A Mill Worker’s Son Goes to College

I hear looms in my sleep.
Rapiers and take-ups clank and groan —
calling me to Hell on Earth.
The beast that claimed my mother’s beauty,
that broke my father’s spirit,
calls out to me as I try to dream:
Saying, “One wrong choice in your plan
puts a reed hook and shears in your hand
FOR LIFE!”

Each long summer
I tread the floorboards of a weaveroom,
seeing dead dreams in faces
doomed to serve the machines
as the prophets of old served Baal.
I live in fear
of hungry idols who never tire.
I live in fear
of shift managers screaming,
of mill owners scheming,
always trying to get more
from less.

I creep May to August in abject fear.
Feverish to sneak back to school where
I must always answer right
and so manage to make good my flight
from the plight that is all my parents knew.

Safe in my dorm room I awake, sit, shake.
Having dreamt
of a forgotten paper, a failed test, a missed class,
a lost scholarship;
and always the laughter
of the looms, of the carders, of the knappers.
So I rise and study long past second shift
throughout the graveyard shift hours to escape
the insatiable, pitiless beast waiting, wishing
to grind up my dreams.

Author’s Note: I wrote this poem between discussions of slides in a sophomore art history class at Clemson University. At that time, the greatest fear in my life was that I would fail out of college and end up in the same type of grinding, pitiless job in a textile plant that Mama and some of my friends had. I worked in textile plants during the summer and it was tough, thankless and ultimately depressing work. It was vital work, but mind-numbing and I couldn’t imagine — then or now — enduring forty years of such employment.

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