It’s still (Poetry) Friday here on the West Coast.
The other day I mentioned a book I hadn’t been able to stop thinking about:
I wanted a few days to savor the novel I finished earlier this week: Lost by Jacqueline Davies, a spellbinding account of—well, the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, sort of, but really that’s a backdrop to an achingly moving tale of loss and grief, from the point of view of a sixteen-year-old Jewish girl (whose narrative voice may be my favorite of the year so far) who works in the factory.
Melissa, the book by Davies sounds very good — thank you for posting about it. I’m acquainted with the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Fire only through Robert Pinsky’s poem “Shirt.” You may know it already, but if not, I encourage you to google it (it’s on various websites). Truly an amazing poem, and might be a good accompaniment to the novel…
Before Lost, I was acquainted with the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire primarily via a TV movie I watched as a girl—I remember so vividly the terrible image of a young Irish woman being urged by her desperate chum to jump out the window together before the flames devoured them, and the Irish girl sobbing that she couldn’t jump, she was Catholic and jumping was suicide and she wouldn’t do it, and the other girl stepping out the window as the Irish girl’s skirts caught fire. A horrible image. And would you believe that all this time, until I looked up the link for this post, I thought that movie was The Towering Inferno? Which entirely different film I must also have seen at some point—clearly I have conflated the two because I would have sworn Paul Newman was in the Triangle Factory movie, and now IMDB tells me he was part of Towering Inferno‘s all-star cast, along with Steve McQueen, Faye Dunaway, Fred Astaire for goodness sake, and O.J. Simpson.
The film I’m remembering must have been this 1979 TV movie, The Triangle Factory Fire Scandal, featuring Tom Bosley, Stephanie Zimbalist, and Charlotte Rae. It won an Emmy for Outstanding Achievement in Hairstyling.
There is something terribly poignant about that thought. 146 people died in the Triangle Factory Fire, most of them young women trapped on the 9th floor of a building with flimsy fire escapes, no sprinklers, and no fire alarms. 68 years later, someone won an award for getting their hairstyles right on TV.
Robert Pinsky’s poem, “Shirt,” which I had not read until Beth directed me toward it (for which: thank you so much), captures that disconnect, that jarring history wrapped up in something so simple, so unnoticed, so miraculous when you stop and think about it, as a plain cotton shirt.
The back, the yoke, the yardage. Lapped seams,
The nearly invisible stitches along the collar
Turned in a sweatshop by Koreans or Malaysians
Gossiping over tea and noodles on their break
Or talking money or politics while one fitted
This armpiece with its overseam to the band
Of cuff I button at my wrist. The presser, the cutter,
The wringer, the mangle. The needle, the union,
The treadle, the bobbin. The code. The infamous blaze
At the Triangle Factory in nineteen-eleven.
One hundred and forty-six died in the flames
On the ninth floor, no hydrants, no fire escapes—
The witness in a building across the street
Who watched how a young man helped a girl to step
Up to the windowsill, then held her out
Away from the masonry wall and let her drop.
And then another. As if he were helping them up
To enter a streetcar, and not eternity.
Today’s Poetry Friday is hosted by The Book Aunt.
“He imitates the world he drove away…”
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