In the past few days I’ve read Stealing Dust, a book of poems by Karen J. Weyant, and These Shining Lives, a play by Melanie Marnich. Both are about working people, factory life, and the families of people who work hard for a living, and both focus on working women.
Stealing Dust is set in the steel and paper mills, factories, and coal mines of small town Pennsylvania. These Shining Lives are the lives of women working at the Radium Dial company in Ottawa, Illinois, who literally glowed, alas, and got sick from radium poisoning and cancer.
I have seen Radium City, a documentary by Carole Langer, so I know that particular story is sad and gets worse. The play by Melanie Marnich tells the truth in a creative-nonfiction-docudrama kind of way, and is poignant with an uplift connected to the bravery of women standing up to the company with a lawsuit.
Weyant’s poems tell the truth about small town life, its joys and disappointments, yearnings and mistakes. And factory dust! While the canaries-in-the-mines are here, and open-eyed awareness of the ill effects of industrial pollution, I get the strong feeling that most of these people will make it through their hardworking lives, while the “radium girls” mostly did not.
Radium girls used to put the paintbrush in their mouths to make it come to a fine point for painting the numbers on Westclox alarm clocks and wristwatches that would glow in the dark.
Sometimes the radium girls painted their nails with this radioactive paint.
In Stealing Dust, it’s useless to put on red lipstick (in “Makeup at Midnight”) because nobody cares, nobody notices. The men in the factory are concentrated on the machines, the quotas, the end of the shift. In “Beauty Tips from the Girls on 3rd Shift,” we learn that “Brillo pads will get rid of most of the dirt on your hands.” And…
Wear red polish. The color hides dark stains and dirt,
especially grime that gets pushed back where hard nail
meets soft skin, that place a metal file can’t find.
These Shining Lives specifies in the cast list that “everyone is in their mid- to late twenties,” because so many of the radium girls died young. Ottawa is still troubled by radioactivity, affecting kids, grownups, pets, and wildlife.
Stealing Dust concerns itself with mill towns people want to leave and livelihoods people must keep. (The need to making a living is also what kept people in Ottawa, still working with radium-based paint when the plant re-opened as Luminous Processes.) “The Youngest Girl on 3rd Shift” is a naïve 18-year-old who has to work on “press number 69” and doesn’t get the sex joke. “The Oldest Woman on 3rd Shift” has arthritis in her hands “and her legs are bent, like a child with rickets,” but she “can still load three furnaces at once…[and] still flirts with Mike, / the head machinist, by stealing his cigarettes.”
I praise works of literature like these that help me know about and care about the people, working hard, often in good faith, trying hard to make a living. Both Weyant and Marnich give us gritty truths about luminous women, and we always need this kind of wake up call.
For new poems by Karen J. Weyant, see her feature up today at Escape Into Life! With images by Pennsylvania photographer Mark Cohen, who says his photos are “not easy pictures. But I guess that’s why they’re mine.”