Interpretation of The Zen of Housework by Al Zolynas

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Al Zolynas' poem "The Zen of Housework" depicts a job that is mostly found irrelevant and boring in people's lives. The author discusses and explains the act of dishwashing in great detail. It's surprising that dishwashing is portrayed as a pleasurable activity. While dishwashing is considered a tedious task, the poem indicates that it can be a rare experience that is both enlightening and pleasant.

The poet's hands "disappear under water into hands inside pink rubber gloves moiling over dinner plates," according to his interpretation (Zolynas). In this respect, the author uses the symbolism of the “pink rubber gloves” to present the idea that washing dishes is a chore that is commonly done by women than men. Washing dishes is not described as a systemic process that involves adhering to a defined order, but rather it is a chaotic activity. The narrator suggests that he or she is “moiling over dinner dishes” hence suggesting that the dishes are picked at random without a definite order and cleaned accordingly. In addition, the narrator aims to assert that the dishwashing task is not as easy or as “mundane” as most people believe, but one that requires the washer to work hard at it in order to achieve the desired results.

The narrator continues to suggest that dishwashing is a delicate process that requires concentration and presence of mind. Therefore, care must be taken when handling dishes, “my hands lift a wine glass, holding it by the stem and under the bowl” (Zolynas). The description of the wine glass suggests that dishes have unique attributes that must be observed when handling them. Considering the dishwashing activity involves the use of soap or detergent, there is a high probability of dishes slipping and breaking. As such, each item must be handled carefully, as the wine glass is held “by the stem” to ensure that it does not slip causing it to fall and break.

The fact that the wine glass was submerged under the bowl and “breaks the surface like a chalice rising from a medieval lake” suggests that it has been cleansed and can be characterized a renewed item full of promise. The use of symbolism creates a dramatic effect to the dishwashing activity and captures the reader’s attention as the author intended. The narrator continues to suggest that the glass is “full of grey wine of domesticity” (Zolynas). Though a wine glass is often associated with the act of celebration, partying and aesthetic feelings, it used in the poem to illustrate the darker side of the human condition. The “grey wine of domesticity” is essentially the dirty water that result from washing dishes. Hence, depicting the grey or dirty aspects of the domestic life, where everything becomes dirty and must be washed for renewed use.

The concept of “grey wine” has a deeper symbolic meaning suggesting that while there are positive experiences and good things in people’s lives, there is always the dirty or grey element that causes embarrassment or shame and must be “washed” out. Evidently, it is difficult to hide domestic issues especially to people that are in the house already as the narrator points out that the glass containing the grey wine “floats to the level of my eyes”; hence, the “grey” must be noticed.

The narrator is facing a window that he or she can see outside and observes that while the dishwashing activity may be construed as mundane, it offers an individual a unique moment to observe the world outside the house. The narrator observes the beauty of that can only be seen during the evening and through a window “the sun, among a ceremony of sparrows and bare branches is setting in Western American” (Zolynas). The poem suggests that people rarely get the opportunity to observe the marvels of nature such as the unique view presented by a setting sun. It can be assumed that unless an opportunity presents in the form of washing dishes at the opportune time, it is likely that people would not witness such beauty in nature.

While washing dishes is considered a mundane task, the narrator suggests that it has an intricate meaning and symbolism in life. Evidently, there are “thousands of droplets of steam-each a tiny spectrum-rising from my goblet of grey wine” (Zolynas). It can be assumed that the narrator is referring to the effort that was put in to clean the dishes causing him or her to sweat. Therefore, the “thousands of droplets of steam” are symbolic to a person sweating profusely as a result of the work done while dishwashing.

A more literal observation would suggest that the narrator is merely referring to the steaming water that he or she is using to clean the dishes. The steam droplets do not follow a structured pattern, but “they sway, changing directions… like a school of playful fish, or like the sheer curtain on the window to another world” (Zolynas). This observation may be attributed to either the window being open allowing in a breeze that causes the steam droplets to sway or the labored movement and breathing of the narrator as he or she washes the dishes. The narrator ends the poem on a sarcastic note by exclaiming “Ah, grey sacrament of the mundane!” (Zolynas). The narrator implies that unlike other jobs where the rewards are more satisfying and more than welcome, the mundane chore has a rather undesirable result, where the narrator is rewarded by the ‘grey’ from washing dishes. The dishwashing task does not have any other rewards except being left with the dirt that has been washed off the dishes. However, the narrator only takes notice of the dirty byproduct of the dishwashing process and fails to notice the cleaned dishes and their significance in preserving a healthy and clean domestic environment.

The narrator emphasizes that the poem is in references to an activity that can only be done in a domestic environment. The references to terms such as “domesticity, moiling, mundane and grey wine” emphasizes the narrators intention to let the reader know that the poems speaks about a chore that requires effort, involves cleaning filth and can only be done inside the house during the evening.


The poem integrates both symbolism and imageries to emphasize key points that the narrator wants the reader to notice and appreciate their significance. For instance, the narrator suggests that the wine glass “breaks the surface like a chalice from a medieval lake” (Zolynas). The poem can be described as the musings of person noticing the significance of a task that is often characterized as mundane. While dishwashing may be considered as an ordinary routine activity that often goes unnoticed, it has a higher significance than it may be suggested be the description of being a mundane task.

Works Cited

Zolynas, Al. Zen of Housework. San Diego Reader, 6 June 2012. Web. 3 March 2017. .

January 25, 2023

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