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More Perihelion:

Issue 7: Passages

Issue 6: No More Tears

Issue 5: Phoenix

Bob Sward's Writer's Friendship Series

Book Reviews

Need to Know



A quick list to poets featured in this issue:

Julia Connor

Ruth Daigon

David Humphreys

Kathleen Lynch

Walt McDonald

Jo McDougal

An Invitation to Memory

Payday at the Triangle
by Ruth Daigon  

39 pages. Small Poetry Press

by Barbara J. McGrath

During the recent terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, some of the most horrific images were of people jumping from windows to their deaths rather than waiting inside to die an even more horrible death by fire. Unfortunately, such grim choices have been made by victims of catastrophe before. In Payday at the Triangle, Ruth Daigon, author of several collections of poetry and winner of a number of national poetry awards, writes poignantly of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911.

It was a Friday, pay day, when the fire broke out. At least 146 female workers died, while most of the male managers on the uppermost floors were able to rush to safety. To ensure that they would not waste time in the rest room or talk in the hallways, the workers, mostly young immigrant women, had been locked into the work rooms of the multi-storey factory building. To avoid perishing in the flames, many of the workers leapt from the windows to their deaths. The firemen's nets were not strong enough to break the fall of the bodies, and the fire escape was broken.

Using news clippings and photographs as points-of-departure for her poems, Daigon gives voice to those who experienced the tragedy and in so doing transforms all-but-forgotten narratives into personal living testimonies. Yet the poems in Payday recount more than just the facts of the fire and the workers' deaths. Although these details are compelling enough in their own right, Daigon adds dimension by writing from the points-of-view of all involved--victims, survivors, firemen, relatives, onlookers, bosses. Further, in recreating the workers' pasts, she demonstrates that the victims have a place in history not because they died tragically but because they were human beings with both ordinary and extraordinary lives and dreams.

In the first poem in the book, "Immigrants," the young women describe collectively their anticipation as they sail to America:

    Let us go slowly
    Let us taste every moment
    Let us look long
    and see what we have never seen before
    the ocean with a thousand eyes
    singing in the shell of time.

The poet is careful to avoid depicting the women only as stereotypically wide- eyed immigrants. They also "want young men looking at [them] with bad intentions" and "love as hot as the sun on the back of a black cat." Nor are they intent on forgetting their earlier lives, for they wear "next to[their] skin / a necklace of the past locked in amber."

Although their hopes were ordinary, the workers who perished were individuals. Running through the poems is a litany of names. The survivors tell them over as they give the details of their own lives after the fire. "Rosie Safron, operator," for instance, who worked on the eighth floor,says, "Now my tongue eats without me / My mouth speaks without me / My ears hear without me." In the same moment, she is compelled to utter the names of her lost co-workers, "Ida Rosie . . . Sara." Similarly, "BessieGabrilowich, survivor," who sleeps "with windows wide open / [because] the room still smells of smoke" and spends her nights "wandering from room to room / emptying[her] pocketbook putting things back," adds, "If I forget their names howwill I know them / Miriam Nussbaum Tessie Bianco Lillie Koch." For Bessie, the names, which take on an ironic sing-song rhythm, become "ghosts in emptyrooms."

In "The Firemen," a collective voice describes the earnest yet nearly futile efforts at rescue: "Joe sees a girl on the 9th floor signals her / We're coming We're coming." But "The ladders go up six floors / Hoses only reach the seventh / She leaps toward it skirt on fire misses" while"lives keep raining down." The next day they find "skeletons bent over sewing machines / corpses in cloak rooms / melted against doors." Such graphic details may be difficult for readers to take in. Yet the poet has been careful to present the poems in a particular order; once the tragedy has been placed within the larger context of the women's lives, readers are led toward, rather than thrust into, the firemen's horrifying account.

The poet's handling of the raw materials of the tragedy is very controlled, not only through the careful placement of each poem within the book, but also through her attention to tone within individual poems. One of the achievements of the book is Daigon's uses of diction. She strikes a balance between plain and poetic language, interspersing straight-forward speech with figurative phrasing. This is apparent in poems such as "Mary Bucelli, survivor." In spite of having jumped from the sixth floor, Mary is alive. However, that she did not die may not be a blessing. She describes her existence:

    Now I look into mirrors talk to myself and listen
    to scorched voices filling cracks in the ceiling
    and gaps in the floorboards
    Even in the dark I see their screamprints.

The synesthetic "scorched voices" and "screamprints" juxataposed with more matter-of-fact observations not only startle but offer evidence that at every moment, a survivor's consciousness, and conscience, is flooded by memories, from which there is no escape.

On the whole, the experiences in Payday are spoken in a rush. Daigon avoids formal punctuation, for example, which might slow the telling and detract from the intensity of the stories. However, beautiful figurative phrases in certain poems slow the tempo momentarily, as in two of the most haunting poems in the book. In "Mother's Lament," the speaker says:

    In the province no one visits she's still
    waiting to be born
    I can almost hear her breath
    brushing by me like a dark wish.

And in "Memories," victims' names--"Tessie, Ida, Sara"--are "heavy with old weather" and the "[smell] of strange earth." These phrases seem to open an other-wordly space for the victims and their stories to preserve themfor all time.

It is a daunting task to render the truths of a tragedy graphically yet poignantly. The poems in Payday at the Triangle succeed because they do not assault but rather invite readers to experience history almost first-hand. Tragedies, no matter what their magnitude, have a way of disappearing into headlines, and the headlines themselves of becoming clichés. Daigon reminds readers that the individuals who experienced the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1911 have not been lost to history.

Barbara J. McGrath's award winning poems and reviews have appeared in numerous journals. Recently, she was the winner of Oneiros Press' first broadside contest, judged by Albert Goldbarth. Last year she completed her doctorate in English at Illinois State University. Currently, she teaches college-level writing courses and is at work on a full-length poetry manuscript.


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