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The Poetry Of 9/11 And Its Aftermath

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The Poetry Foundation:

Beyond Grief and Grievance

The poetry of 9/11 and its aftermath

BY PHILIP METRES


It was my second week as a newly-minted professor in the Midwest, September 11, 2001, and I hustled to complete a lecture on imagery when my wife called. All I could think was, "why is she calling me ten minutes before I have to teach?" - something about a plane crash something something New York - and then, "why do I need to know this before class?" I hung up, and returned to the poem before me, Carolyn Forché's "The Colonel."

By the time I arrived in the classroom, after hearing the full extent of the morning's events, I could barely get through the poem without breaking down in tears.

It wasn't just the bag of ears that the Colonel pours across his opulent table. It's the violence at the perimeters of vision-the filed nails of the daughter, the moon hanging on a cord, the house surrounded by a wall of broken bottles, the gratings on the window, even the rack of lamb.

The poem works not merely by intimating torture, but by decorating it so uncannily like homes in our own country. In the home of Forché's Colonel, an American cop show plays on television, and a maid serves a delectable spread. Forché's poem, in its raw confrontation, jolts us awake to the violence of privilege. But that's what made it so difficult to teach on that day. What was 9/11 but the end of the fantasy of our separateness, our invulnerability?

The events of 9/11 occasioned a tremendous outpouring of poetry; people in New York taped poems on windows, wheatpasted them on posts, and shared them by hand. In Curtis Fox's words, "poetry was suddenly everywhere in the city." Outside the immediate radius of what became known as "ground zero," aided by email, listserves, websites, and, later, blogs, thousands of people also shared poems they loved, and poems they had written. By February, 2002, over 25,000 poems written in response to 9/11 had been published on poems.com alone. Three years later, the number of poems there had more than doubled.

Often invisible in American culture, poetry suddenly became relevant, even-and perhaps dangerously-useful. People turned to poems when other forms failed to give shape to their feelings. Some of these poems, certainly, employed the language of faith, a faith that has often been mobilized as a weapon of grievance. Some were desperately angry, in the way Toby Keith's "Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue (The Angry American)" promises to put a "boot in the ass" of those that "messed" with the U.S. of A. In Cleveland, I recall hearing some rather salty Osama limericks involving his mama.

Of course, poems that take on subjects as public and iconic as the attacks of September 11th risk not only devolving into cliché and hysterical jingoism, but also, even when most well-meaning, perpetuating the violence of terror, and the violence of grievance and revenge, as mass media did by endlessly replaying images of the planes exploding into the World Trade Center towers. Likewise, when we read enough 9/11 poems, we become awash in falling people, planes described as birds, flaming towers of Babel, ash and angels, angels and ash. The mythic nature of this attack, this disaster-echoing everything from the tower of Babel to the fall of Icarus-is undeniable, and the acts of heroism and the brute loss of so many makes it difficult to find adequate words, even for our most accomplished poets.

In a riposte to John Lundberg's 2010 essay on the Huffington Post, "Remembering 9/11 Through Poetry," one commenter acidly posted: "isn't 9/11 bad enough without adding poetry to it?" The commenter known as "Zymos" may just be a poetry-hater, but he also has a point, made more articulately by Theodor Adorno, that "to write lyric poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric." Adorno reflects on the dangers of art to render traumatic events too easily understandable, too easily commodifiable. In his essay, "Commitment," Adorno extends his original critique, saying that:

"by turning suffering into images, harsh and uncompromising though they are, it wounds the shame we feel in the presence of the victims. For these victims are used to create something, works of art, that are thrown to the consumption of a world which destroyed them… The moral of this art, not to forget for a single instant, slithers into the abyss of its opposite. The aesthetic principle of stylization, and even the solemn prayer of the chorus, make an unthinkable fate appear to have had some meaning; it is transfigured, something of its horror removed. This alone does an injustice to the victims; yet no art which tried to evade them could confront the claims of justice."

