Tuesday, February 25, 2014


March 25th, 1911
Triangle Shirtwaist factory
Eighth floor

We are tinder
one spark to set us all
Strike! Strike! Strike!
We stood and bled on the picket line
with hand lettered signs and no coats,
but we were tinder burst into flame
kept warm by our own words and
the hope that things would get better.
Now my union sisters and I
are trapped in this airless room
with a hundred needles skimming through white lawn.
Today is pay-day,
how much will we be fined for
speaking, stretching, looking out the window?
I want to say, “We are tinder!
Fight back, again, and maybe
this time,
this time we can win.”
But our union is finished,
and life is just as it was before:
locked doors, cut pay, dust in the air…
No. Not dust.


Monday, February 24, 2014

At the Elevator

At the Elevator,
9th floor
Lucia beat one fist
against the wire bound glass, screaming
her voice raw with a terror
as vicious as the flames
and as unrelenting.
You promised you would come back
she wanted to cry to the operator, so come back! 
The doors are locked,
for the love of God
come back for us!
But what left her mouth was

Through the press of bodies
she stretched out both shaking arms
wrapped in singed and tattered lawn,
searching. Mama had been beside her,
Where are you? She coughed, sucking in
There, she touched a familiar arm.
She clung to it,
as though the hand that had soothed fevers
could stop the flush in her cheeks now.

Fire-lit faces seemed all the same 
in the haze, but Lucia picked out one,
five feet off the ground. Her glass heart
Lucia kissed her sister's head, smoothed
her curls with one hand.
Madonna mia, not Rosaria, too.
She is so young,
we are all too young
to die here.
We are works in progress,
half-finished shirtwaists,
but she is fourteen.

Around her people screamed
Yiddish, and English
and the Italian of home,
one plea, one cry-
Please, God
I do not want to burn-
the words almost drowning out the roar 
of the flames.
The elevator did not come back,
did not come back
did not come back
The pile of women separated
by faith and language
held each other now.

They were dying here,
Protestant, Catholic and Jew.
No more differences among them, only 
fear, desperation, faith in a better place
beyond smoke and charred flesh.
No one would die alone, but all
in the arms of 
a mother, sister, daughter, cousin,
a friend. There was no room for strangers
breathing in each other's breath
breathing out the same plea:
I do not want to die,
in so many dialects.

Rosaria pressed her face against Lucia's shirtwaist
and Mama pulled them close to her breast
their hearts beating in time.
Prayers offered up in all those
shrill, hoarse voices, never sounded 
so holy as the flames
closed in.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Fire escapes

For Magpie 207

It was the little things that reminded Tessie. Roses, like the ones that had been in Antonietta's hat, her fine hat, that she'd loved so much. That pattern of floral shirtwaist that was all the rage last season, like the one little Kate wore. Fire escapes. Madonna mia, the fire escapes were the worst.

 She looked up at the redbrick building, the metal spidering its way from the second floor to the ninth. Signs hung from it, advertising bicycles, rooms for rent, most in English, but some in Italian. Laundry like flapping white birds twisted in the wind, falling like--Tessie closed her eyes, feeling heat on her cheeks, on her arms. Her skirt might have been on fire again, now, three months later, and she might have been watching the bodies, bundles of charred cloth, falling, falling, trailing flame.

"Muoversi lungo," someone said behind her, move along. Tessie stumbled to the side, leaning her head against the cool brick, letting the man with his cart of apples pass. Move along. That's what everyone expected her to do, move on, keep breathing. It was hard, when in each breath, she could smell smoke, hard when she woke up and looked over the table at breakfast at Zio Giancarlo, his eyes red still from weeping over his daughter. It was hard when every time she entered the factory, she flinched, her eyes darting away from the cloth to look at the windows, the elevators, the stairs. This factory did not lock its doors. They remembered.
And she would remember.
She would always remember, whenever she looked at a fire escape, whenever someone lit a cigarette, whenever she saw shirtwaists hanging from their lines, whenever the congregation at Mass sang "Abide with Me," and her voice cracked on the second line, whenever she saw Sarafino Maltese watching her come in from work, as he'd watched his sisters, sorrow in every line of his boyish face. She could hear even now, in this busy street, the roar of fire, the cries for help, Aiutami, Ratevet! She could see the elevator doors closing, the firemen raising too short ladders, the mangled remains of the fire escape, crushed from the fall and the weight of so many girls...

Tessie leaned a hand on the wall, using the other to make certain she had not wept, then pushed off. She would be late for work. Life had to go on, and on, and on, but she could never, would never, forget. Overhead, shirtwaists caught the sun, gleaming white like the robes of angels.

