“The current moment” has a way of inserting itself into poetry I write, not just these past weeks but always. I look at my poems written in the wake of the 9/11/01 attacks and can see reflected in their pacing, tension, or imagery some aspects of the anxiety of those days. Not that I wrote much poetry that employed that current moment as a topic or narrative…just that the numb dread, surprise, and confusion managed to enter in. Poetry can contain and convey those hard-to-describe emotional tensions. Ambiguities. Conflicted feelings. Multitudes.
Poetry, by its nature, requires synthesis. For example, metaphor is one type of synthesis. In Carl Sandburg’s poem “Good Morning America,” he famously says that “Poetry is the achievement of the synthesis of hyacinths and biscuits.” (But then, he also says “Poetry is a pack-sack of invisible keepsakes./ Poetry is a sky dark with a wild-duck migration./ Poetry is the opening and closing of a door,/ leaving those who look through to guess about what is seen/ during a moment.”) Make of it what you will.
A few posts back, I mentioned my dad has been showing up in my poems recently. That’s still occurring. This one doesn’t have a title yet, as I’m still mulling it over and will probably revise the whole poem down the road. The initial impulse for the poem had nothing to do with my father or the war in Europe, and we do not have any daffodils in bloom right now. But there they are.
On the road’s verge, geese stand looking unctuous,
vaguely irritable as I pass them
going 50 on the route I’ve taken for decades
and this time I recall two years back, when my dad
was failing, how eagerly I sought any sign
of seasonal change—
early-flowering witch hazel, or crocuses, quince,
swells in daffodils’ green emergence
while inside myself the slow emergency of his dying
began to open from probable to imminent.
I drove south idly; through the windshield I
looked forward to nothing, as my mother
talked of nothing when he floated in his haze of pain
and Dilaudid while holding one hand over his head
as though he could, with his fingertips, pull
the ache from his left ear over his head and into the room
where it might exit.
Now, the exodus occurs elsewhere, in refugee waves
of people whose minds and bodies lug their different pains
across other kinds of borders.
My father’s experience of earth has ended,
his baptism complete. His birthday was in April.
See there, along the roadside? Daffodils.
The night is warm, which seems surprising in the harsh shadows, but it is only early September; even in the Pocono mountains, frost is still a few weeks off. These old canvas tents, rubberized, permanently mounted on wooden platforms, effectively block both sunlight and moonlight. So when excited thumping on our tent flap wakes us, it could be noon, but we chaperones feel too bleary for that. Ellen gropes for the alarm clock phosphorescing on the crate that serves as nightstand. “Two fourteen,” she states, stifling a groan. “What’s wrong?”
The flap opens to a triangular gap of harsh propane lamplight. The girls—there are four of them, those bunked in the tent furthest into the woods—all talk at once in hushed, excited voices. Amy woke up out in the woods, still in her sleeping bag! Someone had dragged her there, two someones, maybe three! She heard voices, whispering, and feet, walking—tiptoeing—near, very near. She woke amid dry leaves, on the ground. Hours went by. She was too scared to move. When all was still she ran to her tent, woke her tentmates. What if those people are still out there? Maybe kidnappers. No, it must have been older campers, teenagers playing mean pranks. Her sleeping bag is out in the woods somewhere. Maybe 40 yards from the tent, Amy doesn’t know. Her companions shiver.
We’ve gotten out of bed by now, pulled on our shoes and jackets. The girls agree to go back to their tent if we accompany them. We tell them to be quiet; the last thing we need is to waken thirteen other 11-year-old girls at two-thirty in the morning. Oak leaves crinkle underfoot as we walk past the firepit to the girls’ tent. I switch my flashlight off; the moon’s so bright I don’t need it. Sara’s red hair looks like a silver halo around her pale face. Ellen, resigned, opens the tent and peers in. Her flashlight reveals nothing particularly untoward. We troop inside and the girls sit on their cots.
