from Love Justice
By Bracha Nechama Bomze
[In this excerpt from Bomze's book-length poem Love Justice (3Ring Press, 2015), she is speaking to her partner about the latter's family history.]
My darling, who is this woman who gave you birth?
Brooklyn-born to anti-Tsarist revolutionary immigrants
her father, an escaped Bundist from 1905 failed uprising,
chosen Honor Guard at the funeral of martyred sailors from the Battleship Potemkin
(He quips: "I didn't need to see the movie—I was there!")
Your grandmother denied a job by Triangle Factory bosses
whether for her famed paddy wagon lock-ups
for sweatshop organizing, or for her klutzy sewing skills,
one week before the murderous blaze, March 25, 1911.
What if they weren't paying attention at Grandma Sheindl's interview
as she stitched her trial sample—an only slightly tangled mess?
What if they just needed a body,
a Yiddish-speaking girl's body
to seat, as was their custom, beside an Italian-speaking girl
lest two teenage neighbors, machines hammered down side-by-side,
stitch insubordinate whispers into ready-to-wear plans,
baste strong threads from a common tongue into off-the-rack revolt?
What if her notorious unionism had escaped their cold scrutiny?
What if she'd pulled off a few swift needle tricks and aced their test?
What if, uncharacteristically,
she'd managed to restrain herself,
refrained from needling the bosses with wry, sassy quips?
What if they hadn't sniffed out her apron crammed with subterfuge,
Yiddisher Arbeiter Bund leaflets stuffed in her lunchpail?
What if they hadn't been warned by a prior boss
of her paddy wagon excursions for justice?
Hundreds of young seamstresses
locked down inside towers of ragged scraps
locked down to keep out women like Sheindl
locked down to shut in women like Sheindl.
The only fire escape window, with a secret key,
by a foreman's resolute click, padlocked...
A burning cigarette flickers, hurling sparks.
Dusty mountains of fabric explode in volcanic flame.
Bosses flee the executive door, bolting stairway doors behind them
lest some seamstress child take undue advantage,
escape alive, but with a few spools of thread, a tin of buttons,
a pincushion not yet deducted from her salary
stashed inside her flaming smock.
One hundred forty-six workers, within minutes, morph into ash.
Or, wailing, screaming, the women help each other to leap,
from the high diving board of the ninth floor sill
to the empty pools of Washington Street, Greene Street
empty but for the charred bodies of girls too poor to stay in school.
Joe Zito, elevator operator, escorts his terrified sisters
into a flaming free-fall
no fire ladders can reach.
No nets can sustain the impact
of their bodies slamming the sidewalks
thud after thud after thud after thud.
Each strand of long, dark hair a wick in a blazing memorial candle.
What if what if what if what if...
What if, somehow, Triangle bosses had chosen Sheindl?
Then never could I have chosen—you.
What can be escaped?
What will always follow?
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