I Want You Women Up North To Know

Cary Nelson: On "I Want You Women Up North to Know"

Tillie Olsen, who was then writing under her maiden name Lerner, wrote a poem based on a letter that had been published in the January 9th, 1934, issue of New Masses . . . New Masses published the letter under the heading "Where the Sun Spends the Winter," a version of the slogan adopted by a Texas Chamber of Commerce as the motto for a tourist campaign. The letter describes the impossible lives of four women who survive by hand embroidering children's dresses for a few pennies each. The author of the letter, Felipe Ibarro, may well have been a journalist or a social worker or perhaps simply an activist, so the letter is not the direct testimony of the workers described but reported testimony that is already self-consciously rhetorical. Nonetheless, it offers nonetheless one interesting version of this distinctive 1930s genre. It is worth comparing the opening two paragraphs of the letter with the first three stanzas of the poem. Here is the opening of the letter:

I want the women of New York, Chicago and Boston who buy at Macy's, Wannamaker's, Gimbel's and Marshall Field to know that when they buy embroidered children's dresses labeled `hand made' they are getting dresses made in San Antonio, Texas, by women and girls with trembling fingers and broken backs.

These are bloody facts and I know, because I've spoken to the women who make them. Catalina Rodriguez is a 24-year-old Mexican girl but she looks like 12. She's in the last stages of consumption and works from six in the morning till midnight. She says she never makes more than three dollars a week. I don't wonder any more why in our city with a population of 250,000 the Board of Health has registered 800 professional `daughters of joy' and in addition, about 2,00 Mujeres Alegres (happy women), who are not registered and sell themselves for as little as five cents.

Here are the opening stanzas of the poem:

 

i want you women up north to know

how those dainty children's dresses you buy

    at macy's, wannamaker's, 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.

 

Catalina Rodriguez, 24,

    body shrivelled to a child's at twelve,

catalina rodriguez, last stages of consumption,

    works for three dollars a week from dawn to midnight.

A fog of pain thickens over her skull, the parching heat

    breaks over her body.

and the bright red blood embroiders the floor of her room.

    White rain stitching the night, the bourgeois poet would say,

    white gulls of hands, darting, veering,

    white lightning, threading the clouds,

this is the exquisite dance of her hands over the cloth,

and her cough, gay, quick, staccato,

    like skeleton's bones clattering,

is appropriate accompaniment for the esthetic dance

    of her fingers

and the tremulo, tremulo when the hands tremble with pain.

Three dollars a week,

two fifty-five,

seventy cents a week,

no wonder two thousands eight hundred ladies of joy

are spending the winter with the sun after he goes down . . .

 

Olsen works with Ibarro's letter to draw out its drama and intensify the metaphoric power of the suffering it recounts. The title, "I Want You Women Up North to Know," drawn from the letter, serves as a refrain line that becomes a paradigm for North/South relations and for those who benefit, often indifferently and sometimes in ignorance, from economic exploitation. Olsen uses her own metaphors as well as Ibarro's, but her poem remains nonetheless an inventive extension of the original letter. Keeping true to Ibarro's wish to have women up north understand the economic and social relations that are hidden within the clothing they buy, Olsen adds a passage describing a department store where the children's dresses are sold. Notably, however, the poem's most explicit challenge--a challenge built into the original letter--is not to the businessmen who hire the dressmakers or to the department store owners who sell them but to the consumers who buy them and thus fuel the entire set of transactions. Olsen is not alone in focusing on how ordinary people's actions help sustain economic exploitation--Kenneth Fearing, for example, often satirizes the way people's illusions reinforce the ideology of the market place--but attacks on industrialists were certainly more common during the period.

The primary change from Ibarro's text to Olsen's, as with most poems based on worker correspondence, is the generic shift itself, the move from prose to poetry. This is a shift Olsen embraces, but with uneasiness, as her effort to emulate (and thereby critique) a bourgeois poet's lyrical evocation of Catalina Rodriquez's dying efforts at embroidery suggests: "White rain stitching the night, the bourgeois poet would say, / white gulls of hands, darting." As Constance Coiner points out in her reading of the poem, Olsen moves "abruptly from a parody of traditional lyrical poetry, which, in her view would ignore or distance the reader from the plight of these exploited workers, to prosaically announcing their low wages and their only available alternative for employment, prostitution." But Olsen's poem is itself, as Coiner demonstrates, "at points sensitive to the richness and rhythm of language. The free verse form and the repetition of words and phrases may represent a debt to Whitman, while a bold central metaphor transforms the women into the clothing they embroider—that is, into commodities" (163). Yet Olsen cannot actually cast out the imagined bourgeois poet's literariness without casting out her own as well. She would reject an obfuscating metaphoricity that substitutes fantasies of birds on the wing for hand movements that are actually painful. Yet one could also take the line as celebrating a deft beauty in the midst of suffering. The poem in short puts forward an argumentative dichotomy which the poem itself simultaneously destabilizes and undermines, making the reader examine his or her own relationship to the moral and political implications of figurative language.

