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
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
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
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.