Mary Fell’s “The Triangle Fire,” a poem in seven sections, memorializes a tragic landmark in U.S. labor history. On Saturday, March 25, 1911, a fire broke out on the eighth floor of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company, a blouse factory near New York’s Washington Square. It spread quickly, fed by flammable sewing machine oil and bales of cloth. Because the factory’s owners, Isaac Harris and Max Blanck, had locked the workroom doors from the outside, the fire took a heavy toll, claiming the lives of 146 workers—123 women and 23 men—most newly arrived immigrants from Italy and Eastern Europe. Many jumped to their deaths, as the building had only one narrow fire escape, and the fire department’s hoses could only reach the sixth floor. Triangle was a nonunion shop, whose workers had campaigned for a shorter Saturday workday and safer working conditions just a year before. The factory owners managed to survive by escaping onto the roof and were later acquitted of manslaughter by a jury of businessmen.
Fell, a professor of English at IU East in Richmond, splices together images from different parts of the Triangle story, often juxtaposing the lyrical with the grotesque. In the “Asch Building” section—named for the loft where Triangle was housed—she pairs the image of two lovers kissing farewell on a ninth-floor window ledge with “two faceless ones . . . / folded neatly over the steam pipes / like dropped rags.” In “Among the Dead,” the speaker observes “a pair of shoes . . . [and] in them / two blistered feet.” These careful pairings of love and death, beauty and horror, allow Fell to balance political engagement with the quiet particulars of poetic witness.
In today’s blog—published on the hundred first anniversary of the fire—I want to focus on the first poem in the sequence, “Havdallah”:
This is the great divide
by which God split
on the Sabbath side
he granted rest,
on the workday side.
But even one
revolution of the world
is an empty promise
where bills to pay
respect no heavenly bargains.
Until each day is ours
let us pour
darkness in a dish
and set it on fire,
bless those who labor
as we pray, praise God
his holy name,
strike for the rest. (The Persistence of Memory 3)
The title refers to the Jewish ceremony marking the end of the Sabbath with the lighting of a braided candle. As the candle is lit, worshippers say, “Blessed are You, O Lord our God, Ruler of the Universe, who creates the light of fire.” Another part of the Havdallah prayer blesses God for making a distinction “between holy and profane, between light and darkness. . . [and] between the seventh day and the six working days.”
In 1911, Triangle workers put in full shifts seven days a week. Many of the garment workers were Jewish, helping to keep families afloat in New York and in Eastern Europe on their meager wages. The fire broke out in late afternoon on a Saturday, near what would have been the close of the Sabbath. Factory foremen did not typically allow time off for religious observances, especially during the lucrative spring season. In her reminiscences about the Triangle shop, garment worker and union organizer Pauline Newman recalled a sign on the elevator: “If you don’t come in on Sunday, you needn’t come in on Monday.” Indeed, there was no day of rest for Triangle workers.
Labor organizers on the Lower East Side often braided the religious and the revolutionary, much like Fell does here. According to Annelise Orleck, a labor historian, Jewish socialists were fond of making references to the Book of Isaiah, “with its warnings to the rich and haughty and its prophecies of judgment and cleansing.”
Fell’s poem mourns the loss of the traditional, ritualized divide between rest and labor. In the first stanza, the end words divide, split, rest and toiling underscore the holiness of the great divide between rest and work. The second stanzas puns on revolution: “But even one / revolution of the world / is an empty promise / where bosses / where bills to pay / respect no heavenly bargains.” Fell is signaling another divide here: between labor and management.
The remainder of the poem transforms the ritual for ending the Sabbath into an incendiary prayer for social change. It’s the kindling of a spark of outrage, the striking of a match that stands in for the other kind of strike. Anti-union rhetoric is rife these days. Many would turn back the clock on labor protections—the right to a safe workplace, the right to collective bargaining. On this anniversary of the Triangle fire, I hear in Fell’s poem an echo of union leader Mother Jones’ famous saying: “Mourn the dead, and fight like hell for the living.” Can I get an amen?
“The Triangle Fire” appeared in Mary Fell’s The Persistence of Memory, New York: Random House, 1984.