Monday, September 1, 2014

Labor Day: For the One Hundred and Forty Six


The back, the yoke, the yardage. Lapped seams,
The nearly invisible stitches along the collar
Turned in a sweatshop by Koreans or Malaysians

Gossiping over tea and noodles on their break
Or talking money or politics while one fitted
This armpiece with its overseam to the band

Of cuff I button at my wrist. The presser, the cutter,
The wringer, the mangle. The needle, the union,
The treadle, the bobbin. The code. The infamous blaze

At the Triangle Factory in nineteen-eleven.
One hundred and forty-six died in the flames
On the ninth floor, no hydrants, no fire escapes—

The witness in a building across the street
Who watched how a young man helped a girl to step
Up to the windowsill, then held her out

Away from the masonry wall and let her drop.
And then another. As if he were helping them up
To enter a streetcar, and not eternity.

A third before he dropped her put her arms   
Around his neck and kissed him. Then he held
Her into space, and dropped her. Almost at once

He stepped to the sill himself, his jacket flared
And fluttered up from his shirt as he came down,
Air filling up the legs of his gray trousers—

Like Hart Crane’s Bedlamite, “shrill shirt ballooning.”
Wonderful how the pattern matches perfectly
Across the placket and over the twin bar-tacked

Corners of both pockets, like a strict rhyme
Or a major chord.   Prints, plaids, checks,
Houndstooth, Tattersall, Madras. The clan tartans

Invented by mill-owners inspired by the hoax of Ossian,
To control their savage Scottish workers, tamed
By a fabricated heraldry: MacGregor,

Bailey, MacMartin. The kilt, devised for workers
To wear among the dusty clattering looms.
Weavers, carders, spinners. The loader,

The docker, the navvy. The planter, the picker, the sorter
Sweating at her machine in a litter of cotton
As slaves in calico headrags sweated in fields:

George Herbert, your descendant is a Black
Lady in South Carolina, her name is Irma
And she inspected my shirt. Its color and fit

And feel and its clean smell have satisfied
Both her and me. We have culled its cost and quality
Down to the buttons of simulated bone,

The buttonholes, the sizing, the facing, the characters
Printed in black on neckband and tail. The shape,
The label, the labor, the color, the shade. The shirt.

~ Robert Pinsky  (b. 1940 )


  1. I am choked with emotion from reading that poem. Then I went to the Wikipedia link and read more about it, the awful event and the equally awful fact that the men who locked those doors were acquitted. Thank you for sharing this with me, another reminder that even the worst tragedy can inspire great art.

    1. Packs an emotional punch, doesn't it? We will be right back there if the oligarchs have their way.

  2. Poignant and painful, and I agree with you, Teresa, about the oligarchs and plutocrats. They have an insatiable craving for MORE, and there is no moral cost too high for them to pay in order to satisfy the craving. Winners and losers, that's their motto, and that's the paradigm that is threatening world order this very day.

    1. Thank you so much for this thoughtful response, George. I always appreciate your comments.

  3. Unions are the last bastion of government by discussion, also known as democracy. First thing fascism does is destroy labor unions --by propaganda at first, later by firing squad. With all my heart, Happy Labor Day!

    1. Yes ... your words get right at the ugly direction we seem to be heading.

      I actually did labor today, including sawing limbs and hauling them to a brush pile. It was a very nice day ... perfect contentment. I hope you had a good one, too, Geo. ... good to hear from you.

  4. Nothing has changed since then… except the location. Progress.

    1. No, and some things will be lost if we're not alert to what is happening.

  5. I either read about that fire or saw it in a documentary. Dreadful!
    I wasn't aware that we were already using overseas sweatshops in 1940. Some things never change, I guess. Money rules. :(

    1. I've also done a post on it, previously. It marks so many things that we must never forget.

  6. 'To control their savage Scottish workers, tamed
    By a fabricated heraldry...' I'm guessing nobody was ever made accountable for the disaster.

    1. It's a universal theme, this corporate deceit, which can all too often turn deadly. No, the owners were acquitted of manslaughter, but it did give rise to improved factory worker conditions and also created a stronger union for the workers. Now, we seem to be losing ground again ...

  7. The most terrifying imagery for me was of the young man, dropping the women into eternity. It reminded me of 9/11, and I hardly can bear it. After today's news (a second beheading, the fact that briefings on the ISIS threats have been available for at least a year), I found myself holding my breath as I read this, almost as if I were to be the next one dropped.

    A powerful, powerful poem.

    1. I had the same feeling ... thank you for this very thoughtful response. I am beyond tired of hearing about a measured response to ISIS. Playing geopolitics with lives is not anything I can support. I'm very grateful to have friends in this online community who stay informed and also have deep concerns ... Thank you, Linda.

  8. Hello Teresa... such a very powerful poem, I read it with pictures of 9/11 behind my eyes. Profoundly moving words my friend.


    1. yes ... thank you, Jane. It's lovely to hear from you ... I hope you're having a beautiful day ...

  9. Thank you for sharing this poem, especially at Labor Day, Teresa.
    I did know of the Triangle Fire; felt its horror all-the-more when a televised film was made of it. How appropriate it is to share on Labor Day, which is not only set to honor our labor force, remember these tragedies, and the laws put in place to protect workers. Sad that these conditions are still happening around the globe.

    Those bodies, dropping, with no choice, no way out; the horror. I am also reminded of the school fire, Our Lady of Angels, in Chicago.

    1. I was not aware of that school fire. I will do a bit of research. There are comparable stories and some even more horrific around the globe. I hope all the work and all the lives lost here will be enough to sustain our labor unions and keep them active.