Death and detergents: Spanish poet sets hospital laundry work to verse
Begoña M Rueda reflects on her prize-winning account of laundry work during the Covid crisis
Last modified on Fri 23 Jul 2021 05.03 BSTSpain was not long into the first wave of the Covid pandemic when the poet and hospital laundry worker Begoña M Rueda realised there wasn’t quite enough room onthe public pedestalfor all those who worked in the country’s over-stretched and often under-resourced health system.
“At eight, people step on to their balconies to applaud / the labours of the doctors and the nurses / but few applaud the labours of the woman who sweeps and mops the hospital / or of those of us who wash the linen of the infected / with our bare hands,” Rueda writes in one of the poems that makes up her latest collection.
Laundry Service, which won this year’s prestigiousHiperión poetry prize, is a raw, harrowing, angry, tender, and sometimes funny, dispatch from the sweltering, invisible realm of washers, dryers, detergents and body fluids.The first half of the book deals with the pandemic as seen from the laundry room of the Hospital Punta Europa in the Andalucían city of Algeciras, where the 29-year-old poet has worked since 2019. The second, written before Covid hit, explores the unsung lives of the people who work in it and other laundries. headtopics.com
“I wanted to look not just at the pain and suffering that the pandemic has brought, but also at the joy of the people who have managed to beat the virus and recover,” Rueda said.“I also wanted to draw people’s attention to the working-class job of working in a laundry. Traditionally, some people have looked down on it as a job, and I also wanted to empower the women who do it – and it is overwhelmingly a job done by women, although that’s beginning to change.”
‘Poetry makes me a more humane and humble person’: Begoña M Rueda.The Covid-era poems are full of the dread and fear of the early days of the pandemic – a dread and fear that is quickly normalised as Rueda notices the shrouds piling up, waits, belatedly, to be issued with a face covering – “a paper muzzle to stop us barking death at each other” – and watches as a truckload of soldiers disinfects the entire hospital but forgets to fumigate the laundry “as if the linen washes itself”.
The poem about the soldiers, said Rueda, “is totally true from the first verse to the last. The soldiers turned up, parked their truck at the door of the laundry and disinfected every bit of the hospital except our part. Then they split. It was humiliating”.
In the second half of the book, the anger and incredulity give way to a series of poignant reflections on her job and its meaning. In one, Rueda irons children’s pyjamas and wonders whether the last person to wear the blue pair has been discharged. In another, she catches a trace of perfume as she folds a pyjama top and remembers that those facing death sometimes brush their hair and put on cologne “as if dying was just another one of all those Sunday morning walks”. headtopics.com
“You can disinfect linen and wash it at really high temperatures, but sometimes you can still smell the perfume, and you wonder how that’s possible,” said Rueda. “There’s a humanity that clings to the sheets and sometimes you can’t wash that away.”From time to time, Rueda’s gaze moves past the door of the laundry and takes in the “horizon-shredding” Rock of Gibraltar and the straits that are “a motorway of
narco-boats” anda graveyard for the migrants and refugees who try to cross from north Africa in their tiny craft.Other poems chronicle the lives of her co-workers as they clock off after a long day’s work only to go home, wash more clothes and wait on their families.
The aim of the poems is to make the reader feels what Rueda feels in the laundry – and to provide a record of the pandemic.“The laundry’s right opposite the morgue and I saw coffin after coffin after coffin,” she said. “I just hope that people who read this collection in the future will see how we lived through this pandemic and how we survived it. We can’t forget, otherwise history will repeat itself.”
The judges of the Hiperión prize, the seventh award Rueda’s poetry has received, said Laundry Service “abjures adornment and artifice to create a humane poetry about illness in general and the after-effects of the pandemic in particular”.Rueda, who had to abandon her Spanish language and literature studies for economic reasons, said while the prizes were welcome, they were a spur rather than a goal. “The aim is to sit down and write, and enjoy it. headtopics.com
Poetrymakes me a more humane and humble person and brings me closer to my own spirituality. Those are the things that make me happy. If I can transmit that to other people and if they can enjoy it and if it helps them look at life differently, then that’s the real prize.”
Despite – or perhaps because of – all the recognition her work receives, Rueda often has to deal with snotty questions from people keen to know why a poet is working in a laundry.“That really used to get to me,” she said. “But then you just laugh at the ignorance of some people. We really need to understand that doing a certain job doesn’t make you a better, or worse, poet. And we also need to understand that being a poet doesn’t make you a better, or worse, worker. We’re all equal. We’re all born; we all die.”
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