For almost seven years, from February 1, 1957 until her marriage in 1963, Lorine Niedecker worked as a cleaner at the Fort Atkinson Memorial Hospital. She was 53 years old on her first day of work. I have always found it puzzling that only one of her poems directly references these years and years of labor:

Hospital Kitchen

the night women's

to the cleaned
stove 1

Part 1: Occupational Health

"I should draw a picture of myself covered with dust mops, pails, kitchen cleanser, cloths, brooms etc.," Niedecker wrote to the poet Louis Zukofsky. "Not really hard the floor is, most important thing is to wear spongy soles. Arms and feet feel it."2

Sifting through papers archived at the Hoard Historical Museum, just a few blocks across the river from Memorial Hospital, my friend Brandon and I notice that Niedecker's marriage license lists her occupation as laborer. It might also have read: janitor or custodian or maid or cleaner. A cleaner can be a chemical substance Ajax, Lysol, Drano or an employee. Cleaner is an unsettling homonym, a linguistic reminder that toxicants blend all too easily into bodies. In her letters, Niedecker referred to her coworkers as the hospital's "cleaning women," emphasizing that this labor was shouldered by those who probably dusted and scrubbed at home too.  

Fig. 1. Lorine Niedecker's marriage license, courtesy of the Hoard Historical Museum

The American Journal of Industrial Medicine reports that hospital custodians frequently feel ill after using spray products, liquid multi-use cleaners, solvents or stain removers, carpet cleaners, and products that smell like lemon or orange. Coughs, rashes, dizziness, eye irritation. Headaches, tight chests, asthma.3

In 1962, when Niedecker had worked as a cleaner at the Fort Atkinson Hospital for six years, Silent Spring was published: "Each of these recurrent exposures, no matter how slight, contributes to the progressive build up of chemicals in our bodies and so to cumulative poisoning."4 Niedecker owned a copy of Carson's The Sea Around Us, but not a copy of Silent Spring.5 

Unless she could catch a ride in with a neighbor, Niedecker began her 4.9 mile walk to the hospital at 6:15 am.6 Return, the one word-line that opens her poem, contains this sense of recurrence, as well as demand: return to town, return to the kitchen, return to sanitizing surfaces. Return to the stove. Arms and feet feel it.

"Hospital Kitchen" opens just after the stove is cleaned, scrubbed with the kitchen cleanser that Niedecker pictures herself "covered with." A study of hazardous exposures among hospital cleaners, published in Environmental Health in 2009, found that airborne concentrations are highest during the first ten minutes after application, yet linger at lower levels for an hour or two in a room. "This creates potential for exposure of other occupants in the building, hours after the cleaning activities are performed," the researchers note.7 It means chemicals applied during the night find their way into the lungs and eyes of women arriving in the morning, while fumes from bleach applied at the close of the day greet the graveyard shift. The poem's stanza break separates the traces of the night's labor from the labor of the morning hours, the hospital's night women from the women who clean in daylight. White space is like air: the poem flows across it, stanza to stanza, shift to shift.

Here is a tempting hagiography: Lorine Niedecker, scrubbing floors at a hospital, her eyes watering as she trudges home at dusk, composes poems that endure, shaping the legacy of American modernism.

Part 2: Paychecks

Social Security payments from Niedecker's previous job as a proofreader at the agricultural magazine Hoard's Dairyman amounted to in the words of her biographer, Margot Peters "a hill of beans." Niedecker left proofreading because of her deteriorating eyesight, but after an eye exam at the Madison disability office, she was told "her eyes would have to be much worse to file for permanent disability."8

Late-career financial precarity was common among the cleaning women of Fort Atkinson Memorial. "Hospital convention bids me sit at table at coffee break in morning (15 min.) and at noon with other cleaning ladies elderly cripples already drawing social security checks (they're allowed to earn a little money besides s.c.)," Niedecker reports in a letter to Zukofsky.9 Is she a solitary person and ultimately sympathetic? Or is she condescending? I suspect she is hesitant to admit that she too depends on these hospital wages.

