Based on the feedback from last week’s poll, we forge ahead with American poetry. Today’s work is, in part, a “found poem”—a poem written on the basis of (and borrowing many details and phrases from) an actual letter published in a magazine. The letter was written by a worker in the garment industry in San Antonio in 1934, a worker named Felipe Ibarro. The poem was then composed by a young woman named Tillie Lerner (who was later better known under her married name, Tillie Olsen). I’m only sharing a portion of the poem here—if it grabs you, you can set about hunting it down. Here’s the opening passages of “I Want You Women Up North to Know”:
I want you women up north to know
how those dainty children’s dresses you buy
at macy’s, wannamakers, gimbels, marshall fields,
are dyed in blood, are stitched in wasting flesh,
down in San Antonio, “where sunshine spends the winter.”
I want you women up north to see
the obsequious smile, the salesladies trill
“exquisite work, madam, exquisite pleats”
vanish into a bloated face, ordering more dresses,
gouging the wages down,
dissolve into maria, ambrosa, catalina,
stitching these dresses from dawn to night,
In blood, in wasting flesh.
Catalina Rodriguez, 24,
body shriveled to a child’s at twelve,
catalina rodriguez, last stages of consumption,
works for three dollars a week from dawn to midnight.
A fog of pain thickens over her skull, the parching heat
breaks over her body,
and the bright red blood embroiders the floor of her room.
White rain stitching the night, the bourgeois poet would say.
white gulls of hands, darting, veering,
white lightning, threading the clouds,
this is the exquisite dance of her hands over the cloth,
and her cough, gay, quick, staccato,
like skeleton’s bones clattering
is appropriate accompaniment for the esthetic dance
of her fingers,
and the tremolo, tremolo when the hands tremble with pain.
Three dollars a week…
There’s a lot more—more about Catalina and Maria and Ambrosa, and the rest. I find this work amazingly powerful: powerful enough to want to sit with just these opening lines and ponder them. The anger and the dignity in the opening address—you northern women, you shoppers, you ladies who lunch, hear the voice of the people on whose backs you are borne—is immense. The sharpness of that catalog of department stores, the cut in the little quotation about San Antonio…these little touches are very skillfully done. It’s amazing to me to see how openly our culture could have confronted all of this as far back as 1934. My grandmother was in high school, and sweatshop laborers were toiling at the clothes she may have worn. I like the way the images of the salesladies bleed into the images of the foreman and the workers themselves, all of them caught in this chain of blood, no matter how much the retail end of it may have felt insulated from the brutality of manufacture.
And the way the poem works with even such simple things as capital letters gives me pause—are maria, ambrosa, and catalina lowercase because they are objectified, reduced to less than human? Or is it more that Tillie is rejecting the conventionality associated with proper nouns, and essentially presenting us with a poetic voice that is intentionally raw and less than perfect?
Catalina is heart-breaking, the shriveled little girl’s body at work in a factory that will kill her. Even in the image of her slowly bleeding to death, her blood continues to “embroider” in a double metaphor that was beautiful and terrible, for me. Everything takes on that horrific sheen—the “music” of the sewing machine and the rhythms of her hands become a dance, but not just any dance. It is the skeleton’s dance—the Danse Macabre—for which she will get, if she is lucky, three dollars a week. The poem is almost too much to read in one sitting, even though it is only two or three pages long. Just that paragraph about Catalina is enough to push me over the edge.
This makes it, for me, all the more remarkable to consider the author. Tillie Lerner Olsen wasn’t a poet by trade, as you may have caught in that aside aimed at “the bourgeois poet”. She was a radical, a member of the American Communist Party. She fought for workers all over the nation throughout her long life (90+ years). She was arrested on Bloody Thursday, in the San Francisco General Strike. She was jailed for helping packinghouse workers organize their own unions. Armed with only an 11th grade education and the books at her public library, she became an intellectual and a writer of high acclaim, winning awards from foundations and the National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities, teaching at Stanford and MIT, and ultimately receiving a special award from the Institute of American Arts and Letters for having essentially developed “a new form of fiction” in the writings she composed out of the realities facing the working class. Regardless of your specific feelings about the benefits of unionization (or the concerns you may have about someone’s willingness to commit to Communism as an ideology in the 1930s), I think Tillie’s clearly a remarkable woman, and deserving of admiration in many respects.
By the time Tillie writes this, she has already fallen seriously ill with pleurisy and with tuberculosis. Whether caught in the factories she had worked, or in the jails she had been confined to, these were the consequences of trying to live as she did. I love that Tillie’s first published poem—this piece—is not about herself. She had lived a remarkable life already, and would go on to do much more. But in this piece she backs away to give someone else the center stage: she uses many of their own words, and is loyal to telling their story.
These people were real. Frail Catalina, age 24, was a real woman. She made clothes that our grandmothers wore—perhaps some of us, in a closet somewhere, still hang on to that handiwork as nostalgia. To us, they may have symbolized a simple time: an era of sweetness and happiness. I think we need to see them again, not to become paralyzed by guilt or anger, but to acknowledge that history is complicated. To acknowledge that injustice has been done, and that our willingness to remain blind to it makes us complicit in that injustice in a real way, however small. I don’t know what we can do for today’s Catalinas, for the workers of the world whose lives are brutal and painful in part because we like buying cheap clothing. It’s more complicated than any one sentence bromide I can offer. I think we owe it to Catalina, and Maria, and Ambrosa, to hear their voices, at least, and to invite them to speak more clearly to us. We will be afraid of what they have to say, but we cannot keep hiding from it. We should not, at least, and I hope that we won’t.