Click through to sign up for the National Poetry Month giveaway! A special thank you to Kathryn Burak for donating the Emily Dickinson tote bag.
My mother was a sleever.
This, to me, was not poetic. It was factory talk: Sleevers were a part of the production line in the dress factories where she worked. Her job was to sew the sleeves onto the dresses after the bodice was formed and before the collars were put in place. Since, in factories, you take on the name of your place in a manufacturing process, from 6:30 am to 3:00 pm each day my mother took on the identity of sleever. But, other times, like on financial aid forms and documents that asked her profession, she got to write seamstress. That term was the one I preferred for her. It was ladylike and professional. She was a craftswoman, a seamstress.
When I was very young, before I knew the name Emily Dickinson, my mother used to look at me and say, “I’m nobody. Are you nobody, too? Then there’s a pair of us. Don’t tell. They’d banish us, you know.” Aside from nursery rhymes and prayers, this was the first poem I remember. I found it easy enough to accept being nobodies—as long as I could be one with my mom–but it frightened me—the idea of my mother and me being banished, and most of all, having to keep our identities a secret.
She must have learned the poem in school. Because I know something about her, I can imagine how that poem seized her in all possible ways, how it would have spoken directly to her and about her, and kept speaking to her after high school graduation and her years working in factories. I’d like to think that if my mother had lived in another time, in a less geographically isolated place, among other circumstances, that she would have gravitated toward (and found) poetry that would have spoken to her and about her in many ways. But she spent her whole life in a town, on a hilltop in the Appalachians, that had no public library—just four bars, a coal mine, and a dress factory. How could someone like that ever be a part of the world of poetry?
I remember another poem—another first one—and it just happens to also involve my mother. When I was in elementary school, besides the Tuesdays the bookmobile would come to school, I loved the monthly Scholastic flyers more than anything. My mother liked them, too, and she and I would carefully pore over each selection. Though we didn’t have a lot of spare money, as far as my mother was concerned, the sky was the limit — I could have all the Scholastic books I wanted. This was the one indulgence we shared and savored together—her generosity, our collected hopefulness concerning books. My second “first” poem came from there.
“Here’s one,” she said. She was at the kitchen table, just after dinner, her glasses poised on the tip of her nose. “Carl Sandburg.”
I was in fourth grade and I hadn’t ever heard of him. “How do you know it’s good?” I asked.
“I’m just guessing.” She read, “The fog comes on little cat’s feet. . . .”
I checked the box. I was already in love.
Years later, I was graduating from college. I’d managed to get a fellowship to go to graduate school. Now that was some kind of crazy luck: Someone was paying for me to go to school because they liked my poetry. Can you imagine what that was like for me and my mother? She was still working in the factory at the time, but by then, the production of the higher-end dresses she used to make was shipped off shore, and now she was sewing lower-end pajamas. After all those years, she was still a sleever. She was proud to tell her friends I was off to Amherst—home of the poet Emily Dickinson—to go to graduate school.
“What’s she going for?” her friends would ask. The first couple of times she said, “Poetry,” which was true and accurate, which made her proud, which was because of her–after all, she’d planted my love of words. But it got too hard explaining what I would ever do with an advanced degree in poetry. Seriously–everybody knows that’s no kind of full-time work. So, after a while, at least with certain people, she’d say, “Journalism.”
I laughed she told me about my secret identity as a journalist. It was still bragging. It was certainly better than factory work, and, anyway, it involved words—crafting, sewing together, words. It didn’t matter to me what she called it. My mother knew what poetry meant. And I knew it wasn’t even close to her true identity to call her a sleever. She was so many other things. She was my muse.