Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Stealing Dust, Shining Lives

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.”


Maureen said...

Great posts here and at EIL. I've put Weyant on my list. Wonderful work!

Kathleen said...

Glad to hear that, Maureen! Thanks!

Hannah Stephenson said...

Thank you for sharing these important works, Kathleen.

Karen J. Weyant said...

Thanks so much for the kind mention of Stealing Dust!

Kathleen said...

Loved the book, Karen! And the EIL poems really get to me, too. The missing girl, the present girls, the silly boys...!

Hannah, after reading These Shining Lives, 1) I want to direct it and 2) I realize it was done in Chicago by a wonderful theatre company in a building that used to be a grocery store in my old neighborhood! Making it a sort of Random Coinciday in the blog again!

Sandy Longhorn said...

I 'heart' Karen Weyant! So glad to see her on EIL and with such awesome art. Great post here, Kathleen. Those radium girls give me the shivers.

JulieK said...

The only production of "These Shining Lives" I've seen was a shortened version for the high school play competition last March. Reavis High School won state with a lovely production of the play that was both simple and, well, luminous. I'd love to see you direct it here! I didn't notice that it specified all the women to be in their 20s. It makes sense for the main one (Catherine?) but the others who'd been there longer, not so necessary. Like the Oldest Woman on 3rd Shift. Her story moved you, too.

Kathleen said...

Julie, I had the impression, reading, that some of the women might be older...starting their working lives later. But I imagine part of the poignancy is imagining these young lives gone. If I were directing it, I'd need to re-read a lot and strike a balance!

Looks like the world premier in DC was called a one-act, so maybe there is a shorter version quite ready! Or maybe the running time of this full-length version is pretty short.... Rivendell did it in Chicago.

Sandy, thanks! I was delighted to read these new poems by Karen Weyant--and it was hard to choose from the wonderful ones she sent me. So I grouped these prose poems with a list poem!

Kathleen said...

And I would just like to say that, in the "Now" stats of this blog this morning, Karen Weyant is even more popular than a hedgehog!!

Anonymous said...

i loved weyant's book as well! kathleen, this is a wonderful post- the sort that makes me ache.

sherry o'keefe

Kathleen said...

Yes, I ache, too, Sherry. So did the radium girls, down to their bones. So do hard-working people.

Collagemama said...

Radium girls showed up in Jed Rubenfeld's "Death Instinct" too.

Jayne said...

Kathleen- so glad you shared this. I grew up in an old New England city of textile mills. My grandparents were immigrants and mill workers, and this is just the sort of collection of poems I'd love to peruse.

Thank you! :)

Kristin Berkey-Abbott said...

Wow, poetry beating out hedgehogs! Hurrah.

I love your post here, and I love Karen's poems. Her chapbook is one of my favorites--it reminds me of all sorts of relatives--both mine and my husband's. I went to a liberal arts college in South Carolina in the waning day's of industrial technology in that state--the cotton mills were closing, and the state's economy seemed in freefall.

Of course, now the technology has shifted to car plants--but I digress.

I also wanted to make sure I told you how much I appreciate your pairings of photos and poems at "Escape into Life." You do amazing work!

Kathleen said...

Thanks to all! So glad to hear there is so much appreciate for the poetry and literature of WORK! And poetry itself is hard work, of a different sort, but, er, I do have a writer's callus!