It is rare for a book of poems to explore well not only historical eras but also the lives of past people, especially those neglected by formal history, and yet Kimberly J. Simms accomplishes this historic excavation in her first collection Lindy Lee: Songs on Mill Hill. Simms weaves South Carolina history of mill workers in the late nineteenth century, both personal and journalistic in detail, and spins their lives into stories. The story of mill workers in the South is often forgotten, blotted out by the shadow of the agricultural South in historical narratives, and yet in this book Simms makes a case for the necessity of these stories through a juxtaposition of elegiac and celebratory poems. These mill women and children gave birth to early labor movements in the South, providing for poor, white women an early entrance into fields of labor not shared by their Northern counterparts until many decades later.
She focuses on the lives of children, with “lungs full of lint/calloused soles black with machine oil,” forced by familial poverty to work in the mills. Despite their hardships, they remain children, curious and searching for glints of innocent joy in the clouds of cotton dust. If one listens to these poems, one might hear flashes of song between the mechanical churn of ginning machines. There remain winks of wonder in the midst of the mundane, the workers at the mill holding fast to kindness and community. Simms writes, “Charity starts with a twang in the heart.”
Her poems, however, do not ignore the cruel aspect of mill life. In focusing on the fictional character of Lindy Lee, a young girl working in the mill, Simms explores how workplace politics, the selfishness of supervisors, the despotic power of mill owners combine to mold a life of misery for individuals with little power. The machinery of not only place but also society work together to strip Lindy Lee of her agency.
Ultimately, this story is one of survival, not glamorous, but instead a product of a series of steps toward a better life. “I want to dance lint-less,” wishes the speaker of one poem, finding escape in cinema. Whether the speakers of these poems describe flooding in middle Saluda, a familiar problem to contemporary readers, or the drudgery of daily mill work, Simms sings songs in which every life is both lament and fanfare. And the pain of the everyday may be relieved only by the hope of a softer future, a future not coarse as cotton, in which “tomorrow I will take up silk.”
Lindy Lee: Songs on Mill Hill is available on October 21st and can be pre-ordered here….
And you can check out the publisher’s site here…
Kimberly Simms is a travelling poet. Will she be visiting your city on her tour? Find out here…
The following essay was written as part of a larger art exhibit curated by Roberto Jones called “The Contemporary Form,” which explored androgyny as a contemporary social and artistic concept. I provided the following essay as a plea to explore gendered expressions as not simply a political or artistic curiosity but rather a survival mechanism.
The Body Is Where We Live:
On the Importance of Questioning Gender and Embracing Androgynous Forms
A Short Essay
By Derek Berry
Gendered language is the sarcophagus but not the corpse within. You can
claw your way out of the coffin, sure, but how to escape the body? You live there,
every experience, every moment, every love, every thought filtered through the
reality of existing in that corporeal being, one you cannot escape except through
sleep or orgasm or suicide. Even dead, you cannot escape the tongues of
others—those who will name you boy or girl when you only ever named yourself
God or fairy or Leelah Acorn. The catch, that skin stretches around our
bones, a flesh-prison. A strange virtual reality video game, in which we sit rattling in
the consoles of our skulls, controlling human-shaped vehicles. In these vehicles, we
collide and crash and zip and brake—we live our entire lives within bodies. We do
not even understand what it means to live beyond the body, whether death be a
coda or refrain. So we have these: we own bodies, though several own the language
that describe our bodies. How can we own a name that does not belong to us, one
our tongues have never learned to properly speak? How can we own a body so
inscribed with meaning we did not choose, a library of misinterpretations that
mangle bones, that fertilize graves, and that trap us with organs, with body hair,
with blood. We do not properly understand the physical effects of gender, that these
transgressions do not only happen in discourse or in the classroom or in some
theory-ruled vacuum but rather on the body, in the body, to the body. Always the
body is the final secret exhumed, the final consideration behind the name on the
headstone or taste of the dirt. This is a cemetery we continue to dig.
I step out of the student secretary office into the sun and cross the street to the library in order to sit down and write my final thoughts on Tuebingen. I am leaving soon, spending the night at a friend’s flat before flying home tomorrow morning. As I pass across the street, I nearly stumble into The Naked Man.
The Naked Man stands in the park every day and has done so for the past few months, often half-naked. People say he’s crazy. He is a homeless man who dresses either in grass-streaked tidy-whities or a full suit. His favorite hobbies include snapping the branches off trees, assuming fighting stances, drinking beer, and laughing at strangers. He often walks toward strangers in order to laugh at them. That’s so strange, so unnverving.
When I bump into The Naked Man, he gives me a queer look, a cocktail mixture of anger and curiosity. And so I ask in German, “Hey, man, I’ve been watching you for some time now. Why do you do the things you do? I mean, it doesn’t make sense. You stand there and kick the air or talk with strangers? Why do you approach random groups of people to laugh at them?”
And that’s all I want to know, the underlying absurdity of his actions. A reason. A meaningful reason.
The Naked Man stares at me, his mouth breaking into a grin.
And he laughs. And laughs. And says nothing more.
Today I woke at 7am—unheard of in my life as writer, student, and professional slacker. Usually I wake early only if someone promises free pancakes or perhaps a magic genie lamp (though, much to my chagrin, this has yet to occur). But today I have agreed to matriculate in the University of Tuebingen, despite not fully understanding what the phrase “matriculation” actually means. I think it must be a medieval word for torture, something that the Catholic Church did to heathens during the Inquisition. Imagine hanging by your pinky toes upside down when a staunch vaguely-European voice threatens to matriculate you. Truly scary stuff, I swear.
