“Match Girls” by Ilyse Kusnetz

Ilyse Kusnetz


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

hired to make
sulfur matches
would dip the matchends

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 stations,

hatmakers in the 18th century
cured ladies’ hats
with mercury. Their legacy—

blushing, aching limbs,
a plague of rashes,

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.

from Rattle #34, Winter 2010

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