consonant sound at the beginning of words. For example, “look” and “like” in lines five and six as well as “pointed” and “pockets” in line twelve.
- Imagery: can be seen when the poet uses particularly interesting descriptions. For example, “I looked in the sheen and / sadness. Wind chimes / off-key in the alcove.”
- Simile: occurs when the poet makes a comparison between two unlike things using “like” or “as.” For example, “unrolling it carefully / like something live / might fall out.”
It’s unclear who the speaker is. As the piece progresses, it’s revealed that she’s a woman and has a relationship of some kind with the other woman in the poem and with the person who passed away. Her emotions are more under control than the woman cleaning in the first lines.
The purpose is to describe the effect of a loss. It might be far in the past, but it still impacts the characters in the poem. When they touch the vest, it’s made new again.
The tone is descriptive and careful. The speaker takes their time providing readers with details about how they smoothed the vest and how she put it on. While it’s clear there are many different emotions at play, they don’t affect the way she speaks.
The themes used in this poem include death and loss, as well as memory. These are all embodied through the black silk vest that the characters touch. It is infused with the memories of the man who has passed away.
Readers who enjoyed ‘Black Silk’ should also consider reading some related poems. For example:
- ‘Death of a Teacher’ by Carol Ann Duffy – discusses a personal loss she suffered and how it affected her.
- ‘Elegy for My Father’s Father’ by James K. Baxter – is a mournful poem in which the speaker grieves for his grandfather.
- ‘First Death in Nova Scotia’ by Elizabeth Bishop – concerns the death of a small child in Nova Scotia, Canada.