Gravy: a sauce generally made from the juices of cooked meat, can congeal to a stovetop as it cools. Gravy: extra money, funds that top one off financially, cash that can be made on the side. Gravy in the hospital kitchen, stirred by hand at night, scrubbed off in the morning, coating the hands of these gray-haired cleaning women. A pot of gravy for lean times, for women working through the night. In a generous reading, "Hospital Kitchen" records instructions for solidarity: place the gravy back on the stove, keep it warm and within easy reach of those laboring in the kitchen.

Assessing what is known of Niedecker's labor politics, Kristin Grogan notes that Wisconsin was a vanguard of labor rights during Niedecker's lifetime: in 1911 it passed the Wisconsin Workmen's Compensation Law, in 1926 it endorsed child labor laws, and in 1932 it became the first state to pass an unemployment compensation law. Grogan writes: "the Depression years also saw the unprecedented intensification of the Wisconsin labor movement. The state experienced an increased number of strikes as workers gained the right to organize, and by the late 1930s Wisconsin was one of the most completely unionized states in the country."10 Niedecker's region was suffused with theories of worker solidarity, shaped by the energies of unions and their organizing powers. Despite this context, I find no mention of unions in her description of her years cleaning the Fort Atkinson Hospital.

In 1959, Niedecker reports: "Got a 15¢ increase per hr half goes to make up cost of meals which they used to give us. Means about $20 more a month to take home." The detail of her calculations reveals the precariousness of her financial situation. Did the other cleaning ladies get the same raise that year? Is this the only time in Niedecker's correspondence (I think it is) that she refers to the cleaning women as us? I wonder if the women at Fort Atkinson Memorial Hospital discussed their wages with each other and organized for this raise, whether they came to the consensus that they deserved more.

In 1960, 35% of Americans 65 and older were kept below the poverty line.11 Despite improvements to Social Security, the number is inching upwards again: in 2021, 10.3% of Americans in this age group were forced under.12

Part 3: Breaks

The voices of her fellow cleaning women may leave anonymous marks on Niedecker's poetry, a phrase or image gleaned from her daily shift finding its way onto the page. Convalescence, pushes food onto her fork with her fingers, gone by hot noon . . . but it's also possible that her poems carry no trace of the cleaning women's ideas or patterns of speech.

Here is an anecdote never mentioned in hagiographic literary histories: "This morning the Lithuanian cleaning woman accused me of sitting in her place at table coffee break," Niedecker writes. "I paid no attention to it as of course we sit wherever we find a place. She travels from Lithuania to Wisconsin to sit down forever in one spot while I have no special place and wander abroad every noon with my plate of food till I discover a vacant chair!"13

I have to think that giving Lorine Niedecker her due as a poet treating her not as a flimsy saint but as a human writer requires acknowledging that she was uneasy about sharing a job with recent immigrants to Wisconsin. She did not relish the proximities of the lunch hour; she was ruffled by this request to relinquish her seat to someone born elsewhere. In technical terms, this is xenophobia. It is possible to read Karl Marx, as Niedecker did, and still feel displaced by a Lithuanian coworker at coffee break. She resented who was permitted to claim a seat at the kitchen table of Memorial Hospital in 1957. Sometimes an ungenerous reading generates a clearer portrait.    

According to the Center for Economic and Policy Research, 38.2% of those employed in building cleaning services in 2020 were born outside the United States.14

Moreover, Niedecker's insistence on her artistic singularity could leave her isolated. "I have the Art News Annual, that large book you get from Marboro Books at one-fourth the cost when it's a year old," she reports, "and I carried it to work one day thinking to ask the record librarian if she'd like to borrow it she has a daughter in Milwaukee who paints." But then Niedecker changes her mind: "I didn't approach her, after carrying the thing there! I think they know they have a cleaning woman who is a little different from the usual, but it wouldn't do the slightest good to show them how different."15 This last sentence is often quoted in Niedecker biographies and criticism, proof of her sustained confidence in her place in American letters despite her geographic estrangement from the New York literary scene.

But different from the usual? Who are the usual? I doubt the other cleaning women's lives were entirely devoid of color and music and stories. I doubt they somehow walked to the hospital without noticing the same leaves and river currents that caught Niedecker's attention. I worry that the myth of the singular poet too easily obscures the art unfolding in other lives. What might have changed if Niedecker believed that an inclination towards art and thought was usual among her neighbors in Fort Atkinson?

