Remembering 9 11 Essays

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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. 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 Poland.

Continuing to put forth Auden's poem, regardless of its merits, neglects the vital response of contemporary poets to this tragedy. So between the Scylla of cliché and the Charybdis of exploitation, poetry moves.

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.

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.

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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. 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 Manhattan from a hundred and seven flights up, like Atlantis glimpsed through the windows of an ancient aquarium.

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. In Cleveland, I recall hearing some rather salty Osama limericks involving his mama.

Praise the lighthouse in Fajardo, candle glimmering white to worship the dark saint of the sea. 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. Praise the kitchen radio, dial clicked even before the dial on the oven, so that music and Spanish rose before bread. 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. 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. Praise the busboy’s music, the chime-chime of his dishes and silverware in the tub. 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. Praise the waitress who heard the radio in the kitchen and sang to herself about a man gone. 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. 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. And the other said with a Spanish tongue: I will teach you. 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.

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. 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.


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