Poetry, Prayer And God's Place On The 10th Anniversary Of 9/11

09/13/2011 01:51 pm ET | Updated Nov 12, 2011

As I listened to President Obama read Psalm 46 on Sunday at ground zero in New York City, I kept thinking he should have kept God out of it and maybe gone with Rilke.

I practice an Abrahamic religion. I like the Psalms. I pray the Psalms. I have no problem with people seeking consolation through prayer as they aim to heal in the aftermath of the bombing of the twin towers, but not every person who rescued a stranger, lost a loved one or died in the attack on the World Trade Center was a believer, and religion gone amok played a role in the bombing. As long as men and women believe that God is on their side -- a god who awards gold stars to those who murder in his or her name -- religion will cause wars.

I commemorated the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11 by attending a Roman Catholic Mass for a NYFD engine company that lost nine firefighters on Sept.11, 2001. I go to Mass every Sunday -- and to that particular Mass every year on Sept. 11 because I think people who risk their lives to protect others are miracles. In their honor, I go. I go because I have a need to remember and mark the day with a sacred ritual. In gratitude, I go.

I had just dropped my 6-year-old daughter at school in our Brooklyn neighborhood when I learned about the attack 10 years ago. Her twin brother and their father had changed trains at the World Trade Center subway station about 20 minutes before the first plane struck the towers. I watched smoke flood the sky with soot and black smoke from our Union Street corner as I hurried home to await my husband's telephone call. The call came, but every time I remember it, I ache for the women I know who never got their call that day.

By 10 a.m., I knew my husband and son were safe. I strapped the 2-year-old in the stroller and hurried to retrieve her sister. Perhaps my most vivid memory of that day is the sight of the principal and school staff behind the partition in the main office shuffling through blue cards. A former teacher, I knew what to make of that. They were preparing for an emergency. My girls and I wound up in the church I'd begun to attend two years earlier. There we saw many new faces. Atheists in the foxhole? No. Human beings grasping what a temple can and should be: a "man-made" sanctuary, a place of tranquility in which one can feel the pulse of one's own soul in relationship with the souls of others. A bridge not an island.

Like many or most New Yorkers, 10 years ago, I went about my day, straightening up, shopping, giving my children lunch, conscious that I might doing housework in a war zone. I stopped at the market for extra rice and water and tuna in cans. I shut our windows sealed them with plastic and tape. I kept our home quiet with the television off and the radio low. I sat my daughters on the floor with stickers and magic markers, and I began to write a poem.

I felt obliged to write. I was a poet, after all. If not us, I thought, then who? Some poets think that's an out-moded way to look at things; that linear, "accessible" poem of experience has no real place in the post-modern literary realm. I seem not to be one of those. I kept thinking of those lines from Anna Akhmatova's "Requiem": "Can you describe all this?" The speaker is asked. "Yes, I can."

Every year in early September, I set aside a little time to work on the poem I started that day. It could be a while before I even know whether the poem I started a decade ago is finished. Some poems never get finished; their writers just stop and move on. The "ritual" (that word again) of working on it leads me to suspect "Black Cloud, White Ash" may be more a devotion than a poem. A false distinction, perhaps -- I tend to believe that all poems are prayers.

I recently found myself drawn into in a conversation about 9/11 on Facebook. The guy (a poet) who started the conversation articulated a feeling of numbness in the face of 9/11 fanfare. I take his point. So much of the television coverage of the anniversary has been pornographic, and not in a good way. So much of the punditry was imbued with an a particularly virulent fervor for those who would imperil "our way of life."

It seems my "comment" on Facebook came off as the protestation of a pathologically patriotic American. Which is funny if you know me. The edification that ensued was somewhat wasted on me. The guy who reminded me that people suffer bombings regularly all over the world and the one who pointed out that the United States exports devastation were preaching to the choir. When it comes to my own sense of "patriotism," it's not my nation's "might" I take pride in, but its "right": our commitment to freedom of expression and justice in law, our expansiveness, our cultural diversity, our record of providing "sanctuary" to those seeking freedom from persecution, war and poverty.

It may be I gave the Facebook guys the false impression that I overvalued loss in my own back yard while undervaluing comparable devastation elsewhere. The truth is that all nations and tribes do this. All disasters evince both self-centered and generous responses. Americans have no monopoly on this. The "not here" aspect of the attack on U.S. soil is part of the larger truth of 9/11, a part there's no value in pushing away. Because it happened before our eyes, the devastation that occurred on Sept. 11 gave us the opportunity to better know what it is we (in the U.S.) do when we wage war.

I visited ground zero less than a week after the bombing. I have a good imagination, but no second-hand account could have communicated what I saw and smelled there. That site offered so many people a tiny glimpse of the kind of devastation that goes on all over the world. Those who "overgrieve" 9/11 (to use a term one of the Facebook guys used) are not necessarily guilty of viewing the disaster as exceptional in relation to others that happen elsewhere. They see it as exceptional because it is the disaster they can know. It is the devastation we experience that teaches us what devastation is, and the knowing has great power to arouse compassion within us.

Many who mourned loved ones this week also mourned the coming to know what war is. Ironically, those who dismiss feeling the anguish 10 years later as a jingoist overreaction wind up in the same place as do those who swaddle their reactions in the flag. Both drown out the cries. Both dispositions isolate, create islands, not bridges.

One of the first thoughts I had as I began to write 10 years ago, at about noon on Sept. 11, went something like this: So this is how it feels -- the fire, blood and thunder of war. My next thoughts were arrogant, petty and insular. I made it all about me, the poem's "I." "Not here, " I wrote, "not here on the island of my birth." Obnoxious? Of course. Lyric poems run naked. Being embarrassed is in the poet's job description. Arrogance, shame, sorrow and terror often coexist in poems. Maybe those organizing this past Sunday's event at ground zero originally envisioned poetry as the optimal mode for expression on the 10th anniversary precisely that reason.

Yet some of the ceremony at ground zero struck me as a prayer service. I longed for the intoning of the perfect non-prayer for the many atheists who died and lost loved ones in the twin towers that morning, and thought maybe the list of the names was it -- what poets call a "found poem."

The recitation of the names of the dead packed the kind of walloping power we behold in Homer's catalog of ships, the "begats" of Genesis and the Litany of the Saints. In a sense, all we need to know about the "dark night of the soul" that was the aftermath of 9/11/01 (or of any massacre) is contained within and projects out from that list of names. That roll, the names of the 3,000 dead, would have been sermon and poem enough.

The Psalms are poems -- and indeed they are exquisite -- but I'm sorry the President wasn't able to keep God out of it. His "Interior Castle" would have been God enough for that moment.

Obama might have gone with an American poet: Emily Dickinson and her "Hope" ("is a thing a thing with feathers") or a few lines out of Langston Hughes' "Freedom's Plow." Or this, written by a Civil War battlefield medic:

How the true thunder bellows after the lightning-how bright the flashes of lightning!

How Democracy with desperate vengeful port strides on, shown

through the dark by those flashes of lightning!

(Yet a mournful wall and low sob I fancied I heard through the dark,

In a lull of the deafening confusion.)

--Walt Whitman, from "Rise, O Days, from Your Fathomless Deeps"