A Poem for the Laborers:


by Paul Martinez Pompa

That Lucia broke the machine twice in one week was evidence enough. He also offered
this—she’s no longer automatic, her stitches are crooked and once another seamstress
found Lucia’s “lost” sewing patterns in the trash. The security guard half listened as
Lucia gathered her things. Then the manager turned directly to her—what is it with
you? We give you work, put money in your pocket. She put on her best disappointed
face as they escorted her past rows of itchy throats, bowed heads, the refrain of needle
through fabric.

Every day Elena counts pig. A pageant of molded plastic rolling down the conveyor belt.
The task: grab Miss Piggy, pull gown over snout, fasten two tiny buttons, grab another.
With each doll Elena’s hands grow stiffer. Her feet grow heavy as the concrete below.
Dolls spit at her, or maybe this is imagined, but the ache in her legs might be real. The
supervisor brushes against her back when he patrols the floor. After standing for
hours, the room begins to blur. Her mouth opens like an empty wallet as naked dolls
march on.

What will settle in, what will rise from the lungs of girls who still burn weeks after
detox treatment at a local clinic. Speak of headaches, blurred vision, diarrhea. How
they suck air thick with sulfuric acid. Acetone working past unfiltered exhaust systems
and through their livers. Most return to work despite doctors’ orders. Back inside, the
tin roof and their steady perspiration remind them they’re still alive—together one
breathing, burning machine.

Like Celia’s pockets, there’s nothing but lint here. Lint & dead machines. The sound of
layoffs & profit margins. Yesterday this department droned an unsynchronized rhythm
of coughing girls tethered to well-lubed motors. Row after row of pre-asthmatic lungs.
Black hair buried under perpetual white. The decision was made across the border, he
tells them. Nothing I can do about it. Sometimes Celia would imagine the whole place
caught inside a tiny globe. Something she could pick up. Shake.

A perpetual conveyor, he patrols her mouth. The sound of unfiltered white. Breathing
margins. The task: grab Elena’s hands. Pull. Fasten. He also offered crooked patterns.
Put money in her hair. That Lucia broke. Was evidence enough? Molded vision as a
refrain. An empty wallet will rise. Speak. How they exhaust systems. Despite the
blurred other, the ache might be real. Something she could pick up. Across the border,
nothing I can imagine.

(Hat tip to the amazing Working Class Poems blog. The poem is from the 2009 book My Kill Adore Him.)