Excerpt from “Women up North, I Want You to Know” by Tillie Lerner Olsen

Women up north, I want you to know
when you finger the exquisite hand-made dresses
what it means, this working from dawn to midnight,
on what strange feet the feverish dawn must come
to maria, catalina, ambrosa,
how the malignant fingers twitching over the pallid faces jerk
them to work,
and the sun and the fever mount with the day-
long plodding hours, the eyes bum like coals, heat jellies
the flying fingers,
down comes the night like blindness.
long hours more with the dim eye of the lamp, the breaking
weariness crawls in the flesh like worms, gigantic like earth’s
in winter.
And for Catalina Rodriguez comes the night sweat and the blood
embroidering the darkness.
for Catalina Torres the pinched faces of four huddled
the naked bodies of four bony children,
the chant of their chorale of hunger.
And for twenty eight hundred ladies of joy the grotesque act gone
over-the wink-the grimace-the “feeling like it baby?”
And for Maria Vasquez, spinster, emptiness, emptiness,
flaming with dresses for children she can never fondle.
And for Ambrosa Espinoza-the skeleton body of her brother on
his mattress of rags, boring twin holes in the dark with his eyes
to the image of christ, remembering a leg, and twenty five years
cut off from his life by the railroad.

Women up north, I want you to know,
I tell you this can’t last forever.

I swear it won’t.

From: Olsen, Tillie, “I Want You Women up North to Know” in Feminist Studies, Autumn 1981, Vol. 7. No. 3, pp. 367-370.

Date: 1934

By: Tillie Lerner Olsen (1912-2007)

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