Where Coiner and I differ is in how much weight we are finally willing to place on the poem's reflective self-consciousness about language and about the final effect of its unwavering critique of border capitalism. Coiner's conclusion lays out her doubts:

While the text succeeds in its intention to force us to confront the agony and injustice of these garment workers' lives, it is also unsettling because it preempts our emotional and moral responses. It bludgeons us, its exhortatory language announcing a distrust that the reader will respond appropriately to the garment workers' suffering. The language announces itself, too, as "movement" discourse, which in practice turns back on itself rather than to a general audience—that is, the already converted speak to the already converted in the special discourse of converts. Because those who might have been persuaded are, in effect, excluded by this discourse, the poem's intention is undercut (p. 163).

Yet the audience that Olsen has her doubts about—as the poem makes clear—is the audience of consumers. Will upper middle-class consumers stop buying these dresses? Almost certainly not. The expectation that she cannot reach those consumers is built into the poem's adoption of a revolutionary solution. But the revolutionary context of the poem is not so much armed insurrection as it is the more utopian versions of trade unionism at work in the country just as Olsen was writing. As Coiner points out, "as Olsen began her writing career, workers started pouring into the available unions . . . their strength came in sheer numbers, and those numbers came from other workers willing to join the picket in solidarity" (160). The poem urges this sort of solidarity on sympathetic readers, including workers themselves, and does not seek a transformed upper middle class. Whether one admires the results is partly a matter of taste, politics, class identification, and literary training. One may be hailed or alienated by the poem's rhetoric and by the general rhetoric of 1930s revolutionary poetry; in the case of either response, it is not a matter that can be objectively resolved, despite the temptation to turn our preferences into transcendent values . . . .

For all these reasons I find Olsen's poem aesthetically and politically successful. The concise specificity of its account of exploited labor is persuasive and moving. The continuing existence of such sweat shops around the world nearly seventy years later gives the poem continuing and long-term historical relevance. The poem's final homage to the Russian revolution may seem dated but its detailed story of the garment industry is as current as yesterday's news. A single witness's testimony about four women in one 1930s city becomes synecdochic in four senses: these workers become representatives of their class, their suffering becomes emblematic of a whole range of values the culture should either resist or espouse, their time becomes a figure for economic inequities of long duration, and readers now as then are challenged about their complicity in an economic system and urged to reposition themselves within solidarity. The experience of working people thereby becomes a fitting ground for all the ideological investments the culture makes in literariness, particularly in poetry. Finally, to make poetry out of working-class experience, to return to working people their own narratives (or narratives about them) in poetic form, is explicitly to overturn much of the class prejudice inherent in the culture's hierarchical view of aesthetic value.

In all of this Olsen is effectively Ibarro's agent in the domain of literariness. The first person in the title of Olsen's amplifies what she feels we should know. Olsen thus draws out the structural implications of the underpaid work these women do and of the religious faith that helps keep them positioned as they are. Ibarro reports Ambrosa Espinoza's struggle to "pay rent for her shack, pay insurance, support the Catholic Church and feed herself." Olsen intensifies the ironies and adds an explicit anti-religious commentary:

 

but the pennies to keep god incarnate, from ambrosa,

and the pennies to keep the priest in wine, from ambrosa,

ambrosa clothes god and priest with hand-made children's dresses.

 

Olsen also offers a more explicit revolutionary message. Espinoza's crippled brother, who lies "on a mattress of rags" and "dreams of another world" does not quite know that an alternative world "was brought to earth in 1917 in Russia,/ by workers like him." Except for a slight rearrangement of the words in the first line, however, the last stanza (with its revolutionary promise) is quoted directly from Ibarro's letter:

 

Women up north, I want you to know,

I tell you this can't last forever.

 

I swear it won't. 

Susanne Lynch: On "I Want You Women Up North to Know"

"I Want You Women Up North to Know" takes on the authorial voice of one who knows the horror of working in a sweatshop, of being migrant and of being an unvoiced female. To the women up North she introduces four women who, each in their individuality, dies silently as a result of an exploitive capitalism. She presents the women up North as innocent sources of this capitalism. Seduced by the marketing strategies of unconcerned businesses, gullible women buy into the rhetoric that "exquisite work" and "exquisite pleats" make them exquisite women and exquisite mothers.