With such pressure to avoid doing injustice to the victims, it is no wonder that it has become a commonplace to say that the best poem about 9/11 is one written six decades before: W.H. Auden's "September 1st, 1939." It was certainly among the most circulated poems in the days after the attacks, and among the most discussed, though this poem's relevance to the events, and its position as the best 9/11 poem, is questionable at best, since Auden wrote it to mark the German invasion of Czechoslovakia. Continuing to put forth Auden's poem, regardless of its merits, neglects the vital response of contemporary poets to this tragedy.

But we cannot be silent. So between the Scylla of cliché and the Charybdis of exploitation, poetry moves. Martín Espada's "Alabanza: In Praise of Local 100," for example, offers a globalist ode to the workers on the restaurant at the top of the World Trade Center who perished in the attacks. By focusing on people often unnoticed, sometimes undocumented, and occasionally disparaged, Espada celebrates the diverse gathering of humanity that the American project has enabled, and that the attacks threatened to separate, in the rhetoric of security and the ideology of fear.

for the 43 members of Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Local l00, working at the Windows on the World restaurant, who lost their lives in the attack on the World Trade Center

Alabanza. Praise the cook with a shaven head
and a tattoo on his shoulder that said Oye,
a blue-eyed Puerto Rican with people from Fajardo,
the harbor of pirates centuries ago.
Praise the lighthouse in Fajardo, candle
glimmering white to worship the dark saint of the sea.
Alabanza. Praise the cook's yellow Pirates cap
worn in the name of Roberto Clemente, his plane
that flamed into the ocean loaded with cans for Nicaragua,
for all the mouths chewing the ash of earthquakes.
Alabanza. Praise the kitchen radio, dial clicked
even before the dial on the oven, so that music and Spanish
rose before bread. Praise the bread. Alabanza.

Praise Manhattan from a hundred and seven flights up,
like Atlantis glimpsed through the windows of an ancient aquarium.
Praise the great windows where immigrants from the kitchen
could squint and almost see their world, hear the chant of nations:
Ecuador, México, Republica Dominicana,
Haiti, Yemen, Ghana, Bangladesh.
Alabanza. Praise the kitchen in the morning,
where the gas burned blue on every stove
and exhaust fans fired their diminutive propellers,
hands cracked eggs with quick thumbs
or sliced open cartons to build an altar of cans.
Alabanza. Praise the busboy's music, the chime-chime
of his dishes and silverware in the tub.

Alabanza. Praise the dish-dog, the dishwasher
who worked that morning because another dishwasher
could not stop coughing, or because he needed overtime
to pile the sacks of rice and beans for a family
floating away on some Caribbean island plagued by frogs.
Alabanza. Praise the waitress who heard the radio in the kitchen
and sang to herself about a man gone. Alabanza.

After the thunder wilder than thunder,
after the shudder deep in the glass of the great windows,
after the radio stopped singing like a tree full of terrified frogs,
after night burst the dam of day and flooded the kitchen,
for a time the stoves glowed in darkness like the lighthouse in Fajardo,
like a cook's soul. Soul I say, even if the dead cannot tell us
about the bristles of God's beard because God has no face,
soul I say, to name the smoke-beings flung in constellations
across the night sky of this city and cities to come.
Alabanza I say, even if God has no face.

Alabanza. When the war began, from Manhattan and Kabul
two constellations of smoke rose and drifted to each other,
mingling in icy air, and one said with an Afghan tongue:
Teach me to dance. We have no music here.
And the other said with a Spanish tongue:
I will teach you. Music is all we have.

The poem's concluding lines brings the victims of war - from the 9/11 victims to the victims of war in Afghanistan - into conversation again. Perhaps the best response to Adorno's legitimate concerns is that "music is all we have."

Nobel Prize-winning Polish poet Wisława Szymborska also manages to avoid the troubling possibility of art's exploitation for easy (and false) transcendence, in her poem "Photograph from September 11."

They jumped from the burning floors-
one, two, a few more,
higher, lower.

The photograph halted them in life,
and now keeps them
above the earth toward the earth.

Each is still complete,
with a particular face
and blood well hidden.

There's enough time
for hair to come loose,
for keys and coins
to fall from pockets.

