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Poem: Catawba Cotton Mill, 1908 by David Wojahn

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.

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.

Copyright © 2014 by David Wojahn. Used with permission of the author.

David Wojahn

David Wojahn

Born in St. Paul, Minnesota, on August 22, 1953, David Wojahn was educated at the University of Minnesota and the University of Arizona.

by this poet

poem
. . . 

& 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
poem

—author of the earliest known signature

That arrow & life were homonyms. That his name
       Predates all others, incised sunbaked on a slab
              Of Eupratian clay. Stylus a broken reed, though it

Carries somehow the bedazzled opalescent mojo
     Of

poem

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

collected in

collection
To celebrate American Archives Month in October we collaborated with t...