Amy’s cot is bare: no sleeping bag. She looks chilly. Her tentmate Julie offers her a blanket, and we praise the gesture. Ellen, not a physically demonstrative person, nevertheless keeps her arm around Amy for a moment after draping her in the blanket. “It’s alright,” she says. Amy sniffles.
Having calmed the girls at the scene of their scare, Sara and Ellen go over the story again—methodically this time—keeping their voices even and unemotional. I offer to look for the sleeping bag. I like the woods, day or night; Ellen retains suburban qualms about hidden dangers and would rather be staying in a hotel than interviewing a 6th-grader in the middle of a state forest, even if it weren’t two in the morning. Or three, as it nearly is now.
The girls had tied the tent shut with what is left of rubber strapping and ropes. None of the tents have complete fasteners anymore. All of them have sides that no longer tie down to the platforms, and many of the door-flap ties are frayed or missing. The girls have ingeniously substituted shoelaces. Idly, I wonder which girl is going about with flopping sneakers.
The woods is still at first, frozen in the white light of the barely-waning moon. I notice the light before I notice the shadows. Every tree trunk resembles paper birch. The tents make wide, geometrical planes beneath the leaf canopy. In back of the tent, no sign of a rumpled sleeping bag. I take a few further steps and, on a hunch, investigate the side of the tent where Amy’s cot is. There, bunched up next to the platform and still partly covered by the open tent wall, is Amy’s bag.
Girls fall out of bed regularly at camp. The cots are narrow and slippery, covered by nylon sleeping bags. Counselors consider falling out of bed an inevitable event. In most cases, the child rolls instinctively away from the tent wall and winds up on the close-slatted wooden floor of the platform. Often the landing is soft, as preadolescent girls tend to clutter their tent floors as naturally as they clutter their bedrooms. Sometimes the sleeper doesn’t even wake up.
Amy, a sturdy and unimaginative child, a good worker, quite near-sighted, had fallen out of bed toward the wall. Because of the absent tie-downs, she’d landed on the chilly ground, hard with drought and covered with leaf litter. She had wakened to a landscape as unfamiliar as Mars—moonlight’s wan cast and resulting hatched shadows heightening her disorientation. And the whispers? And the footfalls in the forest? I could have heard them, too, had I been less familiar with the way a woods sounds at night. Several twigs fall nearby. A large moth bumps against the tent fly. The moon sheds an icy light over the oaks and red maples and wild cherries.
It seems calmer in the girls’ tent. We’re pretty certain that her tentmates have doubts about kidnappers, and that at least two of them agree Amy fell out of bed. But what’s the likelihood they’ll go back to sleep? And what about camp protocol? If Amy complains to her parents that no one respected her terror or addressed her concerns, if they believe her story, can we be sued?
At 3:30 a.m., we’re discussing legal implications of a minor event in a child’s life. But all three of us are mothers: our girls are sleeping in the other tents, we understand how frightened Amy is. This may not be just a minor event to Amy. We know things like this can reside in the mind and psyche for years. The blurry, moonlit woods, with its uncertain snaps and thumps, its rocks and chipmunk holes, the sounds like whispers—these can lodge in a person’s memory. Such a thing can foster insecurities, act as one more trauma encountered on the way to adulthood. We worry.
We want to stay out of trouble; we want to soothe Amy. We want to go back to sleep.
It’s against camp policy to have a chaperone share a tent with the girls, but we decide to break the rules for the remaining two or three hours of the night. I take Amy’s place in the far tent, Amy takes my cot in the chaperone tent. Julie asks me what I think happened, and I tell her I am pretty sure Amy fell out of bed. I also tell her I think Amy responded in a normal way. “If I woke up in the woods, in the moonlight, without my glasses, I think I’d be as terrified as she,” I say. “You did the right thing to wake us up. That’s what we’re here for, to keep you feeling safe.”
