September 11, 2013

I never liked the World Trade Center. / When it went up I talked it down


So begins David Lehman’sWorld Trade Center,” written in 1996, about the way his feelings toward the Towers changed over time. This poem is the frontispiece in Poetry After 9/11, the first book ever published Melville House.

Is there a certain poem we’re meant to visit on this date each year? After twelve years we still seem to be sussing out the way to memorialize the occasion. The new tower isn’t complete and the news is full of alarming developments in Syria. What can we say that hasn’t been said?

If New York is on your mind, here are a few poems you could revisit.

W.H. Auden’sSeptember 1, 1939“:

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

Walt Whitman’s Crossing Brooklyn Ferry:

What is it then between us?
What is the count of the scores or hundreds of years between us?
Whatever it is, it avails not–distance avails not, and place avails not,
I too lived, Brooklyn of ample hills was mine,
I too walk’d the streets of Manhattan island, and bathed in the waters around it,
I too felt the curious abrupt questionings stir within me,
In the day among crowds of people sometimes they came upon me,
In my walks home late at night or as I lay in my bed they came upon me,
I too had been struck from the float forever held in solution, I too had receiv’d identity by my body,
That I was I knew was of my body, and what I should be I knew I should be of my body.

Colson Whitehead’sThe Way We Live Now” isn’t a poem, but it’s about the way certain spaces remain in your mind after they’ve disappeared:

You swallow hard when you discover that the old coffee shop is now a chain pharmacy, that the place where you first kissed so-and-so is now a discount electronics retailer, that where you bought this very jacket is now rubble behind a blue plywood fence and a future office building. Damage has been done to your city. You say, ”It happened overnight.” But of course it didn’t. Your pizza parlor, his shoeshine stand, her hat store: when they were here, we neglected them. For all you know, the place closed down moments after the last time you walked out the door. (Ten months ago? Six years? Fifteen? You can’t remember, can you?) And there have been five stores in that spot before the travel agency. Five different neighborhoods coming and going between then and now, other people’s other cities. Or 15, 25, 100 neighborhoods. Thousands of people pass that storefront every day, each one haunting the streets of his or her own New York, not one of them seeing the same thing.

In a 2001 MobyLives column, Dennis Johnson suggested reading work by Adrienne Rich, Maxine Kumin, George Bradley, Cathy SongAgha Shahid AliJo McDougall, and many others. This week, you might visit some recent works about the Syrian civil war in this article by Leigh Cuen.


Kirsten Reach was an editor at Melville House.