Editor’s Note: I met Holly Guran at a poetry reading one chilly night in December. She told me that she had heard of The Fictional Café because her friend Maria Termini told her about the site. Now, for a literary magazine as small as ours, meeting someone who’s heard of your publication is a pretty big deal. Needless to say, I was flattered and encouraged upon hearing this news.
Well it turns out that Holly is a darn good poet herself! After reading some of her work online, I was struck by one of her poems about yesteryear. It was part historical fiction, part lyrical voyage. I was enticed by the visuals her poetry created – of a life so much different than mine in an area I have visited a dozen times (mostly for rock concerts and college hockey games). I had to read more of these mill life poems!
Holly graciously offered to let us publish 6 of her poems about work struggles and family life in 19th century mill towns of the northeast. Without further ado, here are those poems.
All poems published in River of Bones, Iris Press, Copyright (c) 2015 Holly Guran. Used by permission of the author.
* * *
New at the Boott Cotton Mill, 1836
Two in a bed, four in a room,
my trunk pushed under.
Wherever there’s a vacancy or spare corner
there I must locate with a stranger.
I mind this constant hurry,
wake in the dark to the 4:30 bell
then downstairs where the table’s set
with patterned dishes,
and eat as quickly as I can
while they tease me about my accent—
call me rustic—
they from the farms as I am.
clig clag clig clag clig clag clig clag
a rhythm in 4/4 time
from outside almost musical, inside
the looms are great horses pounding
I’m new, and so spare hand to one
who knows the weaving—
strong warp to the soft weft
interlacing into fabric, the colors
will show, but oh, my ears ring—I pray to hear
this throbbing as music, try to hold hymns
from Sunday—mine and the others’ voices
invisible in the din. We talk in gestures.
From floor to ceiling heat climbs our skin,
steam spray makes us sweat.
The precious threads mustn’t dry
and break—they’ve told me that.
If I make a mistake, the piece
will have to be discarded
and that means less. My parents need
whatever I can send.
At noon the bells toll us to the house
to rush through dinner
then back to toil in the lamp’s dim light
until supper and a weary sit in the parlor.
We scramble for water to wash ourselves
before lights out. The bell tolls, at ten we fall into bed.
Your cup, nearly bone
white, a silent cheek
for the sweet tobacco.
I suck your shank
holding on for dear life
away from that floor
that vibrates beneath my feet
in the room of iron pounding
where I sweat as burning
whale oil clogs my throat.
I keep on lifting.
Behind the boarding house
they don’t care as long
as they can’t see us.
We gather and pass you
one to the other, snip your stem,
each of us receives your pleasure.
Sometimes after the last bell
I go outside and light you,
watch your smoke swirl
up the brick wall past windows,
as though drawing
inside heat to open air.
The moon sprinkles gold
on the mill stream.
I dream a life away from here.
after A New England Girlhood by Lucy Larcom (1824-1893)
My first decided taste: a love
of hymns. Memorizing them
at four, as natural as breathing.
“Ye stars are but the shining dust
of my divine abode.”
The hymns lent me wings.
Father believed the millenium was near.
His last writing in the sick room
computed the date. Once
as he stood praying I was struck
by his pale face, his deep
gaze reflected in the mirror,
and later lifted to a footstool
beside his coffin,
I saw the same look.
Now his words that guided us
are gone. Mother keeps wearing
her lace cap, the one
father loved. She’s rosy-cheeked,
but her face shifts easily
to shadow. Mournful strains
sound in the meeting-house. Outside
the bobolinks, the buttercups,
but inside we hear
this barren land. It seems
our duty to be sorrowful.
To be good, must we be miserable?
I love earth better than heaven,
the air full of hymns,
the sea’s deeper songs
and sister Emilie,
our Scherherzade of story-
tellers. We listen as twilight
becomes moonlight. She toughens
herself sleeping on a hard
sea-chest. Before dawn,
runs white-robed barefoot
to the burying ground.
I dream of father as if
he were here. Mother,
left with eight of us,
prepares dinner downcast.
She misses a full larder.
I sing her my hymns.
From the upper rooms
women walk out.
In the lower rooms
those who discussed strike hesitate.
Should we? then Harriet’s
I don’t care. I’m turning out.
This girl of eleven leads a line
into the street where others stream
from brick mills so much water
bursting the dam
with the weight of heavy looms
and arms lifting.
Young women aging fast
from movements repeated.
Their lines become a river
moving down Amory Street—
all energy, purpose—a fullness
forgets the sore body
in the joy of marching,
remembers how they’d believed
they were in this
with the owners
until the wave struck:
give up wages take a cut but
keep on producing as much
live with five roommates
instead of three
The overseer fired the girl
who urged them to quit,
make a run on the banks.
As she left the office
she waved her bonnet in the air,
a signal to all
watching from the windows—
and they did. They rallied, they resolved:
we will not go back
unless our wages continue
we will not go back
unless they receive us all as one
we will not go back
Daughters of free men
left their places
turning out a line in history—
its length: eight hundred women.
From Farm and Barn to Lowell Mill
a scooter bonnet city way of speaking
a shawl pinned under the chin rustic twang
feet that ache and swell
bare feet stepping light through fields of corn
Passampscot swamp lit by fireflies
city lights twinkling in the gloom girls nearby everywhere
on the farm young siblings waiting to be fed
crimples, ruffs, puffs and farthingales
a plain wool dress
a face brown from sun
cheeks a carmine tint of rouge
larger right hand that stops and starts the loom
a balanced set of hands for milking kneading bread
long hours of free kitchen labor
wages to spend or send home or save meat twice a day
happy thought to be living on no one
Sunday chicken (usually)
three in a bed sixteen to a table eighty in the room of looms
times with no one near smell of hay
lint and whale oil fumes from lamps hanging windows nailed shut
a brook, an arbor of wild grapes, a cool spring near the rocks
lectures, courses, famous speakers lots of sweets plumcakes
not as fresh as in the country
only a few minutes at table
no rush to eat
work tries the patience
to be at home
please, if you would
send a few pots of plants and flowers to the mill for us
because they wrote we know
so many at table only
twenty minutes between bells
food in large bowls
a frantic kind of eating
wanting to leave space in their mouths
for words but the hunger oh
they’d earned this meat standing
since dawn by the looms
breath clogged the heat
of lint moist air
they wanted their lungs to
clear my breath catches
when someone lights a wood fire
they inhaled the foul smell
whale oil lamps burning
through winter the windows shut
we all need breath
to make words
what I’m telling they wrote
grabbed from the weaving from Bibles
they hid from the one who
didn’t survive her long hair
scalped by the machine at night
with stiff hands hacking croup
stubborn to write they held pens
* * *
Holly Guran, author of River of Bones (Iris Press) and the chapbooks River Tracks and Mothers’ Trails earned a Massachusetts Cultural Council award (2012). Publications include Poet Lore, San Pedro River Review, Worcester Review, U.S. 1 Worksheets, Salamander and Borderlands. You can buy her books here.