Vivas To Those Who Have Failed: The Paterson Silk Strike, 1913

Vivas to those who have fail'd!
And to those whose war-vessels sank in the sea!
And to those themselves who sank in the sea!
And to all generals that lost engagements, and all overcome heroes!
And the numberless unknown heroes equal to the greatest heroes known!
—Walt Whitman

I. The Red Flag

The newspapers said the strikers would hoist
the red flag of anarchy over the silk mills
of Paterson. At the strike meeting, a dyers' helper
from Naples rose as if from the steam of his labor,
lifted up  his hand and said here is the red flag:
brightly stained with dye for the silk of bow ties
and scarves, the skin and fingernails boiled away
for six dollars a week in the dye house.

He sat down without another word, sank back
into the fumes, name and face rubbed off
by oblivion's thumb like a Roman coin
from the earth of his birthplace dug up
after a thousand years, as the strikers
shouted the only praise he would ever hear. 

II. The River Floods the Avenue

He was the other Valentino, not the romantic sheik
and bullfighter of silent movie palaces who died too young,
but the Valentino standing on his stoop to watch detectives
hired by the company bully strikebreakers onto a trolley
and a chorus of strikers bellowing the banned word scab.
He was not a striker or a scab, but the bullet fired to scatter
the crowd pulled the cork in the wine barrel of Valentino's back.
His body, pale as the wings of a moth, lay beside his big-bellied wife.

Two white-veiled horses pulled the carriage to the cemetery.
Twenty thousand strikers walked behind the hearse, flooding
the avenue like the river that lit up the mills, surging around
the tombstones. Blood for blood, cried Tresca: at this signal,
thousands of hands dropped red carnations and ribbons
into the grave, till the coffin evaporated in a red sea.

III. The Insects in the Soup

Reed was a Harvard man. He wrote for the New York magazines.
Big Bill, the organizer, fixed his good eye on Reed and told him
of the strike. He stood on a tenement porch across from the mill
to escape the rain and listen to the weavers. The bluecoats
told him to move on. The Harvard man asked for a name to go
with the number on the badge, and the cops tried to unscrew
his arms from their sockets. When the judge asked his business,
Reed said: Poet. The judge said: Twenty days in the county jail.

Reed was a Harvard man. He taught the strikers Harvard songs,
the tunes to sing with rebel words at the gates of the mill. The strikers
taught him how to spot the insects in the soup, speaking in tongues
the gospel of One Big Union and the eight-hour day, cramming the jail
till the weary jailers had to unlock the doors. Reed would write:
There's war in Paterson. After it was over, he rode with Pancho Villa.

IV. The Little Agitator

The cops on horseback charged into the picket line.
The weavers raised their hands across their faces,
hands that knew the loom as their fathers' hands
knew the loom, and the billy clubs broke their fingers.
Hannah was seventeen, the captain of the picket line,
the Joan of Arc of the Silk Strike. The prosecutor called her
a little agitator. Shame, said the judge; if she picketed again,
he would ship her to the State Home for Girls in Trenton.

Hannah left the courthouse to picket the mill. She chased
a strikebreaker down the street, yelling in Yidish the word
for shame. Back in court, she hissed at the judge's sentence
of another striker. Hannah got twenty days in jail for hissing.
She sang all the way to jail. After the strike came the blacklist,
the counter at her husband's candy store, the words for shame.

V. Vivas to Those Who Have Failed

Strikers without shoes lose strikes. Twenty years after the weavers
and dyers' helpers returned hollow-eyed to the loom and the steam,
Mazziotti led the other silk mill workers marching down the avenue
in Paterson, singing the old union songs for five cents more an hour.
Once again the nightsticks cracked cheekbones like teacups.
Mazziotti pressed both hands to his head, squeezing red ribbons
from his scalp. There would be no buffalo nickel for an hour's work
at the mill, for the silk of bow ties and scarves. Skull remembered wood.

The brain thrown against the wall of the skull remembered too:
the Sons of Italy, the Workmen's Circle, Local 152, Industrial
Workers of the World, one-eyed Big Bill and Flynn the Rebel Girl
speaking in tongues to thousands the prophecy of an eight-hour day.
Mazziotti's son would become a doctor, his daughter a poet.
Vivas to those who have failed: for they become the river.


Martin Espada, "Vivas To Those Who Have Failed: The Paterson Silk Strike, 1913" from Vivas To Those Who Have Failed. Copyright © 2015 by Martin Espada.  Reprinted by permission of W. W. Norton & Company, Inc..
Source: Vivas To Those Who Have Failed (W. W. Norton and Company, Inc., 2015)
More Poems by Martín Espada