(Edmonds, WA: Ravenna Press, 2018)
Deborah Woodard has written a little masterpiece. No Finis; Triangle Testimonies, 1911 transported me back in time to an event that had somehow, until now, eluded me: the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City. One hundred and forty-six garment workers were killed (123 women and 23 men), most of which were Italian and Jewish immigrants aged 14-23. The owners of the building, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris were tried for the death of a single employee, but were acquitted, mostly due to defense attorney Max Steuer’s “uncanny” and “brutal” cross-examinations. No Finis is a poetic illustration of what went on in the courtroom, some fact some fiction.
Alongside Woodard’s prose, John Burgess has provided a sequence of drawings entitled “Testimony,” which “explores the way the sweep of the funeral processions, and even the single broken wing of the fire escape, tug against this claustrophobic workspace.” The whole book is 77 pages, and can be read in one sitting.
One of the most frustrating and beautiful things about the book is how terrible of a person (and how great of a defense attorney) Mr. Steuer is. While interrogating Ethel Monick, who is clearly nervous, Steuer says, “We are waiting, little girl.” Later, he asks Yetta Lubitz if she knows what a square is. What’s worse, when questioning Sam Bernstein, he brings up the fact that, after the fire, Bernstein asked Blanck for five thousand dollars. This in itself does not seem wicked, but what follows:
[Steuer:] Have you got a brother?
[Bernstein:] I have two brothers.
[S:] Have you got a brother by the name of Hyman?
[B:] I do.
[S:] You lost that brother in the fire, did you not?
[B:] I did.
[S:] What was his name?
[B:] Morris Bernstein.
[S:] You were not injured in the fire, though?
[B:] My hat and my overcoat I left behind.
THE COURT: He didn’t understand your question.
[S:] To retrace our steps, you wanted five thousand dollars for your father, is that right?
[B:] That is so.
[S:] Why is that?
[B:] I demanded it for my old father and my old mother because, while the youngest brother was a single man, he could send them more money, while we other brothers could not.
THE COURT: What brother is that?
[B:] The one who burned. Morris Bernstein.
[S:] I object to that as immaterial.
A major part of the story revolves around language barriers and how seemingly impossible it is to live in a world where you misunderstand and are misunderstood on a surface level; forget the emotional, teenage games that many of us still play inside our own heads, but imagine everyone around you started speaking a different language! Woodard does an amazing job highlighting the surreality and gnawing pain of such disconnection, especially toward the end of the book when Mr. Steuer asks Ida Okan if she had suffered an injury. Her response: “I dream two scars where the wings should be. I see the mechanical up and down of the feathers each time I breathe.” To that, Mr. Steuer replies: “Is this a dramatic performance?” Part of me assumes that it’s not, that it’s all one big miscommunication, but the other part hopes that Okan speaks on an elevated plane, mocking the man with the puffed-up chest.
After each scene, Woodard concludes with a one-line reminder that this is, indeed, poetry — because at times, the transcripts can make it easy to overlook. A couple of my favorite passages read: “what’s wrong with things becomes part of them,” and “neglect is both more random and more cumulative than order.”
Because No Finis blurs the line of truth and invention, it acts as a puzzle, or better yet, a trial in its own respect, where the reader is the court and no statement can go without dissection. This does not change the fact that the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire was a very real and devastating event, and I cannot thank Woodard enough for bringing it to my attention, and allowing the victims a place to live forevermore.
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Cody Lee is a writer from Chicago, IL. You can read more of his reviews on NewPages.