They're still within the air's reach,
within the compass of places
that have just now opened.

I can do only two things for them-
describe this flight
and not add a last line.

They jumped from the burning floors-
one, two, a few more,
higher, lower.

The photograph halted them in life,
and now keeps them
above the earth toward the earth.

Each is still complete,
with a particular face
and blood well hidden.

There's enough time
for hair to come loose,
for keys and coins
to fall from pockets.

They're still within the air's reach,
within the compass of places
that have just now opened.

I can do only two things for them-
describe this flight
and not add a last line.

Szymborska takes the photograph of the so-called "falling man" - the trigger to a number of poems and at least two novels (Don DeLillo's "Falling Man" and Jonathan Safran Foer's "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close") - and uses it as a monument to our elegiac desire to freeze the beloved in the moments before death. By not adding a last line and by not giving the poem its expected (and easy) closure, Szymborska keeps the work open, the wound fresh.

Not all worthwhile 9/11 poetry reflected such ambiguity, though. It would be strange to talk about poetry and 9/11 and not mention Amiri Baraka's scandal-making and splenetic "Somebody Blew Up America," published in 2002. At the time, Baraka held the post of New Jersey's poet laureate, and his poem caused an outcry principally for perpetuating an Internet myth that 4000 Israelis were told to stay home from work at the Twin Towers on September 11, and secondarily for its anti-imperialist rant against the United States and figures of the Bush Administration. His subsequent defense of the poem, an essay called "I Will Not 'Apologize,' I Will Not 'Resign,'" did not do the work any favors; rather than arguing that the poem is the dramatized utterance of a suppressed but necessary point of view - that of the anti-imperialist scourge - Baraka asserts his absolute identification with the poem's rhetoric.

The poem may be smarter than the poet's argument on its behalf. Emerging from an event which has ignited as many conspiracy theories as JFK's assassination, "Somebody Blew Up America" enacts the intoxification of conspiracy-theorizing itself. Conspiracy theory, spastic groping after fact and reason, comes out of the fantasy of absolute governmental power. While the poem's catalogue of imperial atrocity is mostly documentable (with the glaring exception being Israeli and American administration complicity in the attacks), the desire to place all the blame on a singular "Somebody" dramatizes the weakness of a totalizing critique of empire.

The ending of the poem clinches this reading: "Who and Who and WHO (+) who who/Whoooo and WhoooooOOOOOOooooOooo!" This comic-gothic, loony-bird ending actually suggests the dangers of the slippery thinking of conspiracy theories, even as it revels in it.

Along these same lines, there's also Michael Magee's "Political Song, Confused Voicing." Emerging from the Flarf Collective - Flarf itself being very much a post-9/11 poetics - the poem activates the politics and poetics of grievance. It blisters with energetic and absurdist wordplay, beginning:

you tongued my battleship!

you bonged my tattle-tale!

you maimed my mamby-pamby

Wagnered my Nietzsche

and gotcha'd my sweatshop

there ain't room in heaven for us

This structure suggests a feeling of grievance or woundedness, but the poet machine-guns so many allusions at us - from commercials to board games to political acronyms to philosophy - that we are suspended in its comic-furious catalogue. The first line, "you tongued my battleship" both references the commercial for the game "Battleship" - in which the boy says to his sister, "you sunk my battleship!" - and the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole in 2000, dramatizing American subjectivity's collage of history and games, and war itself as a commodity.

But the poem gains pathos and power with its blues refrain, and confuses any simplistic reading of who is the "us" and who is the "them." Is the "us" of the refrain, who have no room in heaven, the terrorists, or the Americans who appear to be speaking the main stanzas? The poem ends:


you prayed on my carpet
you bombed my parade

and there ain't room in heaven
no there ain't room in heaven
no there ain't room in heaven for us

The voices get confused in ways that suggest that the "us" is the wider human race, since "you prayed on my carpet" could be the typical complaint of bin Laden about American military presence in Saudi Arabia, and "you bombed my parade" could refer either to the U.S. economic parade ending or the U.S. bombings of wedding parties in Afghanistan or Iraq. Grievances get melded together in ways that suggest that competing grievances become a vicious circle, collapsing the distance between us and the terrorists. Magee employs the power of grievance even as the poem distrusts its consequences.

