Our memories may be too short
the one-hundred years too many
and the lessons too hard
to bring back their every touch,
each tender touch given
by the hands of
one-hundred twenty-nine women,
the seventeen men taken in the Fire.
There are those cold, raw numbers, but
I want to talk about
I want to feel and hold
the warmth held and lost in their hands,
the way one hand might fall
as light as a tissue
brushing the hand of a friend as they talked
about Sunday strolls with lovers,
or the way one hand might squeeze another
tightly when they gave sharp laughs
after an off-hand joke
at the expense of a hand-me-down coat.
Fifty-two hours a week, those hands
had work to do,
work for others,
work snipping and folding
shirts, they worked, and the work kept them,
it kept them from
the touches they wanted to give
and it robbed them
of so many more touches when
they touched the doors made walls,
those bolted doors
their bosses had made walls.
The walls were flame then and their hands led them
instead to the windows,
those windows they could leap from to keep from
turning to ash, their hands
becoming still there on the pavement, lifeless where
on the pavement passersby watched
and reckoned the costs of keeping
comfortable in cheap shirtwaists.
I wrote this poem in commemoration of the recent centennial of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, which was "the deadliest industrial disaster in the history of the city of New York" and took place on March 25, 1911.
Today I'll be reading selections from the excellent anthology Walking Through a River of Fire at the closing party for my friend Diana Berek's exhibition Denim: Fabric of Our Journey (Narratives of Work Embodied in Reconstructed Fragments of Recycled Blue Jeans) at the B1E Gallery here in Rogers Park, Chicago. If there's time I hope to read my poem there too.