In no time, I am listening to the soft rhythm of the girls’ relaxed breaths. I lie awake awhile, dreading the fact that in about two hours I’ll be awake again, full sunlight and giggling all around me. I think about my daughter, two tents away, probably bunched up in her sleeping bag because she gets cold easily. At least she slept through our little drama. I think about how much coffee I’ll need to get through the coming day’s scouting activities. I recall the cool aura of the forest by moonlight, how safe I felt, how I want to convey that sense of safety to Amy, to my daughter, even to Ellen, so uncomfortable under the trees.
This is the morning of September 9, 2001.
September 11, 2001.
The kids have been at school about an hour. I’ve cleaned up the breakfast mess and am making a cup of tea, checking my schedule for the day. My husband’s working in his home office instead of commuting into the city. I can hear the computer humming.
He bursts from the room, switches the radio on.
“A plane hit the World Trade Center!”
My eyes go wide.
All day long, I try my sister’s phone numbers. Work. Cell phone. Home. I know her husband will be at their apartment in Fort Washington, as he doesn’t leave for work until 10 in the morning, but I can’t get through. Sometimes there’s not even a recording: “All circuits are busy.” So many means of communicating with her, and none of them work.
Her office is downtown: Canal Street. From her 9th floor office reception area there is a view to the southeast, where the twin towers dominate the skyline. I am sure she is safe, but I’m not sure how safe she will be on her long route home.
I sign onto my internet account, relieved to find J’s e-mail address on a message: “I witnessed the second plane crashing into the second tower about -hour ago. It is really scary. Hopefully we won’t have another incident in another -hour. We are staying in our offices, tho no one is doing any work. It doesn’t seem prudent to leave now. I will try to leave in a few hours once things seem safer. I’ll call you later. I love you.”
The message header reads: “Horribleness.”
My husband spends the day with news sources. I keep turning the radio off, trying the phone. No, my parents haven’t heard anything. No, my brother hasn’t either—just the same message I got. I imagine my sister walking 200 blocks uptown on this hot day, one amid an exodus of others in the sunlight and the dust.
Four pm. The phone rings—it’s my mother. J reached her on her cell phone. She was headed uptown on a bus that was empty enough, at 160th Street, to take her the remaining 30 blocks home. “I don’t know how this worked,” she said of the call getting through, “I can’t even reach our home phone that’s 30 blocks away.”
She’ll tell me about her walk a few days later.
It’ll be a long, long story.
Almost two weeks have gone by, and my son won’t, can’t, sleep. 9:45, 10:30, he’s still tossing in bed. By 11 o’clock we let him come into our room; he spreads his sleeping bag on our floor. He’s been camping out like this, on our floor, for days. Even with us, he stays awake most of the night. He admits he feels terrified. He worries every day his dad commutes to New York City.
It’s okay, we say, Dad wasn’t in the city that day.
But lots of other people’s parents were there that day, he answers. And he could have been. He could have.
Tonight, he goes to sleep at last.* I watch him lying there, one arm bent over his head, his lips parted off-center. The dog squeezes next to him and crawls halfway beneath our bed—her denning instinct takes over when she’s tired. Her long tail sweeps across his chin and he stirs slightly.
Many hours I have watched this boy at sleep, wondering at him. A few hours old, having gravely observed every bright or moving object in the room, after studying my face with his deep, wet eyes, having suckled his first milk and bellowed at being cleaned up and weighed, he fell asleep in my arms. I had felt him asleep for some time within the womb, but now I could watch the drowsy process. Now he breathes. In and out. I could not count the minutes I’ve spent watching him; minutes and hours seem extravagant, faithless, artificial things. But breath! And the slight twitching behind the eyelids, and the pulsing fontanel! Only during his sleep could I appreciate these things.
For when he was awake, he was constantly active. In an instant, he could crawl. Another instant, and he ran. Then he acquired speech, the product of which he loved. Talking is what he’s been put on earth to do. For many years the only times I did not hear his voice chattering in the background of my daily life were when he was at school and when he was asleep.