Here is a story: when my grandmother died, I inherited a portrait of a woman in a headscarf, perhaps Lithuanian but probably not. This portrait was painted by my great-aunt Peggy, who lived in Cumberland, Wisconsin, a town of less than three thousand people a few hours northwest of Fort Atkinson. Cows and corn and the kind of flatness that emphasizes the horizon. When we visit Cumberland, my father points out the farm where my grandfather grew up without electricity during the Great Depression. When I look at the painting, I imagine Peggy scrubbing the dinner dishes and then taking out her oils, the sky growing dark and the scent of hay and lake water drifting through the window. She relied on a popular how-to book, Portraits in Oils by Stella Mackie, that sold for $1 through the 1950s and 1960s, methodically painting the portrait now hanging in my apartment, step by step. It is an amateur replica, not something people would call great art; it is worthless beyond the realm of family sentiment. I keep it because it reminds me that so many women dedicate their spare hours to art.

Fig. 2. Portraits in Oils book cover, image courtesy of Walter Foster Publishing.

How many of Lorine's fellow cleaning women knew she wrote poetry? How many of Peggy's neighbors knew she painted? Did anyone at her church ask to see her canvases? Would she have shared her poems? Would her coworker have told her about Lithuanian poetry, about Kazys Binkis's The Prophet of the Four Winds or Jonas Mačiulis's Voices of Spring? These connections move women's creativity from something singular to something in common, something that can be returned to each other.

All the unvoiced conversations in that kitchen. All the missing poems.

Sarah Dimick ( @sarahdimick ) is an Assistant Professor of English at Harvard University. Her research, based in Anglophone literatures of the 20th and 21st centuries, focuses on literary portrayals of climate change and environmental justice.


  1. Lorine Niedecker, "Hospital Kitchen," Collected Works, ed. Jenny Penberthy (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2002), 205.[]
  2. Lorine Niedecker to Louis Zukofsky, February 4, 1957, in Niedecker and the Correspondence with Zukofsky 1931-1970, ed. Jenny Penberthy (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 232-33.[]
  3. Soo-Jeong Lee, Bora Nam, Robert Harrison, and OiSaeng Hong, "Acute Symptoms Associated With Chemical Exposures and Safe Work Practices Among Hospital and Campus Cleaning Workers: A Pilot Study," American Journal of Industrial Medicine 57 (2014): 1220-21.[]
  4. Rachel Carson, Silent Spring (Boston: Mariner Books, 2002), 173.[]
  5. "Niedecker Library Personal Database," Friends of Lorine Niedecker Inc.,[]
  6. Margot Peters, Lorine Niedecker: A Poet's Life (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2011), 126.[]
  7. Anila Bello, Margaret M. Quinn, Melissa J. Perry, and Donald K. Milton, "Characterization of Occupational Exposures to Cleaning Products Used For Common Cleaning Tasks A Pilot Study of Hospital Workers," Environmental Health 8, no. 11 (2009), unpaginated.[]
  8. Peters, Lorine Niedecker, 122.[]
  9. Lorine Niedecker to Louis Zukofsky, "February 4, 1957," in Niedecker and the Correspondence with Zukofsky 1931-1970, ed. Jenny Penberthy (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 233.[]
  10. Kristin Grogan, "Niedecker's Gift: The Poetics of Work in For Paul and Other Poems," LIT: Literature Interpretation Theory 28, no. 3 (2017): 258.[]
  11. "Social Security and Elderly Poverty," The Bulletin on Aging and Health, National Bureau of Economic Research 3 (2004).[]
  12. Annie Nova, "Nearly 6 Million Older Adults Are Living Below the Poverty Line. These Resources Can Help Struggling Seniors," CNBC, September 26, 2022.[]
  13. Lorine Niedecker to Louis Zukofsky, June 26, 1957," Niedecker and the Correspondence with Zukofsky 1931-1970, ed. Jenny Penberthy (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 236-37.[]
  14. Hye Jin Rho, Haley Brown, and Sean Fremstad, "A Basic Demographic Profile of Workers in Frontline Industries," Center for Economic and Policy Research (Washington DC: 2020), 7.[]
  15. Lorine Niedecker to Louis Zukofsky, "March 10, 1958," Niedecker and the Correspondence with Zukofsky 1931-1970, ed. Jenny Penberthy (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 244.[]