Section 2 ~ Issue 22bIlyse Kusnetz
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ILYSE KUSNETZ                                            

Match Girls

US  

I 221n 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.

Phosphorous vapor
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.

 
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