Frozen by Fire:
Reviewed by David D. Horowitz
Donald Kentop’s Frozen by Fire: A Documentary in Verse of the Triangle Factory Fire of 1911 describes the blunders, deceits, and machinations that caused the fire and thwarted justice afterwards. 146 people died in the fire that engulfed the eighth, ninth, and tenth floors of New York City’s Asch Building, later renamed the “Brown Building” and used for NYU classes. Most of the 146 dead, and indeed the survivors too, were young immigrant women living in New York City’s slums. Kentop uses his narrative poems, including many dramatic monologues of survivors, to show how tragedy lurks when we view other people merely as means to our own enrichment.
Kentop decries the unsafe conditions at Max Blanck’s and Isaac Harris’ shirtwaist factory and indifference throughout the garment business:
It was accepted bad things simply happened.
The cutters felt they were elite and smoked
It was a time, Kentop writes in “Moral Hazard,” when “[w]orker safety was simply not a factor…. [t]here were no incentives for safety, like sprinklers,/quite the opposite, the practice bred/negligence and fraud.”
Thus, when the fire broke out at 4:40 p.m. on March 25, 1911, it was not contained. Workers were not adequately prepared or protected. Numerous malfunctions and oversights contributed to the tragedy. For example, Blanck had insisted the Washington Place door be locked, to help prevent what he unjustifiably considered rampant worker theft. Once the fire started, though, that locked door trapped many workers inside who then burned or leapt to their deaths from windows:
The smoke and muffled blast had drawn a crowd,
In loose iambic pentameter blank verse Kentop describes the unfolding tragedy, detail by sickening detail. Here, he describes how reporter William Shepherd witnessed the scene:
Amid the flames, he saw a young man help
as though he held an open door for them,
Kentop here seamlessly blends journalistic narrative with resonant image. The reader experiences both poignancy and horror. Indeed, many of the collection’s blank verse dramatic monologues reflect humor, pluck, heroism, terror, and bewilderment—often all at once. Kentop captures complex emotion in simple speech. And, indeed, when Kentop lets survivors’ voices relate their stories or a journalistic narrator tell the grim tale, his work is strongest.
I might quibble with some details of Frozen by Fire. Occasionally, the plain reportage style suggests too much newsreel cliché and not enough poetic reimagining: “buzzing hives of people,/ bursting-ripe with possibility.” Occasionally, too, poems of overt blame seem to indulge debatably broad judgments: “People in America/were passive to the suffering that lay/behind their clothes” (from “Status Quo”). A misused or unnecessary comma here and there disrupts a line’s fluency: “they tell the story yet, are placed too high.” Likewise, a few dubious line breaks suggest blank verse as trap rather than liberator:
“As flames exploded from the bins, Samuel
Regardless of these quibbles, Frozen by Fire remains an important achievement. Donald Kentop has exhaustively researched the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of 1911 and in discovering the voices of the tragedy has deepened his own poetic voice. A native New Yorker, Kentop faithfully conveys the rhythm, humor, and sadness of the Jewish and Italian immigrants whose voices he inhabits and whose actual statements he studied. He juxtaposes dramatic monologues and journalistic narratives, most in five six-line stanzas of blank verse, and they harmonize into a whole. And sometimes he offers the unexpected, like the sonnet-flavored “Frozen by Fire” or the compelling terza rima of “An X in Red,” which includes lines like “The sidewalks in New York have been repaved,/the building where the workers slaved//is since renamed, remodeled, but its face/and masonry the same…”
Near the book’s end, after relating sordid tales of how Blanck and Harris were acquitted of manslaughter, Kentop tells of eyewitness Eraclio Montanaro’s late-life reflections:
Years later I returned, I was old by then.
In Frozen by Fire, Donald Kentop gives voice to Eraclio Montanaro and many other witnesses, survivors, and victims of one of the United States’ worst work place tragedies. Kentop doesn’t want his readers to simply go on their way. He wants them to live with this tragedy in their hearts to help make sure similar tragedies never happen again. Above all, he wants us to respect garment workers and poor laborers generally as distinctive, three-dimensional human beings, not replaceable machine parts or costly liabilities. Indeed, for Kentop, we stand guilty before God if we fail to make mercy as well as money. His fine book—exhaustively researched and expertly designed and featuring over a dozen photographs—is a major contribution to the already rich literature about the 1911 Shirtwaist Factory Fire. Donald Kentop has woven a poetic garment in a solidly structured building the fires of time will not burn away.