Catawba Cotton Mill, 1908

David Wojahn - 1953-

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.

More by David Wojahn

Spirit Cabinet [excerpt]

. . . 

& how, o spirits, shall I invoke you, who cannot count himself
    among the chosen?
My writings & keenings are interior & treated by appropriate
    prescription drugs,

to whom my conversion is incomplete, for some days I devote myself
    solely to my dead
& in my error I do seek them & do wail. From the wire mesh
    I glimpse the chalk marks,

aflicker on a kind of slate. Here is the glyph of patchouli-smell,
    graven on a scarf
or silken dress. & here the character for a chin nicked while shaving,
    stubble edging a dime-sized birthmark,

. . . 

Sawdust

Coming always from below, blade wail & its pungency

          *

laddering up toward my childhood room, my nostrils

          *

sick-sweet with it. Below he worked his grave machines,

          *

tintinnabulous their whirr & snarl.

          *

His face in sawdust spray: sweat beads

          *

nacreous & a pollen lather, canary yellow.

          *

Resinous the wood where he’s entombed.

          *

Resinous the wood, who rises spectra

          *

this morning with the saber saws, churning the house

          *

they’re building down the street below my study,

          *

latticework beams. Sawdust visage flaring, ceremonial mask

          *

lifted down from the ill-lit gallery

          *

& placed by him upon my face. Eye-slits for sight,

          *

bright gash for speech, two raw nail holes for scent.

Related Poems

The Buttonhook

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.