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Pickle Me This

April 21, 2013

Cottonopolis by Rachel Lebowitz

cottonopolisIn Cottonopolis, Rachel Lebowitz both imagines and recreates the global trinity that was created by the 19th century cotton industry–in the American South where the cotton was grown by slave labour, in Lancashire England where the cotton was produced in mills with their belching chimneys and inhumane working conditions, and in India whose own textile trade was violently supplanted by the introduction of English imports. Through a series of prose poems and found poems, Lebowitz draws tight the lines between these distant places, their connections to lives lived locally and globally, and the connections between economics, industrialization, and story-telling. She plants seeds of connection between those nineteenth-century factories “[u]ntil the 1980s is a wasteland of old chimneys. Until the clothes are made in China…”. This is not a story as distant in place and time as it might seem.

Many of the poems in Cottonopolis are classified as “Exhibits”, extrapolations of nursery rhymes, historical record, images, maps and items everyday and otherwise. Some echo the voices of those whose lives were made or broken by the cotton trade. The collection’s notes at the end of the book provide context and further explanation for what the poems themselves represent, and they add fascinating weight to this creative work and its stories.

But most remarkably for this book that uses language to build a museum is that the language itself is easily and unabashedly the work’s most remarkable aspect. I love the stories here, the history, but I can’t help but catch my mind on a line like “The trill of the/ robin, the trickle of the rill.” Or my favourite poem in the collection, “Exhibit 33: Muslin Dress” which turns language inside out in order to sew the whole world up into a tidy purse: “Here are the railway lines and there are the shipping/ lines. Here’s the factory line. The line of children in the/ mines. The chimney lines. There is the line: from the/ cotton gin to the Indian.”

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