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.
Copyright © 2014 by David Wojahn. Used with permission of the author.
About this Poem
This poem was commissioned for We the Poets, a collaborative project with the National Archives and the Academy of American Poets to celebrate American Archives Month in October 2014. To read more about the project and to view related photographs and documents from the National Archives, visit the Prologue: Pieces of History blog.
Born in St. Paul, Minnesota, on August 22, 1953, David Wojahn was educated at the University of Minnesota and the University of Arizona.
His collections of poetry include Icehouse Lights, chosen by Richard Hugo as a winner of the Yale Series of Younger Poets prize in 1982; Glassworks (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1987); Mystery Train (1990); Late Empire (1994); The Falling Hour (1997) and Spirit Cabinet (2002). Interrogation Palace: New and Selected Poems 1982-2004 (2006), was a named finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and was the winner of the O.B. Hardison Award from the Folger Shakespeare Library. Wojahn's most recent collection World Tree (2011) was the recipient of the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize from the Academy of American Poets.
Of Wojahn's winning book, Linda Gregerson said, "David Wojahn's World Tree is a book of consummate vision and artistry. Exquisitely cadenced, politically astute, large of heart, and keen of mind, these are poems of extraordinary moral penetration. They are also a joy to read: David Wojahn is working at the height of his powers."
Wojahn is also the author of a collection of essays on contemporary poetry, Strange Good Fortune (University of Arkansas Press, 2001), editor (with Jack Myers) of A Profile of 20th Century American Poetry (Southern Illinois University Press, 1991), and editor of two posthumous collections of Lynda Hull's poetry, The Only World (HarperCollins, 1995) and Collected Poems (Graywolf, 2006).
His awards include fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, the Virginia, Illinois, and Indiana Councils for the Arts, and an Amy Lowell Traveling Poetry Scholarship.
He is presently professor of English at Virginia Commonwealth University, and is also a member of the program faculty of the MFA in Writing Program of Vermont College of the Fine Arts.
Date Published: 2014-10-22
Source URL: https://poets.org/poem/catawba-cotton-mill-1908