n the factories of America
during the nineteenth century, girls
hired to make matches
would dip the match-ends
into a chemical vat, then
lick the tips to make them stiff.
filled the air, a poison
about which no one warned them,
so when their teeth fell out,
and their jaws rotted
like bad fruit, it was too late.
It was not the first time
such things happened.
Bent at their workstations,
women in the eighteenth century
cured ladies’ hats with mercury.
Their legacy – blushing, aching limbs,
a plague of rashes, parchment-thin
pages of sloughed skin, curled
and cracked, minds deranged.
They could not know they shared a fate
with the Emperor Qin Shi Huang, who
seeking eternal life, swallowed pills
laced with mercury. He built the Great Wall
and unified China, then outlawed all religions
not sanctioned by the state,
burned treatises on history, politics, and art.
Scholars who dared possess such things,
he buried alive. His body lies
in a vast mausoleum, guarded
by a terracotta army.
Of the factory girls, mouths opening
below earth, their bodies
burning like forbidden books,
we know almost nothing.