Jan. 23, 2009

On the Assembly Line

by Virgil Suarez

Cousin Irene worked in the cold of a warehouse
basement in New Jersey, soldering the filaments
to GE lightbulbs. The job required steady hands,
without gloves, bare fingers for sensitivity,
and her hands cramped up eventually, after six
hours or so, but the workday lasted ten or twelve,
in so much cold. This was her life for several
years in America—back home, in Cuba, she'd been
a chicken sexer, a botanist caring for orchids,
a potato peeler, a cigar ring paster, a picker
of papayas—all as a volunteer worker because she
wanted to leave the country. So in Trenton,
Union City, Elizabeth, at least she got paid
for the work she did with her hands, though her
choices continued to be blue-collar work, and she
thanked god for her hands, her reliable hands,
so necessary. She came to the United States
through the Peter Pan Project as a teenager
with the promise of a scholarship to an all-girl
boarding school in Kentucky, which never
materialized—she got as far as New Jersey.
Here, at night, she came home from the factory
and soaked her hands in warm soapy water.
She looked on as her fingers moved, these tendrils
of her once young hands—blessed these ten digits
that rooted her life to so much work and possibility.

"On the Assembly Line" by Virgil Suárez, from 90 Miles: Selected and New Poems. © University of Pittsburgh Press, 2005. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of the Irish novelist J.G. Farrell, (books by this author) James Gordon Farrell, born in Liverpool, England (1935). His parents moved back to Ireland at the start of World War II. He went to college, taught for a year, and then moved to the Canadian Arctic to be a fireman for a construction company. Then he went to England to attend Oxford University, where he contracted polio, and he had to spend a long time in an iron lung in order to breathe. This formed the basis of his second novel, The Lung (1965), a black comedy whose hero, stricken by polio, has a craving for alcohol and a slightly milder craving for women.

J.G. Farrell is best known for a trilogy of novels about the waning British Empire. The first one, Troubles (1970), is about an English army officer who goes to a seaside resort in Ireland in 1919 to be with the woman he plans to marry. He watches from a distance as Ireland fights for its independence and the British Empire begins to crumble on all fronts. The second novel was The Siege of Krishnapur (1973), a historical reconstruction of an Indian rebellion in 1857. Farrell spent a long time in India researching the novel. The Siege of Krishnapur won the 1973 Booker Prize, and at the awards ceremony, Farrell gave a speech in which he condemned the business activities of the sponsors of the prize he had just won. The final book of his trilogy, The Singapore Grip (1978), is about the British surrender of the colony of Singapore.

Farrell was 50,000 words into another historical novel about the British Empire when he drowned in 1979, at the age of 44, while fishing off the west coast of Ireland.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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