JEN BENKA is the author of Pinko (Hanging Loose) and A Box of Longing With Fifty Drawers (Soft Skull). Her poems and essays have appeared in publications and collections including Crossing State Lines (Farrar Straus and Giroux), EOAGH, make/shift magazine, How(2), and a forthcoming publication celebrating the work of Etel Adnan. She lives in San Francisco where she works at 826 National. Before that, she was in New York where she worked at Poets & Writers. Before that she was in Milwaukee, where she was born, and where her grandma proudly worked at the nearby Ladish factory until she retired.
My grandma Julia Benka was barely five feet tall, but she could grab any man a foot taller by the shirt collar and dunk his boozey head under a water fountain to sober him up. According to my dad, she had to do that every now and again to the men who worked on her line, so they wouldn’t lose their jobs. That would explain her sinewy arms. No one’s grandma had biceps like mine did. She could talk tough, too: “You want a knuckle sandwich?”
Nie. No. Dziekuje. Thank you.
In 1963, at the age of 60, the poet Lorine Niedecker married a one-handed painter from Milwaukee, WI named Al Millen. She moved from her cabin on Black Hawk Island near Lake Koshkonong, 62 miles east to the city and into his house.
Learn a trade
to sit at desk
Millen worked at Ladish, a metal forging factory. My grandma, a proud member of Machinists Local 1862, worked there, too, in the pipe fitting division, heading up quality control.
a set of procedures
inspection of design
the adherence to a defined set of requirements
Ladish is located in Cudahy, a population 18,000 town on the south side of Milwaukee wedged between Lake Michigan and General Mitchell airport. Cudahy was named for Patrick Cudahy, an Irish immigrant, who bought 700 acres of land in the 1890s and built a meat packing plant, now a part Smithfield foods. The town was settled mostly by Polish immigrants who worked at the packing plant, and a few years later at the forging factory opened by Herman Ladish, who had bought a steam hammer and set out to become "Axle Forger to the Industry!” (Exclamation mark, mine.)
The racial and ethnic makeup of Cudahy’s residents hasn’t changed much over the past several decades. It is a mostly white and still mostly Polish community. The average household income is $50,000. Houses cost about $125,000. Many are currently in foreclosure.
Tell em to take my bare walls down/ my cement abutments/ their parties thereof/
and clause of claws (LN)
During World War II, Ladish produced propeller parts for bombers and other fighter planes. The aircraft and military markets became more and more of a focus, and in 1997, the company sold its pipe fitting division to concentrate in those areas. At the time, the pipe fitting division’s sales were estimated at between $41 million and $51 million.
After Niedecker passed away in 1970, Millen found a note in her box of papers that read, “Al, burn these.” So he did.
In 1977, after my grandma passed away my grandpa gave me her rosary and bowling ball. “She wanted you to have these,” he said. I was nine and the ball was about as heavy as I was, but with its marbleized sky blue design, it looked like a planet.
Was enough to carry me thru. (LN)