Begun in the waves out from the fall of the Towers/ begun in the clearing passages/ from behind torn masks. Eyeholes. From behind gaping holes: torn, fired paper shades, blinds torn away, slats cutting both ways. News held in front of the eyes, folded, wadded, cutting off the opening: fire/paper; paper/fire. Eyes wide. Lashes singed, lids stiff. Blinds flipped one way to seal out the sight of willed hurt: bodies hurtled into freefall. Blinds shut to contain the view.
The towers fell straight to the ground, and the fire burned for months, melted steel, a long wick ignited deep into the ground. How could a sky, empty of clouds, be empty? And how could anyone think themselves alone now? Daily news in front of the eyes, a thick pliable shield. Vision no longer a mechanism, but parsed like cloud cover, moving fast, sheer and returning to cloak the orb in darkness, light, to an altered vision of the whole round world.
The explosion/ the spray of lives, glass and metal columns spiralling into thickening dust, looking downtown on Amsterdam Avenue into the black envelope of sky (at the tip of Manhattan). Paper–record of our mark, computer printouts, notes, post-its, files–a tide of paper becoming the tide of feet, running, on our streets, paper rising under our feet. Turning tide running high–swells larger than any of the words or their echoes, letters falling into new and altered combinations. New language at our feet, indecipherable.
More paper than shoes, more dust than blackened bones or discernable human wreckage, recognizable organs of life.
An arm, she found an arm, two days in, combing through rubble at the site in the first wave of digging. She was a volunteer who came in at the start, so no one questioned her. She was just there. Every afternoon and into the night picking over the hot clumpy dust next to her boyfriend, the EMT. Bodies melded into a growing, bloodless wordlessness–a silence on the air, in the ground, heard as the burning imprint of breath, all who were here that day in New York City–and the dead with us, under us, in the churning south -borne air.
How to recognize what we didn’t see? What haven’t we recognized–the words at our feet–and what have we seen? An alphabet of the sky, letters curling in the air. And translation, words cupped to drink from two hands held as one, line on line in the palm, runnels of water, sweat or caking dust. Is this the utterance of our lives, the daily gesture? Hand to mouth. Here and here again–black cloud stays. Blown south, it lives at the bottom of Manhattan, held for days just off the city. A cup of darkness at the lip.
I am walking home, solid smoke billows in the south. Outside Osner’s Typewriters & Supplies, there is a dumpster. Three guys, in a running relay, roll a canvas-sided container out to the street. It is filled with heavy typewriters; bulky adding machines with punch keys, round red and white buttons; metal spools for replacement manual typewriter ribbons; thin, shiny tape unwound from typewriter cartridges; heavy black cords and fat connectors. There in the dumpster, the words and every word-maker and number marker of my lifetime from the 40’s through the 80’s and into the early 90’s– the last 50 years–every machine of my lifetime, before the computer, being heaved into a 10 by 20 foot green metal dumpster, overflowing. But there will be no second dumpster. This is it. The end. The keys fallen out, twisted. Most everything sturdier than plastic, much remains whole, dented. Flying ribbons–brown, black, plastic; bunched inked cloth; ribbons on spools like tongues darting between. What language are they whispering in lost torn tongues? The towers sprayed paper out through the shattered glass in the updraft of heat. The dumpster will haul away the useful/used tools of half a century, the contents of the backroom of the typewriter repair shop reduced to scrap. The towers in the first minutes reduced an empire and its holdings to dust. The columns fell as if veined with detonators for a demolition–the surviving trail, a paper flow of dust, dead.
Blinded, seeing, torn away/ revealed/ blinded by new sight/ seeing with partial eyes. Who does the exit belong to? And who creates the entrance to ruin? And what is the shape of meaning of a footprint in the dust, the feel of the imprint, and the response of earth underfoot?
Inside the seismograph: most of September I felt captured, caught inside the seismograph/ part of/inside a picture I could not see or read. I could respond like the wavering lines across the page, emotion in ink tracing the impact, waves out–then a steady blank–then the waves out again. It was there in the waves out where I felt I lived and I was not alone–I lived with/I lived with many others. We were together on the sea/ together in our buildings, in our streets–we were together as we streamed to the Chelsea Piers on the day after the fall. Coming on foot with shopping carts full of Gatorade and water, car-trunks and back seats stuffed full of sweat pants and socks for firemen and rescue workers continually sodden by water struggling to put out a fire that would not go out and continued burning into late December.
