February 4, 2016

Holly Guran’s “19th Century Mill Life” Poetry

Holly Guran’s “19th Century Mill Life” Poetry

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.


Clay Pipe


Your cup, nearly bone

white, a silent cheek

for the sweet tobacco.

I suck your shank

inhaling relief

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.


Losing Father


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.



Turn-Out, 1834


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

suddenly weak

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—

follow me


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



Night Writers


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.

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  • Charlie says:

    Hey, beautiful work! Curious history interns want to know: what was a “scooter bonnet”, what did it look like and do you have a source that covers them? Cheers!

    • Susi Bocks says:

      Hi Charlie!
      We agree with you. As to your question, unfortunately, do not know the answer to that. I would refer you to Holly Guran’s website. In case she doesn’t see your question here, please contact her directly. https://poetry-holly-guran.vpweb.com/
      Cheers to you as well!

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