Elaine Neil Orr: On "I Want You Women Up North To Know"

In her first published poem, "I Want You Women Up North to Know," Olsen transforms history into poetry, and in so doing amplifies rather than romanticizes the debilitating effects of mass production upon the laborer. The poem depicts a mechanistic and capitalistic world in which the lives of many are sacrificed to a few. In the poem, women's flesh and blood are substitutes for thread and dye:

i want you women up north to know how those dainty children's dresses you buy     at macy's, wannamakers, gimbels, marshall fields, are dyed in blood, are stitched in wasting flesh, down in San Antonio, "where sunshine spends the winter."

I want you women up north to see the obsequious smile, the salesladies trill     "exquisite work, madame, exquisite pleats" vanish into a bloated face, ordering more dresses,     gouging the wages down, dissolve into maria, ambrosa, catalina,     stitching these dresses from dawn to night,     in blood, in wasting flesh.

The poem invites a Marxist reading. The dresses illustrate alienated labor, since the mothers' work is not for their own children but for the mothers and daughters of the north, who in actuality purchase the time and lifeblood of the mothers down south. The radical depersonalization of capitalistic work suggested by Marx is clearly evident further in the poem. "Maria, ambrosa, catalina"--workers--are the same woman, the same hands, fingers, the same labor, ultimately the same product. Like "Catalina Rodriguez, 24,/ ... / last stages of consumption," they weave their own deaths. Their value is slight and arbitrarily set: "Three dollars a week,/ two fifty-five,/ seventy cents a week."

The poem was based on a letter by a worker, Felipe Ibarro, appearing in New Masses (9 January 1934). Thus, Olsen's voice draws from the many women who experience such debilitating work, through the voice of Ibarro, finally becoming the authorial "I" that opens the poetic address: "I want you women up north to know." The voice becomes a force of solidarity seeking to uphold the women whose work destroys them. Fused in Olsen's representational "I," the multiple experiences of the women stand against the unraveling, dehumanizing and finally, deadly work created by a capitalistic market. Paradoxically, the voice seems to gain strength as the poem progresses even though the story of overwork told by the voice reveals greater and greater horrors. Unfortunately, perhaps, the voice adopts the declarative mode at the end: "... I want you to know,/ I tell you this can't last forever./ I swear it won't." More powerful than the threat is the authorial "I" developed in the poem as a plural voice of many women brought to written expression. This most unabashedly political voice, then, already points to the narrative perspective Olsen will develop in the more subtle art of telling stories from a perspective within the literary world of the work.

Twenty-one or twenty-two when she wrote this poem, Olsen takes a critical stance toward the religion that appears to rob "Ambrosa Espinoza." She gives her pennies to the church, "to keep the priest in wine," "to keep [her] god incarnate." Given Espinoza's world, the criticism does not seem naive, but in retrospect the authorial insertion later in the poem--heaven "was brought to earth in 1917 in Russia"--does. What the poem suggests in our discussion is a redefinition of true morality, hence, of true spirituality, which begins in connection with people's actual circumstances.

The second poem, "There Is a Lesson," is another poetizing of politics, this time European. The poem is preceded by a newspaper excerpt:

"All Austrian schools, meanwhile, were closed for an indefinite period under a government decree issued to keep children off the hazardous streets" (15 February 1934, San Francisco Chronicle).

The poem follows immediately:

Keep the children off the streets,     Dollfuss, there is an alphabet written in blood     for them to learn, there is a lesson thundered by collapsed     books of bodies.

They might be riddled by the bullets     of knowledge . . . there is a volume written with three     thousand bodies that can never     be hidden, there is a sentence spelled by the     grim faces of bereaved women there is a message, inescapable, that     vibrates the air with voices of     heroes.

In the earlier poem, two materials coalesce; bodies and cloth. Here the bodies weave a message of revolt against fascism. The poem seems to indicate the dire but necessary costs of revolution. Yet the vision is ambiguous, for the images, like those of the earlier poem, are haunting: "riddled by ... bullets," "grim faces of bereaved women," "deadly gas of revolution." The men's bodies stack in metonymic similarity, while the faces of the women, an image we will see again in Yonnondio, elicit the archetypal image of grieving woman.

The central transformation of the poem is the creation of language, and therefore, of a message, out of death and violence. Blood makes an alphabet; bodies are texts that tell of terror; faces of mourning write a sentence.

Details

Criticism Overview
Title Elaine Neil Orr: On "I Want You Women Up North To Know" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Elaine Neil Orr Criticism Target Tillie Lerner Olsen
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 27 May 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Tillie Olsen and a Feminist Spiritual Vision
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