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South Fork Poetry: ‘Working Papers’

Tue, 03/21/2023 - 21:09
Horse-drawn fire engines on the way to the Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire, New York City, 1911.
George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress

In memory of the workers who died in the Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire, New York City, March 25, 1911.

Each one wore a tag
with her name printed on it.

Each one wore a thin cloth 
smock and a braided kerchief

caught at the nape
in a peasant knot.

Each invisible curl
was tucked like a dowry

into the triangle
of folded scarf

against the cotton wind
that whipped from the looms

and drove the soft gray lint
into each choked breath.

Beneath each smock
was a crisp blouse,

the prim cardboard tag
pinned to the fake collar lace

peeking over the edge
of cross-stitch trim.

Each tag bore a name
in neat Roman letters.

Each one clocked in and out
her fourteen hour day

except once. The crisp tags
burned silently.

The paper curled and the script
on gilded wisps of vapor

unfurled into the bolted room
where the iron clock had stopped

with a rumbling tock
on the quarter-hour

as if time itself
had dropped a stitch.

Flames threaded the looms
and screams curled like paper

amidst the swift machinery,
the bold new world

of each one's claim
lost so irretrievably

in that cradled
breach in time

when symbols crumbled
into ash

and nameless cries
filled a room of smoke.

Nancy Lederman is a lawyer and administrative law judge. She lives part time in Springs.

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