Nell Maiden

( Washington, D.C. )
A review of Payday at the Triangle

by Ruth Daigon

Copyright 2001
39 pp., paperback $9.00(includes postage). ISBN: 1-891298-10-0

Small Poetry Press, Select Poets Series
P.O. Box 5342
Concord, CA 94524

Ten minutes before closing time on March 25, 1911, a fire broke out at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City and killed 148 people, most of them young women immigrants. This tragedy is the subject of Ruth Daigon's chapbook, Payday at the Triangle. Actual photographs and clippings from news accounts of the tragedy are interspersed with poems written in the voices of observers, survivors, family members, and the victims themselves. This range of distinctive voices and the use of present tense in the poems creates immediacy and poignancy as the reader relives the horror of the event.

"Immigrants," the first poem in the collection, explores the thoughts of the young women before they were exposed to the harsh realities of factory work:

     Let us soak up the sounds of our new country
     Let us fall headlong in love with America, wildly, willfully
     and stretch out over the streets of New York
     with all of us guaranteed heaven
     and the warm promise of earth

The reader remembers these lines when "Watchers Down Below," tells of

     girls in summer dresses speeding down heights of 80 
     feet   62 thud dead  girls at windows framed in flames 
     like vaudeville stars lit up on theatre marquees girls in 
     windows looking so alive then quiet heaps of clothing 
     on the ground they keep leaping one   two   three at a 

These poems also illustrate Daigon's control of difficult subject matter. The jubilant tone of the first is just right for young girls heading for a new life; the highly descriptive but harshly matter-of-fact tone of the second delivers an unfiltered firsthand account allowing readers to see and hear for themselves and grieve in their own ways.

Over half of the poems are named for individuals: "Mary Bucelli, survivor" now wears "dark glasses / shutting out memories living in half-light;" "Rosie Glantz, operator" runs through fire to escape and then stands "on the street watching / Sophie Slemi and Della Costello / arms tight around each other / step off a window ledge;" "Rose Schneiderman, union organizer," asks why the factory owners kept the doors locked, "a few seconds lost if we had to use the toilet / Get a breath of air Say a word to a friend." And it was these locked doors that prevented many victims from escaping the flames.

Payday at the Triangle not only pays tribute to the martyred girls, but also reminds us of the history of the labor movement in the United States. Creating contemporary poetry from a socially and politically charged tragedy that happened almost a century ago is a difficult undertaking, but Ruth Daigon succeeds. By giving the women individual voices and supplying details of their apartments, clothes, families, and worklives, she makes them real, and we mourn with "Max Hochfield, brother of victim," who says, "Her clothes still hang slack in the closet / A shoe fills with sunlight."

I - Old Dance, New Paint
II - A Most Inconvenient Appetite
III - Ground Heavy With Thought
IV - At the World's Well

Featured Poet - E. Ethelbert Miller

Credo - Tim Scannell

Summer 2002 Issue
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