Monday, September 7, 2015

Monday's Poetry: "Shirt"

by Pa Rock
Poetry Appreciator

It is Monday, Labor Day, in the year 2015.  While Labor Day is seen by many as the unofficial end of summer and a grand excuse to barbecue, it represents, in fact, so much more.  Almost every improvement in the lives of American workers over the past century and a half has come about through the direct involvement of labor unions.  (The forty-hour work week, paid sick leave and vacations, worker safety requirements, compulsory education for young people - and so much more.)  Now, sadly, one political party in the United States appears hellbent on rolling back all of those gains and returning workers to the subhuman degradations that they endured back in the dark ages of American manufacturing.

Scott Walker and his union-busting Republican colleagues don't have the intellect or or the common decency to be ashamed of themselves, so it falls upon the rest of us to be ashamed for them.

The following poem by Robert Pinsky references the infamous fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company in 1911 - a tragedy in which over one hundred and forty individuals -mostly women - working in an upper-story sweat shop lost their lives when fire swept through the building.  They were locked in the workroom with no fire escapes - a time that modern Republican politicians regard fondly as "the good old days."

Unions are good things, they represent our humanity.  Republican politicians, as a rule, represent our greed and our lesser selves.  They are not good things.

Always look for the union label - and thank you Bernie Sanders for ensuring that every item in your campaign store is union made.

by Robert Pinsky

The back, the yoke, the yardage. Lapped seams,
The nearly invisible stitches along the collar
Turned in a sweatshop by Koreans or Malaysians

Gossiping over tea and noodles on their break
Or talking money or politics while one fitted
This armpiece with its overseam to the band

Of cuff I button at my wrist. The presser, the cutter,
The wringer, the mangle. The needle, the union,
The treadle, the bobbin. The code. The infamous blaze

At the Triangle Factory in nineteen-eleven.
One hundred and forty-six died in the flames
On the ninth floor, no hydrants, no fire escapes—

The witness in a building across the street
Who watched how a young man helped a girl to step
Up to the windowsill, then held her out

Away from the masonry wall and let her drop.
And then another. As if he were helping them up
To enter a streetcar, and not eternity.

A third before he dropped her put her arms   
Around his neck and kissed him. Then he held
Her into space, and dropped her. Almost at once

He stepped to the sill himself, his jacket flared
And fluttered up from his shirt as he came down,
Air filling up the legs of his gray trousers—

Like Hart Crane’s Bedlamite, “shrill shirt ballooning.”
Wonderful how the pattern matches perfectly
Across the placket and over the twin bar-tacked

Corners of both pockets, like a strict rhyme
Or a major chord.   Prints, plaids, checks,
Houndstooth, Tattersall, Madras. The clan tartans

Invented by mill-owners inspired by the hoax of Ossian,
To control their savage Scottish workers, tamed
By a fabricated heraldry: MacGregor,

Bailey, MacMartin. The kilt, devised for workers
To wear among the dusty clattering looms.
Weavers, carders, spinners. The loader,

The docker, the navvy. The planter, the picker, the sorter
Sweating at her machine in a litter of cotton
As slaves in calico headrags sweated in fields:

George Herbert, your descendant is a Black
Lady in South Carolina, her name is Irma
And she inspected my shirt. Its color and fit

And feel and its clean smell have satisfied
Both her and me. We have culled its cost and quality
Down to the buttons of simulated bone,

The buttonholes, the sizing, the facing, the characters
Printed in black on neckband and tail. The shape,

The label, the labor, the color, the shade. The shirt.

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