Poetry Friday: The Triangle Factory Fire

August 28, 2009 @ 8:38 pm | Filed under: Books, Poetry

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.

And Beth of Bookworm Journal commented:

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.

(Read the rest at the Internet Poetry Archive.)

***

Today’s Poetry Friday is hosted by The Book Aunt.


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Comments

8 Responses | | Comments Feed

  1. Thank you for this. Such a moving piece of poetry, so much there to really think about and feel.

    I’m always grateful for your reviews and research Lissa, you really lead me to some interesting things I’d never have come across otherwise- thank you!

  2. Several girls, in an attempt to escape the heat of the fire, threw themselves into an elevator shaft. The operator of a car, who could make no more trips to save those trapped above, testified that the blood from the bodies of those who had jumped ran into his car along with the coins from their pay envelopes.

  3. Beautiful I love all the precise vocabulary of textiles and sewing and laundering. And that breath-catching transition to the historical scene: “The treadle, the bobbin. The code. The infamous blaze…”

    And the young man helping the girls to step up, so genteel and horrific!

  4. Thank you so much for introducing me to this event in history as well as the poem and book!

  5. I’m so glad you enjoyed the poem. It is indeed beautiful and poignant — and what a joy to be able to introduce a loved poem to someone who also comes to love it and share it!

  6. […] Marie Pope (notes) • The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey (notes) • Lost by Jacqueline Davies (notes) • Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins (discussion) • The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton […]

  7. I have also recently read a novel about the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. I highly recommend this book. It is “Uprising” by Maragret Peterson Haddix. FYI

  8. I had “Lost” on my “to read” list, just finished it, and had to go back and search Google Reader to see who recommended it! Thanks for the recommendation.

    I found this book really tough to keep reading, not so much because of the fire that I knew was coming, but because of Zelda – knowing from the beginning that she was gone and dreading each of the “burnt” pages from Essie’s past because I didn’t want to read about it. The family’s grief seemed too great already. And there was something about Zelda’s exuberance that reminds me of my own daughter, I think.

    I did finish this morning, and am thankful I came back here to read “Shirt.” Interesting, also, that the book I read just before this was “Specimen Days” by Michael Cunningham, which also had a Triangle factory connection.