The Climax of I Want You Women Up North to Know

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Lines 85-97 of Tillie Olsen's first published poem "I Want You Women Up North to Know" contain the climactic turning point of this poem, and the language and form reflect this change. Instead of being humble and disjointed victims who remain mostly anonymous, the workers are transformed into an angry and unified group of distinct individuals. This shift in mood is accomplished by three devices: imagery, grouping, and capitalization of proper names. The imagery in this passage helps turn the tone of the poem from victimization to anger. In addition to fire images, the overall language is completely stripped down to bare ugliness. In previous lines, the sordidness has been intermixed with cheerful euphemisms: the agonizing work is an "exquisite dance" (24); the trembling hands are "white gulls" (22); the cough is "gay" (25). But in these later lines, all aesthetically pleasing terms vanish, leaving "sweet and …blood" (85), "naked… [and]…bony children" (89), and a "skeleton body" (95). Another way this passage turns the mood of the poem is by using grouping and form to link the workers together, both in inference and appearance. Previously, each worker’s situation has been treated as an isolated story, literally separated from the others by a blank line. However, lines 85-97 are crowded together without spaces, suggesting unity by the very appearance of the lines. All of the grievances are briefly repeated, and then a sequence of "ands" binds the one-sentence recaps together. Yet in spite of this sense of solidarity, each person’s story is given its own sentence with a period boundary, subtly emphasizing their individual importance: solidarity is acceptable, but anonymity is not. A final significant device in this passage is the use of capitalization. The proper names of the workers have been sporadically capitalized earlier in the poem, but here they are all consistent and correct. Again, this is an emphasis on individual importance, an insistence that each of these people deserves a unique proper name. The earlier all-lowercase names like "catalina rodiguez" (16) actually blend into the lines of poetry, suggesting crouching and obscurity, but here the uppercase letters in their names stand out clearly from other words. Interestingly, although the personal names are capitalized, "christ" (96) is left in lowercase, similar to the previous treatment of "god" (57, 60, 62). This contrast with the capitalization of the worker’ names implies that God and Christ have failed the workers and are now overshadowed by a budding self-confidence in the workers.
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