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On "Mill Town"


Nancy Berke

Much proletarian literature of the 1930s concerned itself with the pathetic plights of working men. Depression-era historical documentation and popular culture are filled with familiar images of male figures standing on bread lines, slouching over watery soup in church basements, flagging down rides on desolate highways, or fighting policement or scabs during strikes. While Genevieve Taggard's proletarian collection Calling Western Union contains poems that honor working men and their difficulties, she pays particular attention to women. Whether they are the wives of strking workers, alienated members of the middle class, or laborers themselves, in Calling Western Union, women's issues take center stage.

The poem "Mill Town" stands out from the majority of poems in Calling Western Union that speak particularly about women's Depression-era experience. Rather than presenting women in their middle class security as in "Middle-Age, Middle Class Woman at Midnight" or "Interiors," or as they come to political consciousness in "At Last the Women Are Marching" and "Feeding the Children," "Mill Town" presents the bleak realities of laboring women. Taggard introduces the poem with an epigraph from medical historian Paul de Kruif. His book Why Keep Them Alive (1936), which appears to have inspired the poem's composition, details the public health crisis the Depression created, particularly the malnutrition and starvation of America's children.

Taggard begins the poem as an accompaniment to de Kruif's dispiriting scenario, imagining the woman whose "womb is sick of its work with death."

                            . . . then fold up without pause
The colored ginghams and the underclothes.
                                        And from the stale
Depth of the dresser, smelling of medicine, take
The first year's garments. And by this act prepare
Your store of pain, your weariness, dull love,
To bear another child with doubled fists
And sucking face...

"Mill Town" provides a gendered vocabulary of working class experience by suggesting the double meaning of the word "labor." The woman of this "mill town" experiences the excessive strains of wage-labor and that of repeated childbirth. As the poem's opening lines explore domestic routine, the infant's tight rage is a reminder of the tenuous grasp the Depression era mother has on the domestic milieu.

The poem's last seven lines show an ambiguous attitude toward the woman's poverty. What we might construe as a scolding tone stands out in these last lines. It is unlikely, however, that Taggard would intentionally reprimand the mill mother for her passivity. Her sympathetic eye for working-class conditions as they affect women and children would provide a more critically engaged treatment of her subject's circumstances. Since nowhere else in Calling Western Union does Taggard take the male left to task for its insensitivity to gender issues, it is unlikely that she means to appropriate its voice, chiding the woman for not politicizing her position. Instead it appears that the speaker's reproachful tone appropriates the voice of a hypocritical and judgmental social order, which rebukes working class mothers who become pregnant repeatedly in an atmosphere of economic want.

                            Clearly it is best, mill mother,
Not to rebel or ask clear silly questions,
Saying womb is sick of its work with death,
Your body drugged with work and the repeated bitter
Gall of your morning vomit. Never try
Asking if we should blame you. Live in fear. And put
Soap on the yellowed blankets. Rub them pure.

In keeping with the poet's desire to portray the Depression-era woman who was not on the barricades, one must notice the poem's negative representation of the female body. Childbearing and mill work take serious tolls upon it. In childbirth it readies its "store of pain". . . "weariness," and "dull love"; negative too are the fruits of its labor. This "store of pain," one of Taggard's most disturbing images, exposes the womb as complicit in life as death; the "mill-mother" gives birth to children who then die of starvation. Thus the female body "drugged with work," incapacitated by morning sickness, and later the child-bed of unanesthetized home birth, also represents the isolation of those women whose participation in the social struggle so important to the poet are eclipsed by domestic burdens; of course inequalities of class and gender officiate these burdens--a "womb sick of its work with death."

"Mill Town" presents perhaps the bleakest portrait of working-class life in Calling Western Union. It also complicates Taggard's desire to create a sense of hope in her readers, and to keep with the objectives of the proletarian literature of the period to present the working class as progressive agents determined to usher in a new age and new culture. Taggard never claims, as did socialist and feminist writer Crystal Eastman in the early 1920s, that if and when capitalism fell, women would still be enslaved. Yet her portrait of the captive mill-mother, however, placed alongside a variety of poems whose themes are positive and optimistic, reveals the feminist poet's tensions between representing difficult social realities and imagining a future that could transcend them.

from Nancy Berke, Women Poets on the Left: Lola Ridge, Genevieve Taggard, Margaret Walker. University Press of Florida, 2001


Publicized Motherhood in "Mill Town"
by Meg Boerema

What's first striking about "Mill Town" is its title. Since the poem describes a mother and not a town, why isn't it called "Mill-Mother"? This substitution of the word "Town" for the word "Mother" is significant for several reasons.

First, the title's erasure of motherhood performs the denial of motherhood that the poem describes. Motherhood in the poem cannot be realized. The mother's first child died, and we anticipate a similar fate for the second; the second child is always compared to the first, referred to only and always as "*another* child" (emphasis added). We might think then of the title's denial of the word "Mother" as participating in the poem's imagining of an unfulfilled motherhood.

Second, we might also think about the title's substitution of the collective and public "Town" for the personal and private "Mother" as participating in the poem's public representation of motherhood. The "Town" of "Hill Town," like the poem itself, brings motherhood into the public realm. Motherhood in "Hill Town" is very exposed. The first lines the poem, without any hesitation, announce the most intimate details of the mother's life: her mourning and her pregnancy. We then see the mother move from the public funeral to the public mill and back to her house. But even at home she has no privacy and we watch her, in a very private moment, putting away the clothes of her dead child. The poem's voice is also a very public voice and this compounds her exposure. A public investigator announces the cause of the child's death, and the announcement of the mother's pregnancy reads for me much like a news report:

"...the child died, the investigator said, for lack of proper food.
After the funeral the mother went back to the mill. She is
expecting another child..."

The collective "we" of the speaker's voice adds to a sense of the mother's exposure by creating an audience for the mother within the poem.

But what's most interesting about the public status of motherhood in this poem is that there seems to be nothing appropriative or accusative in its publicity. The mother's body remains her own--"Your body drugged with work and the repeated bitter/Gall of your morning vomit" (lines 12-13)--and she is the poem's victim, not its villain:

And by this act prepare
Your store of pain, your weariness, dull love,
To bear another child with doubled fists
And sucking face. (lines 5-8).

The publicizing of motherhood, then, does not seem to be an attempt to make private failures public, but an attempt to contextualize and share these failings. The poem implicates an economic structure, not the mother, for the death of the child. Hard as she works (remember how she goes to the mill right after the funeral!), the mill does not pay her enough to feed her children. The public performance of motherhood in "Hill Town" thus refuses motherhood's insularity and disallows an accusation of the mother than doesn't implicate the public.

Owing, then, to the speaker's sympathy for the mother and disavowal of her insularity, I can hear little accusation in the speaker's final directives "Soap on the yellowed blankets. Rub them pure" (line 15). Instead I read these directives not as telling the mother how to absolve her own guilt, but as begging her to absolve the public speaker of his. The publicizing of motherhood in "Hill Town," finally, is quite interesting because it is neither appropriative nor oppressive, but instead rather generous and sympathetic.

Copyright 2001 by Meg Boerema


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