By Marsha de la O
Anyone from the river valley knows the signs
posted at the docks and on the banks Do Not Consume
and the black icon, no fish in particular,
but the shadow of all fish.
You remember those signs but maybe not Anna Mae.
She lived in the valley all her life,
when she was young people looked at her,
her freckled arms and fair skin,
slight, but what guys called ‘stacked,’
a real head-turner with light serious eyes.
She worked at the GE plant on the river bluffs
where everyone in town worked
at some point, but she stuck with it and they promoted her
to lead lady in the pouring room.
By then, she was no knock-out, past beauty
just something to know about her and for us girls to ponder.
Those were the days when they used PCBs
in everything from radios to guided missiles
and GE dumped the tailings in the river.
Only young women worked the pouring room,
I don’t know why, and Anna Mae worked the cauldron,
controlled the thickness and pace
of the solution, well, she was lead lady for a reason,
always steady, no one flighty could keep the line going
the way she did. One time the chemists came down
to watch and I heard one of them say, This shit is gold,
so excited because they developed the mixture themselves.
After that one girl would turn to the next
and say this shit is gold with an edge, and we laughed
and played looks-like/ smells-like at break—
like amber, like hardpan, like honey, like gasoline,
like cloves with steel shavings mixed in,
and once Anna Mae lifted her head and said,
like a mouthful of coins, close enough
to taste with each breath as she bent to control
the speed. Anna Mae died a long time ago—
goblin molecules rode into her blood.
She turned yellow, but worked
almost up to the last, and then Phyllis took over.
Anna’s big gray husband came in and faced us
and for once they let the line stop. Anna Mae loved
all you girls like her own, because we couldn’t have…none.
We bowed our heads until Phyllis turned the machine back on.
Now all these years later I remember Anna Mae
when I walk past those signs down by the river.
Fish circle slowly in the dark musculature of the water—
drifting close to the surface
as if they could swim into air and be healed.
Marsha de la O's latest book, Antidote for Night (BOA Editions), won the 2015 Isabella Gardner Award. Recent poems have been published in The New Yorker and are forthcoming in The Kenyon Review. See also https://www.boaeditions.org