May Day: Poetry for the Workers

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Mural in Santa Mesa, Philippines

May 1st is International Workers’ Day, a symbolic day to commemorate, celebrate and continue the struggles of workers around the world. Currently, it is celebrated in 80 countries including Nigeria, Egypt, India and Chile, and it is also celebrated widely in the Philippines where a labor group has named themselves Kilusang Mayo Uno (May 1st Labor Movement).

It is not, however, an official holiday in the United States. In fact, Labor Day was moved to September prompting many to call the move a whitewashing. Unbeknownst to many is how the commemoration of the Haymarket Square Riot in Chicago back in 1886 is also central to May 1st:

On May 4, 1886, a labor protest rally near Chicago’s Haymarket Square turned into a riot after someone threw a bomb at police. At least eight people died as a result of the violence that day. Despite a lack of evidence against them, eight radical labor activists were convicted in connection with the bombing. The Haymarket Riot was viewed a setback for the organized labor movement in America, which was fighting for such rights as the eight-hour workday. At the same time, the men convicted in connection with the riot were viewed by many in the labor movement as martyrs. (Source: History.com)

To celebrate and commemorate the rich history of workers who have paved the way for humane working conditions, and for those who are still continuing the struggle, I’ve compiled some poems which offer depth, racial history and perspective of workers then and now.

* * *

The first poem is from a Marxist collection of poetry, an anthology published for The Workers Party of America. I’ve never heard of this party before, although a quick search on Google shows that it was the “legal organization for the Communist Party of the USA.” Communist or not, the collection of poems stirs the reader, evokes strength as they “center upon the life, struggles and revolutionary movement of the working class.”

We Have Fed You All For a Thousand Years
Poem—By an Unknown Proletarian

We have fed you all, for a thousand years
And you hail us still unfed,
Though there’s never a dollar of all your wealth
But marks the worker’s dead.
We have yielded our best to give you rest
And you lie on crimson wool.
Then if blood be the price of all your wealth,
Good God! We have paid it in full.

The next poem is by the Black poet Langston Hughes, a Harlem Renaissance figure whose work I’ve come to love. Although his work was deemed by many as controversial, the grit of his poems on workers has contributed to a body of literature that is often missing. He states that his poetry is for “workers, roustabouts, and singers, and job hunters on Lenox Avenue in New York, or Seventh Street in Washington or South State in Chicago—people up today and down tomorrow, working this week and fired the next, beaten and baffled, but determined not to be wholly beaten, buying furniture on the installment plan, filling the house with roomers to help pay the rent, hoping to get a new suit for Easter—and pawning that suit before the Fourth of July.

Open Letter to the South
Langston Hughes

White workers of the South
Miners,
Farmers,
Mechanics,
Mill Hands,
Shop girls,
Railway men,
Servants,
Tobacco workers,
Sharecroppers,
GREETINGS!

I am the black worker,
Listen:
That the land might be ours,
And the mines and the factories and the office towers
At Harlan, Richmond, Gastonia, Atlanta, New Orleans;
That the plants and the roads and the tools of power.

The next poem I chose is written by Joseph O. Legaspi, a poet born in the Philippines who migrated to Los Angeles when he was 12. As a Filipino myself, I found this poem of his — its details vivid, its theme familiar — an ode not just for his own mother, but for many immigrant mothers.

The Red Sweater
Joseph O. Legaspi

slides down into my body, soft
lambs wool, what everybody
in school is wearing, and for me
to have it my mother worked twenty
hours at the fast-food joint.
The sweater fits like a lover,
sleeves snug, thin on the waist.
As I run my fingers through the knit,
I see my mother over the hot oil in the fryers
dipping a strainer full of stringed potatoes.
In a twenty hour period my mother waits
on hundreds of customers: she pushes
each order under ninety seconds, slaps
the refried beans she mashed during prep time,
the lull before rush hours, onto steamed tortillas,
the room’s pressing heat melting her make-up.
Every clean strand of weave becomes a question.
How many burritos can one make in a continuous day?
How many pounds of onions, lettuce and tomatoes
pass through the slicer? How do her wrists
sustain the scraping, lifting and flipping
of meat patties?           And twenty

hours are merely links
in the chain of days startlingly similar,
that begin in the blue morning with my mother
putting on her polyester uniform, which,
even when it’s newly-washed, smells
of mashed beans and cooked ground beef.

The final poem featured tells the unfortunate and haunting story of Xu Lizhi, a Chinese factory worker who committed suicide. Lizhi moved from a Chinese province to the city where he worked at Foxconn, the company that manufactures iPhones. The Washington Post states that his poems are “a wrenching echo of the alienation and hardship felt by countless people in modern China and, for that matter, in other parts of the developing world. They lament the grinding ennui of the assembly line, the squalor of a migrant worker’s narrow, frustrated existence.”

(Untitled)
Xu Lizhi

I swallowed a moon made of iron
They refer to it as a nail
I swallowed this industrial sewage, these unemployment documents
Youth stooped at machines die before their time
I swallowed the hustle and the destitution
Swallowed pedestrian bridges, life covered in rust
I can’t swallow any more
All that I’ve swallowed is now gushing out of my throat
Unfurling on the land of my ancestors
Into a disgraceful poem.

* * *

Together, these poems weave a historical and contemporary narrative of workers that has continued to transcend borders. Buried by the current political rhetoric and ignored by the loudest media mouthpieces of our time, it is ever more important to pay tribute to their struggles. To honor the workers who have tried to shift the shape of an unjust world for many, for those of us who were raised and taught by their calloused hands, we breathe in their history, and remember their beauty through poetry.

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