What is interesting in this poem is that although the speaker attacks the entire system of production and consumption, she restricts her comments strictly to female consumers. I can't help thinking that there is an implicit female cohesion working in the poem that drives the message forward and gives credence to her plea so that it does not fall on deaf ears.

There is something very gendered about each woman described. More than just women who work blindly, mechanically, through the night to the demands of a proprietor's voice, these women, in their individuality, fulfill roles and qualities typically associated with women. There is the delicacy of Catalina Rodriguez, the longing of maria, the motherhood of Calalina Torres, and , of course, the sacrificing protection of Ambrosia. And although the worlds of these women represent something quite different from the worlds of the women up North, I think the recent struggle to gain national voice hints at the possibility of a female solidarity that extends beyond class lines so that "this can't last forever."

As one who has voice, and as one who is obviously able to traverse the lines of class, the speaker understands the level of communication needed to address the women up North. She takes them piecemeal into the world of these working women, moving first through the Macy's, the Gimbles, the Marshall Fields, and gradually diluting the scene of department store extravagance with silly "salesladies trill." Continuing in her dilution, she reveals the "bloated face: so distant from the women's reality, who "order[s] more dresses,/ [and] goug[es] the wages down," until the image finally "dissolve[s] into maria, ambrosa , catalina/ stitching these dresses from dawn to night, in blood, in wasting flesh."

While in the world of Calalina R, of catalina T for that matter, the speaker leaves her cautiously, calculating persona that has guided the Northern women thus far into a world of poverty and abuse they would never have known. Here the Northern women encounter the unveiled reality of dying women unable to voice their pain, their outrage, and their humiliation. The speaker speaks for them in controlled protest with a language that is both caustic and mimetic "This is the exquisite dance of her hands over the cloth and her cough, gay, quick, staccato like skeleton's bones clattering, in appropriate accompaniment fot the esthetic dance of her fingers and the tremolo, tremolo when the hands tremble with pain." Her point here is obvious--how easy it is for us to remove ourselves from another person's reality even when faced with verity. In truth, there is nothing poetic, nothing musical, and nothing aesthetic about catalina's trembling hands. There is nothing artistic about the raveled clothing of Catalina's four children, yet somehow distance speaks for these women with a romanticized eloquence that displaces their pain and turns it into something palatable and saleable.

Through the voice of solidarity, the speaker attempts to educate, and to implore an understanding, not only of the hidden and voiceless women, but of the contributions we make and can make as women subject to the manipulations of male capitalism.

 

Copyright © 2001 by Susanne Lynch

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.

Constance Coiner: On "I Want You Women Up North To Know"

As Olsen began her writing career, workers started pouring into the available unions. New Deal legislation included the National Industrial Recovery Act (1933), and Section 7A guaranteed workers tile right to organize and bargain collectively. "Many workers," James Green observes, felt "the tide of history had finally turned" (even though the NRA was skirted for more often than it was enforced by the establishment of "company" unions and was declared unconstitutional in 1935. Three major strikes of 1934 demonstrated the great potential for working-class militancy. In February, 900 National Guardsmen failed to break a massive picket of 10,000 workers from the community surrounding the Toledo Auto-Lite plant. Significantly, the striking electricians alone could not have defied the Guard. Their strength came in sheer numbers, and those numbers came from other workers willing to join the picket in solidarity. The Maritime Strike on the West Coast, which involved Olsen directly, began in May. And in July, Minneapolis Trotskyists led the teamster strike that inspired Le Sueur's "I Was Marching," closing down the trucking industry and tying up the entire city.

Such was the dramatic setting in which young Tillie Lerner, "fierce for change," was writing. As much as a youthful zealousness and what I term the CP's "official certainty," this expanding unionization and increasing working-class militancy affected her writing. As noted above, Olsen has said of the '30s: "We believed that we were going to change the world." As one might expect, then, Olsen's 1934 publications are more polemical, more akin to orthodox proletarian writing than her more recent writing. Their settings and subjects, for example, are standard for proletarian writing--conditions in a (garment) factory; the murdering of socialists by a fascist regime; an exploited mining community; an arrest of Communist labor organizers; and a strike.

When Olsen was 21 and an active YCL member, her first publication, a poem titled "I Want You Women Up North To Know," appeared in The Partisan (March 1934), a magazine of the West Coast John Reed Club. This poem grew out of a letter to New Masses (9 January 1934) from a Texas woman, Felipe Ibarro, indicting the owners of the Juvenile Manufacturing Corporation who exploited workers--in this case, Chicanas--in the San Antonio garment industry.