Bob Hicok's "Full Flight," by contrast, cast a ruminative, uneasy probing back toward 9/11 through the years that followed.

I'm in a plane that will not be flown into a building.

It's a SAAB 340, seats 40, has two engines with propellers

is why I think of beanies, those hats that would spin

a young head into the clouds. The plane is red and loud

inside like it must be loud in the heart, red like fire

and fire engines and the woman two seats up and to the right

resembles one of the widows I saw on TV after the Towers

came down. It's her hair that I recognize, the fecundity of it

and the color and its obedience to an ideal, the shape

it was asked several hours ago to hold and has held, a kind

of wave that begins at the forehead and repeats with slight

variations all the way to the tips, as if she were water

and a pebble had been continuously dropped into the mouth

of her existence. We are eighteen thousand feet over America.

People are typing at their laps, blowing across the fog of coffee,

sleeping with their heads on the windows, on the pattern

of green fields and brown fields, streams and gas stations

and swimming pools, blue dots of aquamarine that suggest

we've domesticated the mirage. We had to kill someone,

I believe, when the metal bones burned and the top

fell through the bottom and a cloud made of dust and memos

and skin muscled across Manhattan. I remember feeling

I could finally touch a rifle, that some murders

are an illumination of ethics, that they act as a word,

a motion the brain requires for which there is

no syllable, no breath. The moment the planes had stopped,

when we were afraid of the sky, there was a pause

when we could have been perfectly American,

could have spent infinity dollars and thrown a million

bodies at finding the few, lasering our revenge

into a kind of love, the blood-hunger kept exact

and more convincing for its precision, an expression

of our belief that proximity is never the measure of guilt.

We've lived in the sky again for some years and today

on my lap these pictures from Iraq, naked bodies

stacked into a pyramid of ha-ha and the articles

about broomsticks up the ass and the limbs of children

turned into stubble, we are punch-drunk and getting even

with the sand, with the map, with oil, with ourselves

I think listening to the guys behind me. There's a problem

in Alpena with an inventory control system, some switches

are being counted twice, switches for what I don't know-

switches of humor, of faith-but the men are musical

in their jargon, both likely born in New Delhi

and probably Americans now, which is what the flesh

of this country has been, a grafted pulse, an inventory

of the world, and just as the idea of embrace

moves chemically into my blood, and I'm warmed

as if I've just taken a drink, a voice announces

we've begun our descent, and then I sense the falling.

*

I could also mention Frank Bidart's nail-slamming "The Curse," and Robyn Schiff's obliquely-gyring "Project Paperclip," and a host of other poets and poems - both about 9/11 and those written earlier that we read differently after 9/11 (for example, Thomas Lux's Gulf War-era "The People of the Other Village"). H.L. Hix's brilliant docupoetic God Bless - which deploys the language used by President Bush and bin Laden to create a formally complex and provocative dialogue in verse - deserves a central place in the canon of 9/11 poetry. Who didn't, really, try writing a poem about 9/11? One poet-friend, whom I admire for his independence, pronounced his utter disinterest in the subject. I respect his sense that poetry could not go there without losing itself. For me, and for other Arab Americans, it was impossible not to write about and through the 9/11 attacks. Perhaps every poem I've written since 9/11 is inflected, in some way, by 9/11.

It's also difficult, in many respects, to separate 9/11 from the subsequent war in Afghanistan, the imperial adventure in Iraq, and even the economic meltdown. Yet poems by Arab-American poets such as Suheir Hammad's "First Writing Since," Naomi Shihab Nye's "Letter to any Would-Be Terrorists," Sam Hazo's "September 11, 2001," Lawrence Joseph's "Inclined to Speak" - among many others - crystallized the shame and grief and anger of what it meant to live in the gap between Arab and American worlds during those terrifying days since 2001. And more than that: it made some of us feel that we were not alone, that this terrible event came from terror and could lead to terror, and that the witness of poetry was more necessary than ever.

