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” first appeared in Rattle, Volume 16: Number 2, Winter 2010.