Poetry at Sangam



THE ORIGINS OF SILK by Beth Copeland

A child’s voice whispers in twisted threads
of this sandwashed silk blouse, in sleeves slipped on
and off. It’s the sound of steam, monsoon rain,
or a child’s tears falling as she ladles
cocoons from vats in Ramanagaram,
dipping her hands in boiling water
to remove the skeins. It’s the sound of silk

tearing, skins shed, death. The truth’s not always
beautiful. No matter how much I wish
these moth-winged sleeves could lift effortlessly
from sweat shop looms, it wouldn’t be the truth.
This fine, gossamer cloth is woven from
an orphan’s wounds, from the dying silkworm
at the center of this unwinding thread.


Which came first, the white moth or golden egg?
The larva uncurls from its global shell,
feeding on mulberry leaves until it
molts, inching from its old, condom-sloughed skin.
Metamorphosis is the silkworm’s form
of reincarnation—ova, larva,
pupa, imago—avatars of one

Vedic god, spinning on a cosmic thread.
The pupa sleeps in Egyptian linen,
waiting for resurrection from the dead.
Finally, the soul rises from its shrouds —
the moth breaks free of its cloud-spun cocoon,
unfurling ghostly wings. Bombyx mori,
a child’s voice whispers in twisted threads.


Mori, a state of dormancy or death.
The silk moth’s flightless life passes without
sleep or the jade-green nourishment of leaves.
Its only purpose is to propagate
the species, to flutter pale wings, and mate.
Death is a potent aphrodisiac,
arousing consummation on the wings

of war or genocide. Survivors of
the Holocaust speak of lovers coupling
beneath a canopy of ashes in
the camps, clinging to flesh as fragile as
a web of dust or the last frozen breath
of a woman who might have touched the seam
of this sandwashed silk blouse, its sleeves slipped on


and off in Dachau’s poison showers.
History demands that we remember
all this—the names of those who vanished from
Cambodia’s killing fields and the streets
of Sarajevo, the human shadow
burned into Hiroshima’s stone stairway,
the napalmed villages of Vietnam—

an endless reel of human suffering.
We can watch the 24-hour news
on CNN, until we fall asleep
in front of the screen as burning Towers
collapse on prerecorded footage of
9-11, before waking to turn
it off. It’s the sound of steam, monsoon rain,


a world still breathing. Our grief is nothing
new to the people of Afghanistan,
who’ve suffered such losses long before this
strike at America’s security.
Now, our lives are sewn to theirs with sutures
of surgical silk—widow to widow,
orphan to orphan—tied with threads of blood

and mourning to women in blue burqas,
children without hands and feet, with stumps wrapped
in white gauze, mujahedeen with Russian
Kalashnikovs. What is the difference
between our suffering and theirs, between
the tears of a firefighter’s daughter
and a child’s tears falling as she ladles


water in Pakistan’s refugee camp?
There are no borders on grief’s continent,
no tribal bonds or nationalities
beyond the ligatures of tragedy.
The olive-eyed girl on the cover of
National Geographic informs us
that those beneath the veil are human, too,

and we are connected by living threads
to them, and to children sold into silk’s
bondage in Karnataka’s black market,
working 12-hour days for $3
a week in steaming, dirty factories.
Twelve-year-old Naushad, who was boiling
cocoons from vats in Ramanagaram,


asked for a day off. He was set on fire
with kerosene and burned over eighty
percent of his body. That’s only one
atrocity in the warped fabric of
a cruel industry. Thousands of young
children work, eat, and sleep on factory
floors littered with the rotting flesh of worms.

Some believe only a child’s hands can feel
when strands have loosened enough from the silk
cocoons to be unwound, twisted and reeled.
The children stand on stools so they can reach
the stoves, stirring bubbling pots of cocoons.
The reelers are not allowed to use spoons.
Dipping her hands in boiling water,


Savita lifts hot cocoons from the vat.
Her hand is a blistered brocade of scars.
Is it her whisper you hear in the silk
blouse you’re wearing, or is it Ganga’s sigh
as she sits on a concrete slab from dawn
to dark, spinning endless thread on spindles
held between her toes? It’s the vibrato

of Varanasi silk—Sunshine and Shade,
Ripples of Silver, Moon and Stars, Peacock’s
Neck, Nightingale’s Eyes—intricate brocades
woven by children Misra describes as
“cage-birds…condemned from their very birth to
be captive workers,” youth hired as hands
to remove the skeins. It’s the sound of silk.


