Home Poetry Three poems by Julia Stein

Three poems by Julia Stein

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Women of Valor

Her featherbeds she gave her
daughter leaving for America.
She poured into new textile mills
and sewing factories still spinning
dreams of justice fourteen hours
at her loom at her sewing machine,
sang for bread and roses on a picket line,
filled the paddy wagons and jails,
jumped out of a sweatshop on fire
arm in arm with her best friend
gave speeches on a wagon in the ghettos
for suffrage for her laboring sisters.
Her name was Clara in 1909
firebrand at the shirtwaist strike,
Rosie mourning in her speech the
Triangle Fire deaths in 1911,
Sara leading garment workers out
the doors onto the picket line in 1925,
the Common Threads women handing out
leaflets to stop sweatshops outside the
big beige whale of a shopping mall in 1996.
She sat down against sweatshops
in the streets of Seattle in 1999,
weaving a web of justice to entangle
all the whole world’s sweatshops
sewing a blanket to cover the globe.
Give her the fruit of her hands
and sing her praises
she is a woman of valor.

Clara Lemlich- young Yiddish speaking garment worker whose fiery speech initiated the 1909 shirtwaist strike in New York City.
Rosie Schneiderman- garment union organizer who spoke out against the Triangle Fire deaths in 1911.
Sara Plotkin- my aunt who was a garment union organizer in New York City in the late 1920s.
Common Threads- anti-sweatshop women’s group in Los Angeles in 1995-1996 that picketed the Beverly Center shopping mall among other actions and was sued by Guest Jeans and Defeated Guess.

 

The Fire Pit of Kilauea

 

When endless threats to my job made me boil,
I fled to Hawaii, drove up to Kilauea Volcano,
home of the goddess Pele, stood at the lip of the

volcano, followed black cairns through the mist shrouded
cauldron to the hot spot where boiling steam
pours out of the earth–see, Pele is angry today.

Long ago bandits killed all the men in Pele’s village.
She and her family fled to a cave in the mountains,
stacked mounds of rocks to block the opening.

The bandits tried to move the rocks, felt the earth
shake, sulfur fumes flooded down the mountains,
a wave of lava poured down the narrow gorge,

its crest aflame with timbers, boulders in front.
The bandits fled; Pele started to live in the fire pit,
spit out lava which crumbles into rich black earth.

I tell you the earth grows and I wanted to learn from Pele
how to turn fiery rage into  new land, listened to
the goddess to learn the secrets she whispers in the mist.

 

On a Sunday: A Depression Ballad

On a Sunday in 1932 Aunt Sara visited
my grandparents, saw starving miners and
steelworkers in Carnegie walking
on hunger marches, their leaders in jail,
In New York she’d been arrested too many times.
Her union couldn’t bail her out anymore.

On a Sunday she met with the men who didn’t
want a woman organizer, convinced them
to give a woman a chance,  sent out a Blackie
to collect nickels and dimes from the miners
and steelworkers in the company towns.
He walked miles until he got $45.

On a Sunday she rode out from Pittsburgh
to church in a company town to fool the guards.
Five people slipped out with her for a secret
meeting. They put potato sacks over the windows.
Every time a dog barked they stopped, silent.
She walked all over the coalfields.

On a Sunday she called out the unemployed to
to stand up and demonstrate at New Kensington
where 60,000people in a tidal wave washed over
Union Square, asking welfare for a dollar in cash,
milk and  food. The welfare gave them food and
even gave them all a dollar the first time.

On a Sunday when Aunt Sara ate with
her family she couldn’t eat the baked beans
and potatoes fried in lard they prepared lovingly
She vomited and lost weight. The doctor said
she had an ulcer and needed milk. She had to
say goodbye and returned to New York to get milk.

She lived to tell this tale to me as I tell it to you.
I know after Aunt Sara left another woman walker
set out across America.

 

Artists Statement

My poetry deals with empowerment of women in myth and in life, particularly working class women.

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Stein has edited "Walking Through a River of Fire: 100 Years of Triangle Factory Fire Poetry." From her first book "Under the Ladder to Heaven" (1984) about immigrant women to her poetry about Iraqi and Afghan women in her book "What Were They Like?", Stein's poetry deals with abortion, war, peace, women's lives, and work. She is also co-author of the prose work "Shooting Women: Behind the Camera, Around the World" (Intellect Press, 2015).

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