[Moondance; Celebrating Creative Women] [Musings from the Universe]

BOOK REVIEW: Ruth Daigon's "Payday at the Triangle"
Bill Gleed
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Every now and then I get the chance to read the book that opens my mind and shows me an other's experience with such clarity I almost feel as if I shared the experience. Ruth Daigon's Payday at the Triangle ($12.00, Small Poetry Press, select poets series, ISBN 1-891298-10-0) is just such a book. Daigon breathes life into young women so long and so tragically dead so well that I can smell the smoke and charred flesh from the pages.

Daigon uses newspaper clips, eyewitness accounts, her own dramatic poetry, and a selection of photographs from the Kheel Center and the International Ladies Garment Workers Union archives, both at Cornell University, to make the tragic events of the Triangle Garment Workers Fire in New York City come forward in time 91 years to hit the reader with immediacy worthy of the best modern creative journalism. The result is sure to become a classic retelling of the tragic tale.

For those unfamiliar with the story, the Triangle Shirtwaist Company was a sweat shop factory. In early March, 1910, over 147 young women died in a fast moving blaze. Many leapt to their deaths from the 8th story and above to escape the flames. All the doors out of the workshop were locked shut to keep the women at their work. The fire department didn't have ladders tall enough to reach the floors where they were trapped, and firefighter's nets either ripped through or were ripped from the hands of firefighters and volunteers as young bodies at high velocity crashed to the pavement. The fire happened on a Saturday afternoon when the women were working overtime for straight time piece work wages. The factory owners, two men named Balnke and Harris, were nice enough to give them a piece of apple pie for the dessert of their last meal.

Daigon say she was inspired to write the book after reading in the New York Times a death notice of Bessie Cohen Gabrilowich, a survivor of the fire.

"Her picture grabbed me," Daigon said, and perhaps the most evocative picture in the book is of young Bessie Cohen, supported by two others, swooning as she sees the remains of the victims in a makeshift morgue set up for the identification of the bodies. Daigon dedicated the next two year of her life to the completion of the text.

"It was hard to get it published," Daigon said, but this book has given her more pleasure than any of the other books she's written. "To take a newspaper account and turn it into a poetic dramatic work took time."

"I must have written 60 versions," she said.

But it's the words of the witnesses and the way she gives voice to their experience that make this a compelling book. It's not often a book of poetry is a page turner, but this one is.

A young man kisses his love and helps her off the ledge, following without watching her fall; a cop learns a new sound of bodies thudding into death as he tries to tag the bodies hitting the pavement around him faster than he can keep up.

Daigon give voice to Bessie Cohen Gabrilowich:

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 there
her story will be mine

And later in the same poem:
Girls rushing past wreathed in fire
drowning in flames
Girls leaping over machines
trampling each other
clawing onto window ledges


Bessie Cohen Gabrilowich ask herself, "If I forget their names, how will I know them?"

Daigon gives us their names, and their lives, and we remember them. Like so many others, they are simply too important to forget.

Daigon will read from the book at the Greenwich, Connecticut Library on September 30, 2001, and at the Tenement Museum in New York City during the first week of October.

Seek out this book and read it. And never let anyone tell you that a trade union never did anything for you.



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