While I sit at a bus stop hacking my lungs out, waiting to return to my underground apartment after undergoing the absurdly difficult process of matriculation, I observe two boys (12, 13) smoking cigarettes. Both strike the same pose, the ubiquitous pose of youthful boredom as popular in Germany as Macklemore haircuts. The older boy rolls a cigarette on his lap with an open canister of tobacco (brand: unknown) and surreptitiously accepts a shared lit cigarette into his mouth from his friend. He inhales deeply and then allows his friend to pluck the cigarette from between his lips to take a few puffs himself.
Because they are young, perhaps they cannot afford each their own cigarettes. Perhaps they enjoy sharing because Germany seems to be a country on the verge of embracing socialism (public transport that actually works! taxes that provide for public schools! retirement benefits!). But naturally they must hide the cigarette in case someone reproaches them. Though underage smoking is illegal, no police will approach, no; police only come when called and barely make rounds except in large train stations and even there they drive hilariously cute automobiles with calming sirens. When a German police car passes blaring its siren and flashing its light, one might mistake this for an ice cream truck.
I ignore the boys for awhile and cough heartily into my scarf. I am sick after walking for hours, lost, in search of the city offices where I might apply for a residence permit. In a few weeks, when I begin my German classes, they promised to guide us through matriculation, and I regret now not waiting, for I need a guide. I need a Virgil to guide me (Dante in this metaphor) through the Seven Rings of German Bureaucratic Hell. I’m seeing a long-form poem already writing itself—rather than The Inferno, I will call this poem The Büro, the journey of one man through the impossible difficulties of German paperwork. If I wanted to be so harassed for coming to a place I would have worn an Obama HOPE t-shirt to a Texas rodeo.
But the sludge through offices is over and my fingers may rest from clutching pen after pen after endless pen, and I may now sit watching these young boys smoke a cigarette together. Once they finish the first, they immediately light up the second. Strange, I think, to be addicted so young, but in Germany this is the most popular vice (after perhaps wefeheisen beer and techno clubs). Almost everyone I have so far met smokes cigarettes. These are no casual smokers, no, not one-a-day smokers or evening smokers, but honest-to-Angela-Merkl cigarette addicts. Everyone on the bus is jouncy to leap off the bus at the nearest stop so they can light up the next cigarette. In bars and clubs, smoking is completely allowed. Smoke fills nearly every room. I learned last night I am allowed even to smoke in my apartment as long as I open the tiny window near the ceiling.
I find this all hilarious, but I do not try to judge. Let be, I think. Let them have their tobacco and smoke it too. Being an American, I try to act very laissez-faire about the entire affair. But I learn quickly that perhaps Americans are not so live-let-live as Germans, at least on the issue of smoking. In America , for example, long ago did lobbies manage to outlaw smoking in restaurants, in the vicinity of restaurants, on public transport, and nearly everywhere else, while in Germany, despite the government wielding a large amount of control over personal life (one must recycle, one must pay various taxes for healthcare, one must go through wildly complicated registration processes), any person can smoke almost anywhere. Despite this idea, on each pack of cigarettes reads the warning: Smoking can be deadly.
But in Germany, smoking can only be deadly cool. The absolute most popular death (save perhaps heart attack after consuming too many sausages).
The sooner a German smokes, the better. So here stand two boys (12, 13) smoking at the bus stop with fervent passion. The bus arrives a moment later, and one boy smothers the cigarette with the bottom of his shoe before boarding the bus. I sit in the seat in front of them, coughing still into my scarf. And then a mighty sneeze builds in my chest, exploding up my throat until—aah, aah, achooo! I sneeze into my scarf. One boy leans forward and says quite genuinely, “Gesundheit,” which is the German version of “Bless you.”
I tell him, thanks. At least the youth of Germany care about their health.
Everyone in the city smoked cigarettes, the orange-bright ends illuminating every stoop, park bench, and window. If we shut out the lights, cut the electrical lines, we might still be able to read by the glare of a million burning cigarettes, their ashes spilling into the crease between the pages. Many treated their cigarettes with ritual superstition—practicing traditions passed down from the Great War, from the Native Americans, and from the study-abroad semesters in Bulgaria. Each secreted upside down sticks in their packs—the lucky cigarette—absconding white lighters and lighting up with the ends of each others’ cigarettes. When finished, they tapped out the cigarettes in overflowing ash trays, some plastic, others glass.
The smoke, meanwhile, floated above their heads in lazy spirals—smoke took on a life of its own, an animated beast rising and swaying like a drunk ballerina in flats not yet broken in. The bearded man with glasses, reading Kant with a mix of pretentiousness and a sincere desire to understand, the freckled girl with a glinting nose ring—hell, the Catholic Father with his black shirt unbuttoned in the simmering summer heat. Here they sat, sharing communion: rather than a reminder of life, they acknowledged death, welcomed it into their lungs with breaths deep as love.
The priest took a drag on his cigarette, and I wonder why he smokes, if there is reason at all or if it seemed something to do when there was nothing else to do. Some of the people in the city, they rolled their cigarettes. The heathens of the Holy City smoked everything they could stuff into rolling papers, fitting their filters sloppily to the end.
Perhaps he liked smoking for its symbolism, its thematic properties. Cigarettes reflected the American desire for death, the necessity of it with our lives, because without death, we would not be able to justify our wasteful lives. If we were to live forever, then we would be forced to do something, but death had become our ultimate cop-out, our greatest excuse for failure. We could try, try to do something good and impactful, but then too late—you died too soon, oh well.
The embers died out, crackling like a campfire in the jumble of ash trays, and the city grew dark as the smokers fell one by one to sleep.