(For those of you wondering, this is about the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire, from 1911. I've been a bit obsessed with it lately.If you are interested, there are some great books: Leon Stein wrote the definitive history,  Joan Dash's We Shall Not Be Moved, and Margret Peterson Haddix's  historical fiction Uprising are both great. I've also written several poems about it, all tagged. Check them out if you want)

home alone at four AM

Home Alone at Four AM

Most nights, my cat sleeps
in the crook of my knee,
a lump of warmth that snores.
Tonight she stalks across my room
leaps up onto my pillow
and bolts away.
Abandoned first by brother, mother out of state
then Papa off to Italy,
now Catling, I close my eyes again
 pull my blanket closer
(there is no insulation in my walls or ceiling
to protect me from a San Francisco summer)
and shiver.
The world shivers,
single pane windows rattle
my mind goes white with panic.
I cry out, remember the drills,
Protect your head. Duck and cover. Breathe,
curl into a ball and slide down
between bed and wall
to huddle.
Wood thunders on wood,
something--something heavier than
trinkets and books
and the plastic trophies on shelves--
 crashes down,
glass splinters.
Catling mews from the kitchen,
and for too many heartbeats the world writhes.
Then, like letting out a breath,
the ground stills.
I pull myself out from under the bed,
See my books on the ground.
The white shelf is facedown
a slab of brown wood lies across my bed
and where my ceiling used to be
is darkness and  wisps
of San Francisco fog.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Locked- 4:47

Locked, 4:47
8th floor

Thud, thud, thud
a chorus of hands slamming against metal
and wire bound glass.

Locked, the doors are locked
they always have been.
But maybe, if enough hands pound,
enough voices
thick and shrill with smoke and desperation
cry out
--Madonna mia, aiudami! 
Oh God, someone help!
Ratevet, ratevet--
the doors will open
and we can stream out
 down nine stories of stairs
and not through the windows.

Thus, thud, thud
bodies trailing flaming skirts crash through glass
to slam the ground.

Monday, February 3, 2014


March 26th 1911
Temporary morgue

Rose knew.
Of course she knew.
The whole city had seen the flames,
had seen the men and women sobbing,
had seen the sons and daughters leaping
their clothing on fire as they struck cement.

But she had hoped.
Oh, God, she had hoped.
It was Shabbat and he was going
to see her after sundown.
She waited and prayed,
and when he didn't come, she knew.
Of course she knew.

They led her through the room,
filled with bodies blackened
or twisted,
bones at every angle.
Some had parents
brothers, cousins
weeping over them.
Some were alone
as people filed past.

Box 34.
It was the ring that caught her eye
like the one on her finger. She took the hand--
what was left of a hand
and she knew.
The body was nothing like her Joseph
charred beyond recognition.
Oh, God, she would never kiss his lips.

Her breath caught in her lungs
and she tasted ash,
could feel heat on her skin.
The screaming that had echoed in the square
echoed in her ears.
She stared at what was left
of his face.

"Joseph," she said
when the attendant asked who he was.
"Oh, God, he was only twenty-two."
The man nodded, wrote
something on a tag.
"His watch, do you have his watch?"
He nodded, and handed Rose a box.
Fitting, his last tie to home would be
her last tie to him.

She cradled it in her hands, pulled out
his pocket watch, all he owned of value,
and opened it, gently, as he had.
The glass was cracked
the hands unmoving
and from the opposite side beamed her face.
Like glass, her heart splintered.

She sank to her knees, sobs tearing at her throat,
and understood wanting sackcloth and ashes.
She wanted to keen her grief to the heavens. 
She wanted to rip her shirtwaist and wail
How could this happen?

Oh, God, we were to be married in June.

Saturday, February 1, 2014


I was the Last
and am Last no longer.
Do not blame yourself, Magician,
no, you have not wronged me.

Not one of my sisters was born
who could feel what I have felt:
Regret, yes, but Love, too,
the aching in the breast.

I know regret,
but do not weep on my account
for I could not weep now if I wished.
No, please know- you have done me  no evil, in
changing me from unicorn to woman.
Had you not, I would have been driven to the Sea
and languished there with my sisters
 for the eternity we live.

And- more, I never would have known Love;
never tasted of mortality.
That I do not regret-only the leaving,
but I do not blame you for that either.
If you had listened to me
and let the quest end there,
in the middle of my tale
there would have come a day when I
welcomed death,
and there would have been no more unicorns in the world
how bleak a world would that have been!

I must go now,
rejoin my Glory
in the silver Lilac wood.
Must return to the rabbits and the deer.
I thank you, Magician. Truly, you have changed me
forever, but not for ill.
because of you I am the Last no longer,
and when all this world has faded away,
 I will remember Lir, and Molly Grue--
and you.
There is your immortality,
the love of a unicorn.