Mill Towns

Old factories:
          how painfully forgotten!
Once, the hopeful immigrants flocked to them.
Workers and foremen built cities around them,
     if not exactly blessing the ground they stood on,
     grateful at least to have escaped the whip
         or starvation where they came from.
The railroads webbed out to meet them,
     branch lines and sidings eager to take
     the crates and bundles from their gates.
Without them
     the towns have forgotten the reason
          of their founding.

What did they make?
     cotton and calico prints,
     steam engines and locomotives
     parts of machines uncountable
     and the tools to make other machines
     and their parts uncountable,
     rope walks, brass foundries,
     lace- and jewelry-making,
     lightbulb assembly lines,
     refrigerators and fountain pens,
     and glory! a piano factory –
all now only names in peeling paint
checkered on bricks and falling signs.

The nearby houses are humbled now
     with torn clapboards,
     rot beneath the stage paint of shingles,
     the cheap bluster of aluminum siding,
     walls bloated, foundations shifted,
     split into rat-cell studios for commuters.

Many are boarded-up, foreclosed.
No one remembers when mansard slate
     and gable and cupola gleamed new,
when a smokestack with a man's name on it
was a place arrived at as a good sign
    of a continued paycheck.
Things that got made here,
     kept getting made.

Now these sad brick temples accuse us:
     their plywood-covered windows,
     their undecipherable placards,
     the weed trees on their loading docks,
the mystery of abandonment.
Like unburied dead they haunt the roadside,
sombre in daylight, shunned and abhorred
when their shadows grow long at dusk.
They will not burn, their wearing away
protracted by fences and guardians.
(Heirs living on compounded interest
preserve them like Chinese puzzle boxes
they cannot open or understand.)
At night, another commerce lights up
the sidewalks along the chain-link fence
as women sell the only thing they have
from the pavement, and men in cars
circle, circle, hands offering dollars,
other hands offering, and taking small
envelopes of powders and crystals.

Some midnights, the ghost machines awaken,
their ungreased axles screaming,
drive shafts spinning of their own accord.
A dynamo turns, furnace mouths flickering
in cool blue flame of St. Elmo's Fire.
The power looms weave an invisible shroud:
it is long enough to enclose a city.
Tombs without occupants,
they wait for the rites that no one will pronounce.


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