The world opened itself to him. Cautious, sensitive, he was always secure in his understanding that the world is eternally novel, interesting, and eager to receive his attentions. In the mornings he would tell me his dreams. Even sleep was entertaining; he had few nightmares. He felt safe in the cosmos.
I knew that someday he’d meet the bully, the unfair teacher, the irredeemable tragedy, and wondered how he would face such a thing. For years, he came to me, discussed the behavior of other children, talked about evil characters in books and movies, showed me what is wonderful in his life. “Look, Mama,” he said a thousand times, “Look at this new kind of acorn. Look at how the corn is blowing. Look at that big truck. Look—I think that little girl is crying. Look at my drawing. Look at me, Mama—I’m balancing. I’m a pirate. I’m Peter Pan!”
Buildings are collapsing, Mama.
Look, don’t look.
He’s nearly thirteen. No incipient beard, no hairiness or sweaty armpits yet, no break in the tenor voice. He rolls his eyes at his peers’ hormonal hijinks, the schoolboy crushes, won’t attend a dance. But the time is coming—he knows it. He’s quieter, gets lost in books, stands out in the meadow with a whippy stick, slashing at goldenrod and sumac. He lies in bed after the lights are out. He’s thinking. It keeps him awake, kept him awake even before last Tuesday.
He just has more to think about now.
We fool ourselves, thinking we can protect those we love.
~from journal notes of September 10-23, 2001
*(He will sleep for 14 hours, and I will let him do so, writing a note to the middle school claiming he was ill.)
In the shorthand of age demographics, I am marginally a Baby Boomer. I think there were earlier tag-names (Jazz Baby, for example) but the Boomer generation began a spate of efforts to define millions of people randomly born within a few years of one another by some generational attribute that caught on with media. I am not sure that I fit the conventional Boomer stereotype, but naturally at least some of the generalizations of that era apply to me. That’s why people use stereotypes. It is an easy way to categorize (thanks, Aristotle).
Of course, each so-determined generation feels certain that the antecedent generations are out of touch and misconstrue the attributes and the attitudes of those younger than they–and they are justified in this conclusion.
Often, though, we understand young people’s circumstances better than they realize because yes times have changed, but people haven’t. Not that much.
I do not have any idea for how long the media and demographers will go on calling young people Millennials; but the young adults I meet seem to more anxiety-ridden than millennial, whatever that means (actual millennials are only 16 years old now). They have grown up with parents who worried about keeping them safe in a society obsessed with security after 9/11. My guess is that in the USA, society’s insecurity entered young lives insidiously through toys, media, the internet, parental conversations, games and gaming, you name it. Parents’ main goal–any tribe or nation’s goal–basic to survival instincts, is to keep the offspring safe. That has felt challenging in the last 20 years or so.
I am not blaming parents. I am not blaming young adults.
I do observe a tendency away from risk-taking among many young adults and an accompanying fear of the future; among the risk-taking proportion of young adults, I notice that they engage in risks often because they feel there is no future for them.
Far too many of them believe dystopia awaits: climate warming, floods, polluted waters, chaotic capitalist oligarchies as government, spying and infiltration, loss of the ozone layer, terrorists everywhere. They don’t want to believe this is their future, but they are afraid.
And the Baby Boomers, who (according to the legend) were going to march forth and change the world for the better, failed the generations that followed. That’s the current story. (The story will change and develop over the coming years with the evidence of hindsight.)
I get it. I understand the fear and I know how fear dampens motivation and fosters, instead, a muttering resentment under the surface and a pervasive feeling of stress and anxiety. Few of my children’s friends are “secure” in their careers, jobs, housing, health, or finances between the ages of 22 and 30. Most of them have education debt and few have savings.
That’s scary for them. And here’s the thing: when I was their age, I was in the same boat but felt less frightened about my situation. I did not have the feeling that the world was dangerous and things might not work out. I was probably wrong about that…
Maybe ignorance is bliss?
My parents’ cohort was dubbed “The Silent Generation.” That implies they accomplished nothing, sat back and served roast beef on Sundays while McCarthy and cronies raked through American society looking for communists.