I meet a nurse, an older woman, on the bus who spoke of leveling, coming to volunteer, sitting on the floor at the Piers, quiet, cross-legged many hours with every kind of doctor, surgeon, therapist, social worker, all sitting on the same floor level waiting to give service, waiting until teams could be made up, waiting for 6 , 7, 8, 9, 10 hours. She was gratified to be returning the next day as part of a team.
There was a winding route to deliver clothes and supplies at the piers and the word went out: no more volunteers needed, there are too many. I’ve been to the Red Cross on the Upper West Side and St. Luke’s/Roosevelt where I’m told to return later on. I head downtown by bus to 23rd where I’d heard they needed help. The bus is alive with talk, feels like a vein into New York City, everyone sharing bits of news, stories. At 23rd, I get the word, no more volunteers, but stay and sit and marvel at my city’s people. I see a friend, Bell, in a wheel chair with a young friend guiding her chair, both looking for a place to volunteer. She tells me she can do decompression counseling, she’s trained, she can listen. She is eager to tell me, someone, anyone what she can offer. We are all ready to do something, anything really. We wait. I tell her I’ve just heard about St. Luke’s needing people in the afternoon. It is good to see each other, a deep flicker of contact. Later, the Piers are set up as a morgue.
Wednesday, September 12th is my second or third week working at the prison and I’m just learning the language “inside”. When I enter I pick up my photo ID # 95. I am searched with a metal detector and my hand stamped, right or left, with a sign that shows under the black light, last contact before the tunnel of barbed wire beyond the iron gate. My bag is well searched, but it varies, week to week, how thoroughly I am gone over. The gates open on one side: I enter the space, and the gates behind me close. I hold my hand up to the black light where the stamp can be read. I am between two gates, both closed. When the other side opens, I walk through a tunnel of wire fencing surrounded and topped by layers of razor wire. I walk through into the open. To my left is a larger gate, guarded by a tower with armed guards, that can swing open for large vehicles. I face a low flat brick building, like a primary school building and walk the driveway to the path, skirted by flower beds and newly planted cherry trees. Often, there are one or two staff smoking outside, people just getting off work–if I come in between 5 and 6. On the 12th all classes are cancelled at the prison–all visiting–all contact or movement in or out. The prison is locked down–they are in lock.
The prison is locked down during any time of a national security crisis.
On the 12th NYC is locked down–all bridges, all tunnels. No travel below 14th Street without an ID and proof of residence. A police line cordons off 14th St., both directions, east to west.
The prison can go into lock because of something that happens inside–a violent incident, a search, or because of something outside–a national security crisis, or something we will never know about that falls somewhere in between. Security is secret. Security stays secret. There are no reasons given. There is no negotiation. I may hear pieces of the story later, the next week, the next day, depending on how fresh the news is and whether it stays within the prison walls.
I have been told to bring in no evidence of where I live or work. I have also been told not to ask about any prisoner’s time or crime, verbally, or in writing. Any writing I do for publication has to be cleared.
When I tell the women the next week about looking for a place to volunteer, riding the bus around Manhattan, wanting to help and feeling useless and helpless–they tell me that’s the way they feel all the time. At the break one of the women approaches me. She gets very close to my face and peers at me as if she could see into my shoes and where my feet have been. She asks: “How is the world?”
I have no big picture. Like many women of North America who are artists and writers of this time, I have changing pictures of a changing life, and I am lucky to have been able to make change, in some small ways. With few impediments, by some standards, I’ve achieved relative comfort, performing my teaching duties and writing tasks, and answering my calling–poetry that sharpens my days and wakes me day and night. This much I do on a daily basis, like breathing. Most with attention, some worry, not enough lightness, at times.
