“The crushing defeat of the workers meant that there would be no recognized trade unionism and collective bargaining in steel and other heavy industries until the 1930s” (The Battle of Homestead Foundation).
July 6, 1892
4:00 am, the whistled steam shrieks
us groggy, half-alert; we weren’t asleep.
We watch the river for a quieter approach.
Filtering through trees, blocking the landings,
our whole indentured family pursues
the Little Bill, which pulls two tethered barges,
Trojan half-cows, on their slow up-river
pre-dawn chug-crawl. Call it what it is: an assault
on sense. Some of us pitch insults; others,
harder things. Ideas, rocks. We’d already
heard the news by telegraph. Our informant’s
jittery dots and sleepy dashes warned us
that Frick’s Pinkertons were coming
by muffled moonlight or by early soot-fall,
to break our wills and cross our picket lines.
We hector them. These towheaded step-brothers
of Achilles return the favor. Sweeney
warns them not to land, but they won’t listen.
Once, these barges hauled tall nests of twisted tracks,
which looked as if a giant wadded them —
miles and miles of Southern Rail that Sherman
blasted out of Georgia, to feed the demon
furnace of the company that never
rusts, or sleeps, or feels, or gets enough
of us. For in this Commonweal, the daystar
never stabs our smoky river valley hell
with blades of undiminished light; we’re never late.
Our rivers keep their burning, choking lids on.
Now, their barges ferry rifles, mercenaries
who wave no colors swear no loyalty
but to the fog — one more dumb servant of Carnegie?
(On “holiday” abroad. Unreachable, of course.
Hands Frick the whips and reins, the buttons
and the levers and the winch chains, which take your hand
off soon as spit to quench your brother’s flames.)
Hearing the slaps and splashes of their unseen
paddle wheeler, we brace our backs and grind
our pebbled kneecaps on the stacks of long-lost I-beams —
fashioned from the tracks of the exploded South?
Perhaps. Only the furnaces remember, which keep
their mouths cold and closed all heated month,
and slightly darker than our all-but blotted sun.
Eric Bliman's chapbook Travel and Leisure won the Poetry Society of America's National Chapbook Fellowship in 2012. His poems have appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, Subtropics, the Southern Review, Quarterly West, the Birmingham Poetry Review and other journals. He holds a PhD in English and Comparative Literature from the University of Cincinnati, where he volunteered at the Cincinnati Review. He teaches composition, technical writing, and creative writing at Pennsylvania State University — Harrisburg.