If not raging, the debate about the appropriateness of Women’s History Month has certainly moved beyond a simmer. It is mostly true that we finally take for granted the equality of women’s achievements to those of men. Still, today’s poet, Ilyse Kusnetz, reminds us of the nameless women who have not yet been fully acknowledged by history—a place where memory is due. We welcome Ilyse back with thanks for this powerful work.


Match Girls

In the factories of America
during the 19th century, girls

hired to make sulfur matches
would dip the match-ends

into a chemical vat, then
lick the tips to make them stiff.

The vats were filled with zinc sulfide,
a radioactive substance

about which no one warned them,
so when their teeth fell out,

and their jaws and bodies
rotted like bad fruit, it was too late.

It was not the first time
such things happened.

Bent at their work stations,
women in the 18th 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 and burned

treatises on history, art, politics,
and all religions not sanctioned by the state.

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
soundlessly below earth,

their bodies burning like forbidden books,
we know almost nothing.


                        “Match Girls” appeared previously in “Rattle” and is published here with permission of the poet.

To learn about the remarkable Dr. Alice Hamilton, who pioneered investigations into America’s “poisonous occupations” a century ago, click here.


Ilyse Kusnetz received her M.A. in Creative Writing from Syracuse University, and her Ph.D. in Contemporary Feminist and Postcolonial British Literature from the University of Edinburgh. She has poetry published in Crab Orchard Review, the Cincinnati Review, Crazyhorse, Stone Canoe, Rattle, Poet Lore, the Atlanta Review, Artful Dodge, Kestrel, Barely South, MiPOesias, and Connotation Press: an Online Artifact, and she is the author of a chapbook, The Gravity of Falling (La Vita Poetica Press, 2006). She teaches at Valencia College.



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  • ellen sue spicer-jacobson March 31, 2013 at 8:33 am

    Powerful! And also the women who dipped their tongues into radium for radium dials on wrist watches—similar fate!