… and we go to poetry to make us feel and see it once more with its meanings intact.

It’s hard to write a poem about an atrocity. Many 9/11 poems are long personal narratives of the event: scenes witnessed in Lower Manhattan, the way the collapse looked from nearby windows. Some, like September Sonnet by Michael Salcman, are highly compressed lyrics in which physical descriptions also appear, but where the point is less to produce a verse record of one’s impressions than to capture, with small but heavily weighted lines, the larger fact of all of us having been immediately overwhelmed, and then permanently haunted, by the incommensurability and mystery of the battering.

Salcman begins by folding his poem into Auden’s 1st September 1939, which has emerged as the pre-9/11 poem, with its coincidence of month and theme as Auden assumes the full dread of war having broken out again in Europe.

********************

September Sonnet

Auden was right – our buildings grope
the sky for certainty but are dumb
and blind. In the fierce limbus of my eye
the plummeting birds burn still,
asbestos rains and twisted steel
falls in a broth of jet fuel,
cable wrap and mineral dust;
it bathes the snouts of corpse-hunting
dogs and spatters our helmeted Nimrods.
Who stoked these fires while we slept?
Who blew on the embers
Filling September with regret,
and who will be consoled if irony dies
a thousand deaths? Not you or I.

**********************

Buildings grope the sky, wrote Auden, and Salcman, struck by the same wretched irony of our high bright-edged monuments suddenly cringing as the sky goes blank and the world senseless, echoes the earlier poet. More broadly, importing Auden lends this poem historical resonance; and Salcman’s use throughout of simple beautifully balanced lyrical lines (Who stoked these fires while we slept?), lines that read like translations from Greek tragedies, sharpens our sense of the infinite profundity of events that can never be fully assimilated.

In the fierce limbus of my eye
the plummeting birds burn still,
asbestos rains and twisted steel
falls in a broth of jet fuel,
cable wrap and mineral dust;

Beautiful stuff here, conveying our inability to make memories of 9/11 stop. The falling objects persist on the edge of vision. The mind’s eye keeps seeing the “broth” (such a well-chosen word, with rich, witchy associations) of jet fuel, and the “mineral dust” (a great phrase, conjuring with horrific concision the organic particles in the air) also stays with us.

These lines remind me of a passage in James Merrill’s Santorini: Stopping the Leak, when the poet talks about what he calls his “psychic incontinence,” his uncontrollable tendency to summon to his mind, and somehow to have to account for, image after image after image:

churning down the optic sluice
… Faces young, old
… all random, ravenous images

… avid for inwardness

… The warm spate bears me on, helpless…

The event comes back to us unbidden, iconic elements of the awful day that want us to take them in, to do something with them.

And notice Salcman’s fantastic use of a kind of loose assonance: limbus, plummeting; birds, burn; falls, broth. It gives the poem an elegance, a sheer verbal beauty, at obvious odds with its subject matter, and this you could say conveys a sly sort of human triumph over the deathliness of the event. We are still to be found on the edge of the scene, generating beauty and even meaning out of it.

The dust

bathes the snouts of corpse-hunting
dogs and spatters our helmeted Nimrods.

Nothing of the horror is avoided here; and yet once again the combination of sheer verbal beauty (bathes) and ancient reference (Nimrod – the Biblical precursor of the New York City Fire Department) heightens – aestheticizes – the horror in a way that lets us retain the horror and at the same time somewhat transcend it.

who will be consoled if irony dies
a thousand deaths?

These lines bring us back to Auden:

Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages…

Ironic because almost comically at odds with, resistant to, the powerful darkness everywhere, our various points of light, our places of rebellion and affirmation in the face of atrocity, include things like poetry. Poetry brings harmony and form and powerful subjective utterance to a stuporous world.

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One Response to “9/11 Again…”

  1. Profane Says:

    air ignites eyes avert
    leaping to freedom hand in hand
    shattered body bounces

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