Wednesday, March 02, 2011
And the machines are burning
March 25 this year will mark the 100th anniversary of the fire that occurred in 1911 at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company factory in New York, in which 146 workers died. The garment factory was one of the many infamous sweatshop workplaces common during that time (and which persist to this day, particularly in the clothing industry and other industries notorious for low wages and long work hours and terrible working conditions.)
Factors that contributed to the horrific loss of life included a locked door to a stairwell (the fire started on the upper floors of a ten-story building), a fire escape that collapsed, oily floors that caused the fire to spread quickly; the factory owners kept the doors locked (supposedly to keep workers from leaving work early or stealing). Fire department ladders reached only to the sixth floor. Many of the workers who died leaped from the top floors, rather than be burned alive in the fire. The majority of those who died were women. Most were in their 20's or younger; many were in their teenage years.
Workers at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company had made attempts to organize a union. The employers responded with standard tactics of intimidation, firing suspected union organizers and sympathizers, calling in the police to beat picketing workers into submission.
Walking Through a River of Fire gathers 21 poems by nine poets from over the past century: Morris Rosenfeld, Dana Burnet, Chris Llewellyn, Mary Fell, Hilton Obenzinger, Carol Tarlen, Ruth Daigon, Alice Rogoff, and Julia Stein. Some of the poems are sharp and accusatory. Some incarnate in the voices of survivors of the fire. Some speak with the tenderest compassion for the dead and the living. Some report the events, coolly, accurately, while burning with a barely contained rage.
From the poem "Sisters in the Flames" by Carol Tarlen (written originally in 1996):
bent over your machine
your hair a mess of red curls
like flames I said
my words extinguished
by the wailing motors
we never spoke
together we sewed
fine linen shirtwaists
for fine ladies we worked
in our coarse gowns and
muslin aprons 12 hours
in dark dank rooms
nine floors above the street
our fingers worked
the soft cloth
our coarse hands
fed the machines [...]
of the flames
take my hand
I will hold you in the cradle
of my billowing skirt
in the ache of my shoulders
in the center of my palm
our sisters already dance
on the sidewalk nine
floors below the fire
is leaping through my hair
the air will lick our thighs
Sister together now fly
the sky is an unlocked door
and the machines are burning.
Several of the poems return to the list of names of the workers who died in the fire, the names become a kind of drumbeat, the poems moving between funeral dirge and public denunciation. From the poem "Triangle Shirtwaist Company, March 25, 1911" by Hilton Obenzinger (written originally in 1989):
The crowd is howling at the girls holding onto the ledges.
It's quitting time and the sun is dropping behind the smoke
but we stay and stare and not thinking reach up with our hands.
I know at home my papa welcomes the end of the Sabbath
chants Havadalah to separate the rest of the week
and he sprinkles the wine on a platter and sets a match to it,
and the quick flame marks the end, the dividing line.
Now the girls in flames plunge to the sidewalk,
Celia Weintraub, Rose Glantz, Julia Aberstein,
Lucia Maltese or Surka Brenman
they are the ones who draw the line
between those who work
and those who own the value of it.
Very soon the first is out--maybe 15 minutes.
The crowd grows as the news spreads.
Then the survivors and the relatives and the friends
all at once lunge for the building.
The fire chief comes down and talks to reporters
In the drifting smoke, I saw bodies burned to bare bone
skeletons bending over sewing machines.
The fire itself was brought swiftly under control.
It was not difficult to extinguish,
from a professional point of view.
Only the furniture
the dress goods
and the employees
The crowd does not howl but is silent
as it rushes the building again.
The cops beat back the crowd with their clubs.
The earliest poem in the anthology is "Memorial to Triangle Fire Victims," written by Morris Rosenfeld in 1911 in the immediate aftermath of the fire. In a footnote, editor Julia Stein notes that the poem was originally published in Jewish Daily Forward, and was reprinted and translated in The Triangle Fire by Leon Stein (Carroll & Graf, 1962). She further notes that "Jewish Forward printed the poem down the full length of its front page in 1911."
From "Memorial to Triangle Fire Victims" by Morris Rosenfeld:
Neither battle nor fiendish pogrom
Fills this great city with sorrow;
Nor does the earth shudder or lightning render the heavens,
No clouds darken, no cannon's roar shatters the air.
Only hell's fire engulfs these slave stalls
And Mammon devours our sons and daughters.
Wrapt in scarlet flames, they drop to death from his maw
And death receives them all.
Sisters mine, oh my sisters, brethren
Hear my sorrow:
See where the dead are hidden in dark corners,
Where life is choked from those who labor. [...]
[...] There will come a time
When your time will end, you golden princes. Meanwhile,
Let this haunt your consciences:
Let the burning building, our daughters in flame
Be the nightmare that destroys your sleep,
The poison that embitters your lives,
The horror that kills your joy.
And in the midst of celebrations for your children,
May you be struck blind with fear over the Memory of this red avalanche
Until time erases you.
The fire and its aftermath led, in time, to a major overhaul of work safety and fire safety laws, in New York and elsewhere in the United States. Much of this came as a result of a surge in efforts by labor unions and other workers' organizations to press legislators to take action. A good website about the Triangle fire is here, in the website of Cornell University. It includes a history of the fire and subsequent events, contemporary news reports about the fire, accounts by survivors, a list of the names of the identified victims, additional detail on work safety laws and other outcomes in the years after the fire, general historical background, resources for researching further, and much other information.
The poems this collection bring a startling clarity and immediacy to the events of that day long ago, the heartbeat and breath and voice and presence of the people -- who were real, as each of us is -- who died that day, and who lived to tell the story.
I listened to the rattle of light bulbs
looked through dirty windows no light creaked through
At night in the quiet between heart beats
I could hear tomorrow coming
The same always the same except Sunday
strutting down Delancey with the girls
high-heels new hats fresh shirtwaists
The whole day belonged to us
Now I sleep with windows wide open
but the room still smells of smoke
and a taste that lasts a lifetime
Nights spent wandering from room to room
emptying my pocket book putting things back
stroking the cat remembering remembering
if I forget their names how will I know them
Miriam Nussbaum Tessie Bianco Lily Koch
We were garment girls greenhorns
quick to learn quick to make friends
and at Coney Island the gypsy told us
we'd had a lot of trouble but we'd be rich and happy
Close your eyes and point to any girl here
and her story will be mine
(From the poem "Bessie Gabrilowich, survivor," by Ruth Daigon, originally written in 2001.)