Maya Angelou, Neil Armstrong, Toni Morrison, Harvey Milk, Stephen Sondheim, and Martin Luther King Jr are among the “Silent Generation.”
So here’s the thing: Nomenclature is not destiny.
Anxiety requires learning coping skills, whatever works for the individual; the ability to puzzle things out using critical thinking; a sense of independence; development of self confidence and courage. Those are things we attain with maturity and experience as our guides. Millennials–or whatever you call yourselves–you are getting there. It feels slow. It feels scary.
Your elders may forget to tell you about that part, or perhaps wanted somehow to spare you from the realities. Please forgive us.
To millennials, the anxious generation: You got this. You are more educated than any previous generation, more concerned, possibly more compassionate. You know how to tackle complicated problems–you are merely afraid you will make mistakes. Go ahead and make mistakes.
Doty’s poetry has always struck me as particularly powerful at evoking, and embodying, the way the world that is (physical, phenomenological) intersects with the world of the mind (both intellectual and emotional). He is likewise an excellent, reflective, poetic prose writer and memoirist.
On this day, which still sears pretty heavily into the collective and individual consciousness of many U.S. citizens, Doty’s observations about public and private shared grief, and how we “process” such emotions are apt and compelling. Doty begins with Wislawa Szymborska’s heartbreaking, and controversial, poem “Photograph from September 11.” In his commentary, he asks, “What can the artist do, in the face of the dreadful, that which can’t be assimilated?” and says that
To name it is to diminish it and, in the process, to come head to head with the inadequacy of the tools of poetry to circumscribe such experience. It is a gesture recognizable from Neruda’s great poem occasioned by the Spanish Civil War, “I Explain Some Things,” in which he writes that the blood of the children ran in the street “como el sangre de ninos”—“like the blood of children.” There is no adequate gesture, nothing in the arsenals of figuration that will serve; only a terrible plainness of saying, or of pointing toward what cannot be said, can rise to these occasions.
He observes–and I have to agree with him here, “I understand the human need…to give shape to grief, but surely the first response to such a rupture in the fabric of the world ought to be a resonant, enormous silence. To come too quickly to words is, ultimately, a form of arrogance; the easy poem suggests that loss is graspable, that the poet has ready command of speech in the face of anything.”
Elegy takes me awhile. Silence and the awe of disbelief and the need to think come first; indeed, are necessary. For me, perhaps the most stunning September 11 “elegy” is, surprisingly, from Blue Man Group: the mostly wordless video “Exhibit 13.”
Doty moves on: he says, “All poems of public grief are private poems first. If, that is, they are any good, and not merely occasional pieces that serve to mark a moment and reinforce what people already think.” True. And then, these words, which artists are more likely to understand than no-artists, because there is potentially something “hard” in them–
The act of making a poem is a movement from private feeling and perception, the inchoate stuff of experience, into the shared realm of language. At some point along the way, the poet usually becomes less interested in understanding or naming experience, and more intrigued by the words themselves, by the patterned arrangement of sound and silence on the page and in the ear, the pleasures of giving form. And it is a pleasure, poetic making, even when what is being shaped is dreadful.
The aesthetic, the gorgeous, emerging from horror. Isn’t that almost–almost–manipulative? Doty recognizes and disabuses us of that notion by citing his own experience of writing about AIDS:
I was setting things down for myself because I needed to, and then experiencing…that progress toward impersonality which comes with the making of poetry. That must be among the strangest of poetry’s many paradoxes: that we are driven to write by fire and then must distance ourselves to a cool dispassion in order to make those flames burn for anyone else. That is not a heartless thing, or an opportunistic one, to turn your experience into art.
Yes, please read his essay if you are interested in what art is and what it does and how it relates to public experience of any kind.
“I think what the poet must do is pay attention to the nature of subjectivity, to the experienced, lived hour, and trust the paradox that if we succeed in representing that, we may approach speaking to our fellow citizens. I hope so.” ~Mark Doty