Empress Hsi Ling-Shi discovered silk when
a cocoon fell into her cup of tea
as she sat beneath mulberry trees of
the Imperial Gardens. The cocoon
unraveled into a single thread when
she pulled it from her cup. Enchanted by
its luster, she gathered silk from thousands

of cocoons to weave the Emperor’s robe,
or so the story goes. Silk’s origins
are probably less romantic than this
legend embroidered with Mandarin
crests and dragons. The authentic version
is unknown, composed of many loose threads
tearing, skins shed, death. The truth’s not always


written in elegant calligraphy
on silkscreen scrolls. There are many versions
of this story and all of them are true.
Some say the Yellow Emperor Huang-Ti
discovered silk; others give the Empress
credit. Some tales elevate Hsi Ling-Shi
to heaven, where she reigns as the goddess

of silk. For thousands of years the Chinese
nobility kept the secret of silk
production until an Imperial
princess smuggled silkworm eggs in her crown
when she married the sultan of Khotan.
Spun from one common thread, these legends are
beautiful. No matter how much I wish


this sandwashed silk blouse was woven from clouds,
from water running over river rocks,
or from the lint rinsed off mulberry leaves,
as Pliny believed, silk originates
in an insect’s salivary gland, spun
from the silkworm’s secretions as it sleeps
within its cocoon, woven with a child’s

wounded hands. In Kanchipuram children
labor in airless rooms, inhaling dust
and sulphur fumes from vats of turmeric,
safflower and indigo, dreaming of
life beyond the selvages of bondage
to the flying shuttle and reed, wishing
these moth-winged sleeves could lift effortlessly


from their hands onto the arms of women
shopping at Lord & Taylor, women who
don’t think about the origins of silk.
They don’t see Ganga spinning thread, waiting
for a full moon when she will finally
get a day off. They don’t see Savita’s
blistered hands or Naushad’s burning body

as they try on blouses, turning to check
their reflections in dressing room mirrors.
We see what we want to see, believing
that beauty is created from beauty,
and if someone said children sewed this blouse,
or this “Italian Silk” was imported
from sweat shop looms, it wouldn’t be the truth.


The universe of the Vedas is one
continuous length of fabric woven
by two sisters, Day and Night, creating
a grid of light and shadow on their loom:
“They sit beside the warp and cry, ‘weave forth,
weave back.’” There’s an underside for every
pattern, a reversal, or reaction

to every action on this karmic plane.
As Savita rises from her pallet
on the factory floor, a woman on
the other side of the world is sleeping
beneath feathers and a white silk duvet.
Savita removes the boiling skeins
this fine gossamer cloth is woven from.


The raga of silk is the rhythm of
shuttle and reed—Shantung, charmeuse, chiffon.
Dupioni reeled from double cocoons.
Pongee, organza, georgette, grenadine.
Damask with muted tone-on-tone roses.
Scroll-patterned brocade from Ajanta caves.
Crinkled rice-paper lisse. Mousseline

de soie, watered moire, and crepe de Chine.
Tissue silk with silver borders woven
from the tears of children who will never
go to school or play in the afternoon,
as other children do. Slowly, the moth’s
unformed wings unfold in cloth woven from
an orphan’s wounds, from the dying silkworm.


We wrap ourselves in winding sheets of silk,
oblivious to the misery of
children on the other side of the world—
Ganga, Savita, Naushad. What does their
suffering have to do with us? Why should
we care about what happens to people
in India, Afghanistan, Iraq?

Because what happens to them is linked to
our survival by overlapping threads.
At every crossing of one thread over
another we are choosing life or death
for ourselves and our sisters and brothers
on a tapestry of peace or bloodshed
at the center of this unwinding thread.