Living in New York City, I felt the need, with my partner, to commit to domestic partnership and within New York City, we agreed to enter together into a circle of “rights,” not offered other places. We did it for fun, and it was serious, in the tradition of many gay and lesbian transactions–deeply serious, because it acknowledged our terms on our own terms; fun and joyous, because we have to keep creating that space of uplift between us or we have nothing, with or without that piece of paper. We keep tight hold of that space in this time, because we know some kinds of danger and threat as daily experience, and maintaining sanity on our own terms in love requires vigilance.
My world is circumscribed and opened by the work I do. The people I work with are a saving grace–the world outside has always been a saving place–a saving grace for me. I have found comfort and safety in the good will of strangers, faith in the sameness of human need, and welcome in many communities–teaching, artists and writers, lgbt folk, women, neighbors, and in being an outsider. Inside, I have found direction often guided by the body, dreams and imagination, not seen as so separate by the lgbt community. Also, inspired by love–and that love includes the work of other artists.
In our first trip out of New York after the fall of the towers, on the weekend after September 11th, we decide to go to an International Puppet Festival and see an amazing and surpising performance by CREO, a Bulgarian puppetry duo performing Gogol’s “The Overcoat.” The entire performance is inside the coat, and the two puppeteers trace all the prisons of man–social shame and disdain, love and punishment, big crimes and small horrors–displaying the ugly guts of petty competition and small hypocrisies–making us laugh and suck in our breath, open our eyes in wonder. We travel into the true refreshment of imagination and vivid depiction of the cruelties of man. So it is–this world opens through the love and care brought to this production of Gogol’s truths. We are ready to receive. CREO imagined inside the world of the coat, skeleton, spine and flesh of this flawed struggling human, and envisioned a show with the love required for the flawed person and for the struggle.
This attention and care is the same kind of love that the writer James Baldwin requires of us when he returns, over and over again, to the necessity of confronting and recognizing all that disrupts us, terrifies us. This we must do to be able to love. Baldwin says that without risk, there cannot be any true giving. And if we cannot look at ourselves, we cannot know what it is to really be equal or to be free, in a deeply spiritual and political sense. He speaks of the two as one–and shows how dream can blur to nightmare without conscious investigation of our lives; our country or our reality. History must be faced, and pride let go, or the American Dream will suffocate us in its own claustrophobia. He exhorts us in The Fire Next Time to arrive into reality and bear the burdens of discovering exactly what that is.
Baldwin was accused of not standing firmly enough with his people, not standing for his people, being too Black, straying too far towards Malcolm X, deserting his country, losing his passion, becoming bitter–all by The New York Times. But no verbal lynching in the NYT can undo the love he proposed, lived, and told through his writing.
If we continue to focus on the triumph and uncertainty of the individual without renewing ourselves or allowing failure to teach us, then we will be trapped by the seduction of a preference for ease, for heaven, for vacation, for all that says, ‘It’ is good and perfect in our lives; and better than ‘you’ and your poverty and your dirty children and your illiteracy, and your speaking three or four languages, when clearly, there is only one–one language, one God. This is a problem. Where then is the entrance to ruin? And where is the exit? What language(s) will we speak when we cross over?
Where are we? And who is we? In the first cold blood that flushed my veins seeing the Towers fall, I thought with fear: What are they going to do now? This president, selected, not elected, in what amounts to a coup, would have no limits on his authority.
I found myself standing wordless, intentionally silent, on the street, with a cadre of a hundred others at Times Square, with the words: “Do not turn our grief into a cry for war,” stenciled on a T-shirt on my back, highlighted in black and white. With many signs, we turned out toward the traffic and movement of the street. I stood in horror in Times Square as a new Christian Crusade of unmitigated arrogance and cruelty seemed to be literally racing overhead and all around us at unimaginable speeds. So how can we enter and re-enter this world? Even if we have health, food, and shelter, we need communion, a real desire to connect; and to experience love and loving others. Baldwin is one of the few to offer– cogently, painfully–clear terms, rare in their brilliance, for taking responsibility, and he names the price of avoidance and continued arrogance. We must learn to answer his call, somehow.
Perhaps we can learn to love not only by looking at ourselves in our own light, but by looking at ourselves from other times and other places. What time is it in Kabul? What are you wearing, and have you eaten when you hear the sound of the planes? Enemy planes? Friendly planes? Policing helicopters? Who is being policed and by whom exactly? Can you see your hand in the dark? Do you have a match? Do you have electricity? For how many hours a day? At night? A lantern? Water? Is the water sweet? Or is the water poisoned, and how did that happen?
