Union Songs


A poem by Edwin Rolfe©Edwin Rolfe 1928

Knowing (as John did) nothing of the way
men act when men are roused from lethargy.
and having nothing ( as John had) to say
to those he saw were starving just as he

starved, John was like a workhorse. Day by day
he saw his sweat cement the granite tower
(the edifice his bone had built), to stay
listless as ever, older every hour.

John's deathbed is a curious affair:
the posts are made of bone, the spring of nerves,
the mattress bleeding flesh. Infinite air,
compressed from dizzy altitudes, now serves

his skullface as a pillow. Overhead
a vulture leers in solemn mockery,
knowing what John had never known: that dead
workers are dead before they cease to be.


'In "Asbestos," published as "The 100 Percenter" in The Daily Worker in 1928, a stunning, if gruesome, conceit transforms a worker's body into his deathbed. The exploitation of workers, we learn, literally impresses itself on their bodies. Those bodies are the fulcrum, the point of application, of all the power relations in which their lives are embedded. Yet the poem's very fluency, its metaphorical bravado, embeds political resistance within social tragedy. Rolfe is only nineteen when he writes the poem, but he has learned a lesson that will help carry him through the rest of his career. It is first of all a lesson about class relations and about how they play themselves out in the industrial workplace. But it is also a lesson about how political poetry can take up traditional lyric forms—here the rhymed quatrains of the ballad stanza—and give them fresh social meaning.' Cary Nelson