The Buttonhook

Mary Jo Salter - 1954-
President Roosevelt, touring Ellis Island
in 1906, watched the people from steerage
line up for their six-second physical.

Might not, he wondered aloud, the ungloved handling 
of aliens who were ill infect the healthy?
Yet for years more it was done. I imagine

my grandmother, a girl in that Great Hall’s
polyglot, reverberating vault
more terrible than church, dazed by the stars

and stripes in the vast banner up in front
where the blessed ones had passed through. Then she did too,
to a room like a little chapel, where her mother 

might take Communion. A man in a blue cap
and a blue uniform—a doctor? a policeman?
(Papa would have known, but he had sailed

all alone before them and was waiting 
now in New York; yet wasn’t this New York?)—
a man in a blue cap reached for her mother. 

Without a word (didn’t he speak Italian?)  
he stuck one finger into her mother’s eye,
then turned its lid up with a buttonhook,

the long, curved thing for doing up your boots
when buttons were too many or too small.
You couldn’t be American if you were blind

or going to be blind. That much she understood.
She’d go to school, she’d learn to read and write
and teach her parents. The eye man reached to touch

her own face next; she figured she was ready.
She felt big, like that woman in the sea
holding up not a buttonhook but a torch.

Related Poems

Catawba Cotton Mill, 1908

Propping his tripod, Hine remembers
     Childhood snowfall in Wisconsin,
            Flakes careening in prairie wind,

A red sleigh skimming a frozen lake,
     Curlicued breath-mist of two dappled drays.
            But this is a blizzard of cotton dust

From the looms & thirty thousand spindles,
     Gauze-air, whirlwind of innumerable floaters.
            The thermometer reads one hundred & three.

& for these seven ten-year-olds, childhood
     Is six ten-hour shifts & on the seventh day
            They rest, heads nodding over hymnbooks,

The drone of temperance & hellfire.
     But this is din, not drone, the spindles’
            Manic prayer wheels, the doffers

& the “little piecers,” skittering on hand & knee
     Beneath the clatter of the looms,
            Patrolling for clumps of cotton waste.

This is weaver’s cough and “mattress maker’s fever,”
     The mad percussive shivaree & glossolalia.
            But then, for this moment, it ceases.

The foremen have gathered their doffers
     & stilled the looms & spindles—
            Six boys, a lone girl. The foreman

Adjusts his derby, pointing them toward
     the cyclop-eye: Hine’s 5 x 7. They are ordered
            To look solemn, as if they could look

otherwise. Pulled slide, the flash pan
     Dusted with power, the sizzle as the room
            Erupts in light. Where the punctum?

Where the studium? To end your life
     At twenty-five or thirty. Missing fingers,
            Mangled hands, to walk somnambulant

To a sullen dormitory bunk, picking
     Cotton shavings from your hair,
          Mattress ticking spat onto a rude pine floor.

But Hine has set his flashpan in its case,
     Broken down his tripod. Fiat Lux.
            Hine gathers his work & faintly smiles

Adjusting his bowler & making a fist, as if
     To attest that in this foul rag & sweatshop,
            In this charnel house of ceaseless

Motion, his lens might render
     One fugitive instant of dignity. Light
            Is required, wrote Hine, light in floods.