Deborah Woodard’s newest chapbook, No Finis, is a striking reimagining of the infamous 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire trial. Her poems reify the experiences of the victims and, in doing so, shed a timely light on issues of labor injustice, women’s rights, and immigration. Woodard imaginatively excises lines from the trial transcript and arranges them into poems, adding, as she writes in the forward, “a few fictional threads,” while maintaining the integrity of the original words.
Historically, the owners of the factory, Isaac Harris and Max Blanck, were ultimately acquitted of the deaths of the 146 garment workers, but the trial laid the groundwork for examining the conditions of similar factories in the United States. As the collection illustrates, the trial illuminated the cramped working conditions and poor escape routes; notoriously, one of the two exits was locked and opened inwards instead of outwards, preventing the crush of workers—mostly women—trying to escape from pushing the door down.
The collection focuses on the defense attorney Max Steuer’s dizzying cross-examination of the witnesses, which include survivors, firemen, and merchants to the factory. Interspersed throughout the collection are illustrations representing the claustrophobic work environment of the factory. The drawings, by artist John Burgess, not only stand in for the original diagrams the witnesses were asked to study, but also resonate with deeper meaning when paired with Woodard’s poems. Together, the poems and illustrations give the collection itself a kind of claustrophobia—especially with the repetitive titles of the poems, named only for the witnesses Steuer is examining. In this way, the chapbook, ingeniously, might be seen as giving the reader the same experience as the victims of the fire and the witnesses in the trial: a sense of being trapped, moving through lines that, mazelike, never give us a full picture of what exactly happened. And yet, Woodard’s talent is in still giving us the full depiction of the tragedy, of evoking its harrowing depth. The ending lines of the poems are exemplary, as in “Jacob Woll, Fireman, Recalled to the Stand,” which focuses on the burned door and a single piece of hardware the fireman recalls, a hinge on the wall. The final line of the poem reads, “the wishbone is a hinge,” an image that viscerally places us in the minds of the victims, trapped by a mere hinge. Another poem, “Mr. Steuer and James Whiskerman” ends, “neglect is both more random and more cumulative than order,” a line that speaks hauntingly to the unjust conditions of the garment workers.
Throughout, the collection also plays with the idea of materiality, of what it means for something or someone to have significance or meaning. Woodard’s selections lay stress on the literal material of the factory—fabric and rags—which then adds deeper meaning to some of the language speakers employ. In one poem, for example, a witness describes the fire as “seamless,” a particularly apropos image of a fire in a garment factory. When Steuer or the Court object to a claim as “immaterial” we pause a little longer to reflect on that word’s layers of meaning. In “Mr. Steuer and Sam Bernstein,” when the witness is asked if he was injured in the fire, he simply replies, “My hat and my overcoat I left behind.” While the Court interjects to say the witness (an immigrant who speaks mainly Yiddish) didn’t understand the question, the mistake is indicative, and speaks to Woodard’s stated interest in the trial: the relationship these workers have to their own trade. These workers survive by making clothes they cannot even afford; the man was materially—monetarily, significantly—injured by the loss of his clothes.
In this way, Woodard’s collection speaks to the injustices these workers—mostly immigrants, mostly women—endured. The rapid back and forth of the cross-examination often hints at Steuer’s derogatory treatment of the witnesses. In “Mr. Steuer and Ethel Monick,” for example, he says to the witness, “We are waiting, little girl.” Later, when Steuer asks if she was afraid of the factory owners, she replies, “Not exactly afraid. You know they are—I was nothing to them, you know, because I was only a working girl.” Her answer resonates with us because we know the outcome of the trial—she and all the other workers, the 146 victims of the fire, were judged as nothing, and the owners went free. Powerfully, then, Woodard’s poems offer the men and women of the factory a voice, and thus materiality. As the title of the collection suggests, their stories should not end with the fire.
In reading this collection, I found that a moderate understanding of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire was helpful, perhaps integral, to grappling with these poems. But while Woodard’s collection revolves around a trial from over a century ago, the issues its lines lay bare are both timely and timeless, namely, justice for the oppressed and victimized. As might be assumed for poems that draw from a primary text, the language is unaffected, but Woodard’s arrangements are profound. This is an original collection with abiding concerns.
No Finis; Triangle Testimonies, 1911, by Deborah Woodard. Edmonds, Washington: Ravenna Press, November 2018. 78 pages. $12.95, paper.
Alexa T. Dodd has a Master’s in English and Creative Writing from Texas Tech University. Her work has appeared in River Teeth Journal, Atticus Review, The After Happy Hour Review, and elsewhere. She is a Tin House Summer Workshop alumnus and a recipient of a Hypatia-in-the-Woods residency for women artists.