Mohja Kahf's "My Grandmother Washes Her Feet in the Sink of the Bathroom at Sears" comically and thoughtfully invites us all in the same bathroom together: Arab and American, Muslim and non-Muslim, patriarchal and feminist.

My grandmother puts her feet in the sink
of the bathroom at Sears
to wash them in the ritual washing for prayer,
wudu,
because she has to pray in the store or miss
the mandatory prayer time for Muslims
She does it with great poise, balancing
herself with one plump matronly arm
against the automated hot-air hand dryer,
after having removed her support knee-highs
and laid them aside, folded in thirds,
and given me her purse and her packages to hold
so she can accomplish this august ritual
and get back to the ritual of shopping for housewares

Respectable Sears matrons shake their heads and frown
as they notice what my grandmother is doing,
an affront to American porcelain,
a contamination of American Standards
by something foreign and unhygienic
requiring civic action and possible use of disinfectant spray
They fluster about and flutter their hands and I can see
a clash of civilizations brewing in the Sears bathroom

My grandmother, though she speaks no English,
catches their meaning and her look in the mirror says,
I have washed my feet over Iznik tile in Istanbul
with water from the world's ancient irrigation systems
I have washed my feet in the bathhouses of Damascus
over painted bowls imported from China
among the best families of Aleppo
And if you Americans knew anything
about civilization and cleanliness,
you'd make wider washbins, anyway
My grandmother knows one culture-the right one,

as do these matrons of the Middle West. For them,
my grandmother might as well have been squatting
in the mud over a rusty tin in vaguely tropical squalor,
Mexican or Middle Eastern, it doesn't matter which,
when she lifts her well-groomed foot and puts it over the edge.
"You can't do that," one of the women protests,
turning to me, "Tell her she can't do that."
"We wash our feet five times a day,"
my grandmother declares hotly in Arabic.
"My feet are cleaner than their sink.
Worried about their sink, are they? I
should worry about my feet!"
My grandmother nudges me, "Go on, tell them."

Standing between the door and the mirror, I can see
at multiple angles, my grandmother and the other shoppers,
all of them decent and goodhearted women, diligent
in cleanliness, grooming, and decorum
Even now my grandmother, not to be rushed,
is delicately drying her pumps with tissues from her purse
For my grandmother always wears well-turned pumps
that match her purse, I think in case someone
from one of the best families of Aleppo
should run into her-here, in front of the Kenmore display

I smile at the midwestern women
as if my grandmother has just said something lovely about them
and shrug at my grandmother as if they
had just apologized through me
No one is fooled, but I

hold the door open for everyone
and we all emerge on the sales floor
and lose ourselves in the great common ground
of housewares on markdown.

Finally, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention two significant anthologies. "September 11, 2001: American Writers Respond" (Etruscan Books, 2002) gathered poetry and reflections by poets and writers, offering an almost immediate but complex response to the attacks; the poems and letters to the editor William Heyen range from the reflective to the angry, from grief to grievance, from reactionary to radical. Another anthology, "Poetry After 9/11: An Anthology of New York Poets" (Melville House, 2011), has just been updated and republished. There is more than enough to read, to read to remember, and to imagine other futures.

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 compelled me to rethink everything I thought I knew, and made me want to learn more, to read outside whatever borders I had created for myself. Not to be more American, but to be a better citizen, a better denizen of the planet. To go global and be local, to go ancient and be modern, to question all certainties and embrace what I did not know, to read Rumi and Isaiah, Rushdie and Roy and even Al-Qaeda, to listen to Springsteen and Kulthum, to refuse the elixir of fundamentalisms, to translate and be translated again by what I could not yet understand. To tattoo "Oye" on my body. To listen.

Portions of this essay have been adapted from "Behind the Lines: War Resistance Poetry on the American Homefront Since 1941" (University of Iowa Press, 2007).

This article also appeared on the Poetry Foundation website.
For more from The Poetry Foundation, click here.

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