Inside the seismograph, each day a different strata revealed–the relationship of all things turning, by the hour, the minute–time turned, pulled. The plates of stone under Manhattan squeezed, earth to gravel crushed, rotating columns of fire deep into the earth, stone heating stone, taking it all in. The granite took it in. The buildings stood–we who remained, remained unreadable–flesh changed and still unable to read ourselves outside of the shock of our collective grief. For two weeks after 9/11, I couldn’t read a thing–the experience of time did not allow for the digestion of outside reading. I only had an appetite for direct, personal contact, steady, good music and hourly information from the jazz station, WBGO. Voices of friends reconnecting right afterwards, no sleep against the blankness and waving sea–and a need for more contact after the first bone-deep, blood-cold wash of fear, wash of horror. What will they do? And then how will they stop?
There could be no reading at the site of impact, just the power of change, but there was no measure, no division of realities, only the impact of change flowing outward from change flowing outward, these waves and their measure could be called power.
To enter the picture at all means giving. I had my body, midlife, I had the ability to hear and to observe–I had speech, one language, another I could read and speak quite well, a third I am learning and love, one I hated in school upon which all three could stand as different bridges over changing waters, contiguous and divergent. I must learn to love what I hated. Needing all my faculties, I feel the x-ray of all my frailties, wish for my grandmother’s fluency in numerous languages, and all that touched her like the many-tongued river she must have dreamt in at night. When I did read in the month of September, only poetry spoke to me.
I was scheduled to give a reading with the poet Marilyn Hacker in Ram Deveni’s series at the St. Agnes Branch of the NYPL on Saturday , September 15th, 3 blocks from where I live. I have never felt so in need of a poetry reading, or so deeply privileged to be giving a poetry reading. There was a space offered and I could bring something to it. I had my poems, and I had somewhere to go. I looked through folders, spread the typed and scrawled across the floor and futon, pulled out my book In the Open, and books of others.
I looked through Muriel Rukeyser’s “Poem to Kathe Kollwitz where she offers: “… I am in the world/ to change the world.” Followed by: “… and death holding my lifetime between great hands/ the hands of enduring life/ that suffers.” Rukeyser names the wide dilemma and holds it out to us, embodied.
In Carolyn Forché’s collection, The Angel of History, meeting life’s consequences, for an artist, has to be a daily experience. “Surely all art is the result of one’s having been in danger, of having gone through an experience all the way to the end.” Our September, and all that is to come, a live echo in her words.
And the French poet, Paul Éluard, extended the grief implicit in Rukeyser and Forché, and states his anger in Seven Poems of Love in War, 1943: ” Shame of unbounded evil/ Shame of our absurd butchers/Always the same always”. And later in the poem, Eluard joins all peoples caught in war, when he says, “But we are not ashamed of our suffering/ We are not ashamed of our shame//Not even a bird is left alive”. Eluard stands for facing destruction and staying human in the face of it.
When we spoke, Marilyn Hacker and I agreed that we should read poets from other parts of the world, as a sign of the connectedness of us all. So she brought her translations of Claire Malroux’s poems about daily surviving Naziism, WW II France. And she read W.H. Auden’s 1939 to our gathering at the library branch, “All I have is a voice/ To undo the folded lie…” and the famous, “We must love one another or die.” The homeless people sat in the front row and slept–their shelter had stayed the same, the library held them safe. We read together, and then gathered afterwards in the living room of our apartment at West 79th Street. We spoke few words, but moved in and out of small clusters. There was a palpable feel of the need to gather. The poems did their work, we shared food and drink, and we spoke together softly.
The language had changed–all the words sounded different, the space between them changed, the weight altered, mysterious subjects suddenly stark; electric metaphors turned to dust. The pattern of circulation and life in the poems entirely different. I follow these veiny roots and branches with surprise and anticipation and begin to find a new path where life blood begins to flow more freely. Across the earth, the words defining and creating a relation to all the sources.
-Delivered Winter, 2002, Plainfield, Vermont