Poem: Catawba Cotton Mill, 1908 by David Wojahn

Poem: Catawba Cotton Mill, 1908 by David Wojahn


Hello, I’m David Wojahn and the title of
this poem is “Catawba Cotton Mill, 1908”. It’s after a photo taken that year by Lewis
Hine. 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 flashpan 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 moment of dignity. Light Is required, wrote Hine, light in floods.

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