No Finis: Triangle Testimonies, 1911 by Deborah Woodard (Ravenna Press, 2019)
mechanically, she gripped the air’s one rung
(from “Mr. Steuer and Edward G. Worth, Battalion Chief, Fire Department”)
Tragic moments can be made beautiful. They can be recovered moments that retell a story, an act, a consequence through a humanized lens. In doing so, the past gets supported while the individual people within that past are provided with new life. In following tragedy, there is always room for more life, more experiences, more time to reconcile, grow, and find new memory and remembering. Those artists who take it upon themselves to preserve and enhance history have much to risk; they are working with lives and the fragility of those lives may be ruptured. The risk of the causing of or potential for additional harm may make some artists pause. It may also be the risk that spurs action.
In No Finis: Triangle Testimonies, 1911, a new book by the Seattle-based writer Deborah Woodard, the risk is taken, and the steps are treaded lightly. Tragedy in the case of this book concerns the horrifying Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, which occurred in early 1911 in the Asch Building of New York City. This fire, which still gets taught in grade school history lessons throughout the United States, led to the death of 146 workers who were trapped through barricaded/locked doors and enflamed elevators. The details of the results are, objectively, grim and the occasion for grief is infinite. Still, within No Finis, Woodard carefully maneuvers through the loss to the life after the fire: those lives that continued on, those people who did not die in the fire, those who had opportunity to tell their story.
The book is written through the perspective of a defense attorney of the building’s owners, who were tried to death but made it through court with their lives intact. Thanks to Max Steuer, their attorney, the trial resulted in acquittal. The book is about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire as much as it is about this trial that followed. The lives of those who survived are expressly and thoroughly examined through small sequences (call them micro-fiction, call them poems) of the exchanges of the court. What results, what is born out of the tragedy of history and the history books, is an absurd, pensive, and occasionally heartbreaking situation between a man doing his job and a group of people who share trauma and an identity of survival.
I dream two scars where the wings should be. I see the mechanical up and down of the feathers each time I breathe.
(from “Mr. Steuer and Ida Okan”)
Woodard’s ability to humanize these individuals through the setting of the court is stunning. The book challenges our removal through space and time via empathy. Each of the witnesses and their testimonies are individual and lovable. They are humans with voices and lives. Positioned against the heinous and appearing-sociopathic Steuer, whose own sense of empathy is null, the entire courtroom and its inhabitants becomes a space of caring, a space to want to heal and to hope for retribution and resolution. The building’s owners make no appearance in Woodard’s book, nor should they: they have been replaced by (displaced by?) the stalwart, discriminant Steuer through which the entirety of the “new” narrative (the book) is controlled. This situation, carefully constructed by Woodard, provides entry to empathetic moments and a grueling, growing disdain for the callous men in power within the courts of the early 20th century.
This book is short and its individual sequences rush by and fade. The sequences are, of course, representative of how Woodard has interpreted the testimonies and defenses of the survivors. The sequences are, too, poetically positioned to support one another in the shadow of the strategy of Steuer (and the Court, which might through its own blankness of bureaucracy be a character of this story). In total, they create that humanized lens, that balance to tragedy, and that fullness of visitation into the pains of a very acute history and inconceivable loss.
Did you cry out for your sisters, then?
(from “Mr. Steuer and Joseph Brenman”)
Illustrations are included in the text in No Finis. Created by John Burgess, they appear hand-created, almost rough on the edges, very consistently bringing the abstract and the representative together. Diagrams of the movement and location of the fire, and illustrations of floor plans and city blocks are placed before and after the textual sequences, put into position in front of the survivors of the fire, unlocking or locking doors through conceptual confusion. Each comes with a description and footnotes, and the illustrations form their own sequence titled, by Burgess, “Testimony.”
Perhaps, then, the illustrations tell their own story, offer their own perspective, deserve their own voice. Woodard in her introduction writes of the illustrations collection: “[It] underscores the cramped geometries of the work lofts, with its grid of tables and hard-to-access exits [. . .] Strewn dots, indicating the burial sites and memorials to the victims, suggest a scattering of seeds—the ongoing potential for regeneration and redress.” These words should be applied to this book as a whole, which ultimately is a literary memorial for those who not only faced horror head-on, but found the strength to continue going through and beyond to new challenges, to further survival.
6/8/2019 02:56:15 pm
A brilliantly evocative review by Greg Bern. I know this book well, and Bern not only appreciates all the layers of expression and discrimination that form its whole, but offers it as a sort of archetype of what can be done in literature in terms of producing "recovered moments that retell a story, an act, a consequence through a humanized lens." As Toni Morrison reminds us, "The past, too, is infinite," and books like No Finis help us explore that infiniteness with powerfully immediate detail and specificity.
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