Ibarro reports that Catalina Rodriguez, "in the last stages of consumption, works from six in the morning till midnight," never earning more than three dollars a week. Ibarro adds that she no longer wonders "why in our city with a population of 250,000 the Board of Health has registered 800 professional 'daughters of joy' and in addition, about 2000 Mujeres Alegres (happy women), who are not registered and sell themselves for as little as five cents." Ibarro reports that the Chamber of Commerce has dubbed San Antonio "Where Sunshine Spends The Winter" as part of its campaign to compete with Florida and California for tourists. "I don't know whether the tourists came," she adds, but "Capital came and let out the children's dresses for home work."

Olsen's basing her poem on Ibarro's letter locates "I Want You Women Up North to Know" loosely within the genre of workers' correspondence poems (although Ibarro was not herself one of the workers, she knows the "bloody facts" because she had "spoken to the women" workers). The Daily Worker identified Harry Alan Potamkin as the first to use workers' correspondence as a theme for poetry. Gold, another practitioner of this genre, crafted poems from letters sent to the Daily Worker. The correspondence from Ibarro included many specifics--names, ages, wages. Olsen repeats many of these details in her poem.

. . .

Like much reportage, this poem foregrounds fundamental antitheses: the abstract women up north who have the money to shop at "gimbels, marshall fields" versus the particular "maria, ambrosa, catalina," "down in San Antonio," "stitching these dresses from dawn to night, / in blood, in wasting flesh." In the concluding two lines (taken verbatim from the concluding sentences of Ibarro's letter), the poem embodies the "official certainty" characteristic of '30s proletarian literature, while another line describes the Soviet Union as "heaven ... brought to earth in 1917." Like many Party members, Olsen believed in an American socialist future with the buoyancy Lincoln Steffens expressed upon his return from the Soviet Union: "I have seen the future and it works."

In the following passage from the poem Olsen opposes herself to what she terms "the bourgeois poet" by moving abruptly from a parody of traditional lyrical poetry, which in her view would ignore or distance the reader from the plight of these exploited workers, to prosaically announcing their low wages and their only available alternative for employment, prostitution.

. . .

Olsen parodies a long bourgeois tradition of "romanticizing" the worker while displaying the mental agility of the poet. Olsen could easily have had Wordsworth's "The Solitary Reaper" in mind:

Whate'er the theme, the maiden sang

As if her song could have no ending;

I saw her singing at her work,

And o'er the sickle bending;--

I listened, motionless and still;

And, as I mounted up the hill,

The music in my heart I bore,

Long after it was heard no more.

 

Olsen could also have been thinking of the no-less-condescending Yeats poem, "The Lover Tells of the Rose in His Heart":

All things uncomely and broken, all things worn out and old The cry of a child by the roadway, the creak of a lumbering cart, The heavy steps of the ploughman, splashing the wintry mould, Are wronging your image that blossoms a rose in the deeps of my heart.

The wrong of unshapely things is a wrong too great to be told; I hunger to build them anew and sit on a green knoll apart, With the earth and the sky and the water, remade, like a casket of gold For my dreams of your image that blossoms a rose in the deeps of my heart.

These are only two of many such examples from the bourgeois tradition at which Olsen's poem takes aim. An amalgam rather than a blend of poetry and reportage, "I Want You Women Up North to Know," is nevertheless at points sensitive to the richness and rhythm of language. The free verse form and the repetition of words and phrases may represent a debt to Whitman, while a bold central metaphor transforms the women into the clothing they embroider--that is, into commodities.

But the discomfort this poem causes its readers is ambiguous. While the text succeeds in its intention to force us to confront the agony and injustice of these garment workers' lives, it is also unsettling because it preempts our emotional and moral responses. It bludgeons us, its exhortatory language announcing a distrust that the reader will respond appropriately to the garment workers' suffering. The language announces itself, too, as "movement" discourse, which in practice turns back on itself, speaking to itself rather than to a general audience--that is, the already converted speak to the already converted in the special discourse of Converts. Because those who might have been persuaded are, in effect, excluded by this discourse, the poem's intention is undercut.

Even so, in this first publication we already see emerging in Olsen's writing a tendency, which will later become dominant, that competes with her desire for monological authorial and pedagogical control. In this "worker's correspondence" poem, she gives others a voice, straining toward a collective form. The poem is a vehicle for the stories of exploited Chicanas, as Tell Me a Riddle will be permeable to multiple oppressed voices. And in nascent form, "I Want You Women Up North" prefigures Silences' maverick intertextuality. Olsen "yields the floor" Filipe Ibarro's words as she will to dozens of other writers in the later text, and she allows Ibarro's words to conclude the poem, as she will give the "last word" in Silences to Rebecca Harding Davis.