by Linda Lenzke
This narrative poem is a departure from the memoir-based prose you typically publish. I’m discovering that my recent poetry is taking on a a more prose-like narrative style. It was written in response to a prompt from my LGBTQ Narrative Writers Group from a paper by Audre Lorde. A secondary, influencing factor was the recent centennial of the 1911 New York Triangle Shirtwaist Factory tragic workplace fire which killed hundreds of people, mostly women, and led to union organizing by the women workers throughout New York City, including modernization of the state’s labor laws, better oversight of workplaces by the fire department, and a stronger and more unified International Ladies Garment Workers Union.
In the early 1970’s, I was a textile worker in Kenosha, Wisconsin, employed at Jockey, International. I worked in the “lay-up” department, inspecting yards of material, laying it up so that patterns could be powdered and the components of the garments cut out, bundled and sent to the sewing department. The poem was inspired by a woman from the sewing department. In the poem she’s named Maria, but for the years I worked there she was truly anonymous, yet I admired her from afar. The excerpt below is the part of Lorde’s paper that made me remember “Maria.” I dedicate, “Maria from the Sewing Room” to her.
Maria from the sewing room
keeps to herself.
She doesn’t take the concrete stairs
three floors down and back
to eat the daily lunch specials
the Polish and Italian matrons
make each day in the steaming basement kitchen.
Instead she brings her sack lunch,
the Kraft paper bag, reused so many times
it looks like the stained, wrinkled skin of my great grandmother.
Maria retreats to the ladies room,
laid out like a two room suite,
with torn naugahyde love seats and chairs with
rusted steel tubing arms and legs
interspersed with ash tray pedestals with squeaking metal levered doors
that collect the cigarette butts we discard.
This is a textile mill. An ancient cream city brick building
with creaking wood floors in Kenosha, Wisconsin.
We’re only allowed to smoke in the bathroom
during toilet breaks and lunch.
It’s a union-negotiated agreement.
Some days static electricity alone
causes the fabric dust in the air to ignite
like lightning bugs on a summer night.
A wall of porcelain sinks and mirror face the chairs
under the buzzing fluorescent lights.
The second room houses a row
of institutional green, painted wooden stalls
housing toilets with black horseshoe-shaped seats.
The stalls have inked messages and carved initials.
Some recently painted over, others freshly engraved.
Maria sits in one of the chairs and reaches inside the bag
to retrieve her lunch, two corn tortillas, a tomato,
a glass salt shaker and a peach placing them in her lap.
Her hand dives deeper into the bag
retrieving square paper napkins and a pen.
She crosses her legs, carefully capturing her lunch
in the space in between as she places the napkin
on her knee and begins writing.
Earlier that day I saw her waving shears in one hand
and shaking a spool of thread in another yelling in Spanish
as she argued with the lone sewing machine maintenance man
in his cowboy boots and pegged jeans
who wears his tool belt low like a gun holster
and swaggers between the rows of operators.
He has his girlfriends whose machines are
lubricated and hum like streamlined engines.
We suspect he exchanges favors.
Each sewing machine operator earns a base rate plus piece work.
He refuses to fix Maria’s machine; she spurns his advances,
so she brings her own tools and when he’s not looking
repairs and tunes her machine until it hums and whirs.
I ask her what she’s writing. She tells me, letters to her husband
working the cabbage harvest and living with the other migrants.
She says sometimes she writes poems to her children
so they are reminded there is beauty in the songs of birds
and that God lives in the crocuses in Spring.
I smoke my last cigarette until it reaches the filter
and leave the bathroom without telling Maria
how much I admire her as she folds the napkins,
returning them to the bag and her teeth bite into the peach
as juice runs down her face like tears.
Image of Triangle Shirtwaist Factory from Cornell University website