Conflagration and Wage: The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, 1911

—The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory caught fire in New York City on March 25, 1911. 146 workers perished. The majority of the victims were young women who had immigrated to America. Poor working conditions in the factory, insufficient escape methods, and the negligence of the building’s owners exacerbated the tragedy. The collective outrage after the fire led to heightened support for labor unions as well as significant labor reform.

Sections 1-6 of 18

1. Arrival

The arrival of a dream is never as a seed.
Instead, the vision comes full form.
It stirs the way a dog will startle
in his sleep and bark at air, at shadows.
Rising from her bed, a woman dresses
in the dark. Her brother and her father
snort in sleep. Their snores, she thinks,
are like the sounds of engines sputtering.
She steps into her dress and draws it up
and over what she wears to bed before
she lets the sleeping gown release and fall
about her feet. She learned to dress with men
around her long before she started work.
The dream that came to her, that brought her here,
was not a dream of silence, but of words—
a language she had never known, the names
like chimes. Surrounded by the snores of men,
the woman heats a cup of coffee on the stove,
then carves a peach in darkness, lifting pieces
from the blunt side of the blade to mouth.

2. The First Day

A father leads his daughter to the door.
She’s wrapped her thimble, scissors,
and a loaf of bread in newspaper, then slid
two needles carefully into her coat’s lapel.
When asked, in coming years, what she remembers
most, she says the doorknob’s porcelain,
its coldness, white as bone. The street’s just wide
enough for wagons passing side by side.
Her father stands across the street. He lifts his hand
as if to call her back, then pauses, holds his fingers
to his mouth. The door is slow to close behind her,
latching as she climbs the flight of stairs.
She moves her hands along the metal
of the upper door until she finds its handle.
Light extends around the frame the way
the moon, when passing in eclipse,
will form a ring of fire. And then, at once,
a whirring sound like insects fills the air.
The room is thick with garments, bolts of cloth,
and everywhere she looks no eyes meet hers.

3. The Will to Please

The smell of men is like the smell of earth—
the slight discoloring of clothes, a brownish-yellow
underneath the armpits, collars limp from heat,
the cuffs rolled back and slid above the elbows.
Silent in the shop, her hands in lap, a girl has come
for work and sewn the garments given her—
a test as much for willingness, as skill.
The man who runs the shop is like a sentry
at her side. He pulls against the stitches
with a needle, trying every seam. There’s coldness
in the room, a draft, and still he sweats,
two worms descending from his temples to his jaw.
The sourness that rises from his clothes
is like a fog. The only prize is labor—
cloth he brings and lays across the table.
Work engenders work. At home, she stands before
her husband’s nakedness. Their clothes are scales
to her. The seize of skin is like a wave—
the body’s weight, the pubis cold
with sweat, and even then, the scent of work.

4. Letter from a Young Woman to Her Mother

I want you here now more than ever.
Money comes so slowly. Every day I save.
I’ve dreamt of home for months: the smell
of lilacs in the garden, Sister’s voice in prayer
across the table, fingers interlaced in mine.
I cry each night returning to my room.
The silence there is lonelier than any sound.
Each night, a part of me expects to hear you
when I step inside the door, and every night
that part of me draws back when no one answers.
Silence is a type of dream for me.
Imagine what the three of us would say
around a table filled with meat and bread,
with butter and, for each of us, a glass of wine
(although I know you say I shouldn’t drink).
I do my best to hope for smaller things—
the sound of money in the jar, a better job.
Some nights I tell myself that you have come.
I see you standing in the doorway to my room,
but even in my dreams your voice is gone.

5. The Building and the Body

A row of windows spans the far side of the room,
the only light. Most girls must work by lanterns,
even in the daytime. Summer turns to fall,
to winter. Overcoats are hung on hooks, the hats
on pegs. The sounds of rain, the sounds of wind,
are barely heard. The building stifles speech,
absorbs the women’s words the way two hands,
when cupped above a candle flame, will press
against its heat. The only mark of time is carried
in the body. Hair turns gray so quickly that a girl,
at first, will pluck a single strand, and then,
by end of year, her locks will lose all darkness.
Color fades from skin and shadows form
like crescents underneath the eyes.
The body’s surest loss is form. Within a week,
the back will tighten. Muscles of the neck
will ache. The shoulders and the hands,
the upper arms, will knot and cramp. The work
of time is like a specter in the room, a silent form,
a flickering of candle flame and shadow.

6. The Fire Begins

A cord extends from wall to wall, a hanging line
for cloth, the folds of fabric like a galleon’s sails.
What startles first—the sound, or heat or light?
A girl looks up from work, her features calm.
Her hands are flat against the bench, her triceps
and her shoulders tense. She doesn’t rise at first,
but stares, as do the other girls, at wings of fire—
the fabric burning on the line. What beast
has entered here, has climbed the stairs in silence?
What will burn—the walls and ceiling, beams
and floor? The makers of the building claim
it “fireproof,” an invitation, words becoming form.
Perhaps the women disbelieve at first—a shudder
in the chest, a feeling of embarrassment, as if a girl
has said, unmeaning to, the name of whom she loves.
The clarity of fear is like a net. Nobody moves.
And then, as if it were a parlor trick, the cord
that holds the cloth burns through and fire is given
motion, sweeping through the air, two vines of flame,
the swatches shedding light and smoke and ashes.

-originally printed in TriQuarterly