Twenty years ago, after the twin towers were hit, the local Lutheran Campus Minister here in Winona held a candlelight vigil. People came up to the microphone and shared how they felt. I read an early version of this poem–I can still see the crowd of stunned, sad faces flickering in the light of little candles. The poem kept growing as the tragedy kept unfolding. The completed poem was published in Poetry East.
THE TOWER VARIATIONS
In the most photographed and videotaped day in the history of the world, the images of people jumping were the only images that became, by consensus, taboo — the only images from which Americans were proud to avert their eyes.
When tomorrow arrives we will love life
as it is, ordinarily shrewd
gray or colored,
no resurrection in it or end.
In the photograph you tumble through empty space
against the backdrop of a building which is falling
more slowly and will be your sarcophagus–
now you turn in the sun like any object,
the wind of your descent rattles your shirt,
and tears at your pant cuffs–
your tie snaps like a failing chute.
I have dreamed it before–you must have dreamed it —
the stayless plummet–the wind in your throat–
only to wake in the darkness clutching your sheet–
now there is no darkness, only the light
of a September morning, clear and pitiless,
and no-one to wake you from your terrified shriek.
Think of the morning before the day it became:
your cup of coffee, a shy animal, trembled
as the subway passed underneath: the usual thunder,
friendly, efficient. Your split bagel seemed
a fragrant allegory of happiness,
the second hand walked round its post
on the wall clock, and the cream cheese slept
in its small museum
and the Times offered its smudged headlines
and opinions, and you shook your head,
at the day’s tragedies, skipping the obits—
let’s be clear about this:
had your name appeared among the missing,
you would have called in, to demand a retraction.
We didn’t see you hit,
the cameras turned shyly away;
which means you’re still falling
whenever we close our eyes: falling still
in the darkened well of the psyche,
small speck downward against the blinding grid
of the towers: without the end
of falling, it’s as if as we could stop time—as if
we might reach from a dream
and end your progress,
and let you live.
But often I think about your final minute:
the terrible compression, and speed, and knowledge,
life summing itself up, as you came down upon it,
the landscape larger and larger until
you were a part of it.
In your apartment, people are quietly talking
as they gather up the important things.
Photographs in their frames sympathize, and are
The phone rings and startles the cat.
By now everyone must know you are dead.
But who’ll tell your shirts? They wait to embrace you,
swaying slightly when the closet is opened:
arms down at their sides like soldiers at attention,
cool and unused, like a string of coming days,
silent, and lightly starched, in single file.
Each collar swallows the hanger to its shank—
buttons gleam in the collar points,
like eyes that cannot close.
On the cover of the paper—the enormous wreckage,
twisted I-beams, cladding, ganglia of steel
and in the foreground, Lilliputian
workmen in harness and yellow helmets:
explorers of the lost world.
The President has sent the USS Theodore Roosevelt.
Aboard that ship, men and women ready themselves
to follow you into the dark with night-vision goggles
and M4 rifles. Tonight, in their bunks
under the shadowless fluorescents,
they are writing heartfelt banalities with ball-point
pens on lined paper—far beneath them,
the great propellors throb, and churn the salt water:
so many lives in that honeycomb of steel
writing sentences that are irreversible,
set in motion by you, who wanted only
to sit with your coffee a moment, and read the mail.
When the towers fell, there was rejoicing in Nablus,
in Jerusalem, in Hebron, Lebanon;
young men handed out candies and danced in the streets,
glad you were not human; that you were no kin of theirs,
glad you were a man falling in a story,
a stricken devil, plunging into the fiery lake
in your black armor, the righteous arrows
of God whizzing past your feet.
Shall you hate them, or blame them?
When you were alive, you, too,
walked the earth with double vision–
a hell before you,
a paradise you imagined–
of the two, which was easier to believe in?
Thousands of telephones buried under the rubble,
their buttons gone dark,
so many phone books blown across the Hudson
like autumn leaves,
so many messages wandering the earth,
haunting the catenary arc
of the phone lines, lingering under the guy wires
of microwave towers–
or circling the earth like a ghostly shadow,
a dark migration,
that dims the satellites for a moment–
the unspoken sentences
of the rest of your life.
. . . as many as 15 per cent of those innocent victims who died in the attacks were themselves Muslim men and women. . .
When you fell, there was rejoicing in Nablus,
in Jerusalem, in Lebanon, in the camps,
those old mythological places–
a few men handing out candies, shouting
in the streets, because you had taken their pain, their humiliation
with you as you plunged past the world.
At the crowd’s edge, the bent figure approaching them
with the black cloth of mourning
pulled across her face–her hand extended,
holding a ringing phone.
Who would pick it up? Who could answer it?
The call from New York,
the voice from under the mountain?
Men at Ground Zero work all night
under floodlights, looking for you:
having no body is so lonely.
From the beginning, hungry and on foot
when someone died, we dug doorways into the earth,
folded the loved body in a posture of sleep
adding what we thought it would need:
a pair of sewn shoes, a pouch of corn,
flowers, an obsidian knife.
These we wet with our tears
then piled earth over them. Our
sorrow is a door that keeps on opening,
an endless limit. Our hands are lifted
in supplication at the lip of the world;
we find a taste there that’s bitter and sweet.
The lid that closes tight, keeps its perfume.
My daughter keeps drawing flags with uneven crayon
and, in the left-handed corner, a jumble of angry stars.
She stands in the back yard and sings America The Beautiful
at the top of her lungs. I want to tell her to be more ironic–
you are past simple piety or revenge,
what you want is simple: not to be dead.
But her country is where she lives–sunflowers by the fence,
the porch, the swing set–it’s a lump in her throat,
like a low-grade fever. And flags are everywhere–
in store windows, on car aerials, bumpers, tailgates,
jacket lapels. A manic multiplication.
Never mind that you would have preferred
the flag of the country called “everyday”
whose standard is the tea towel with crossed spoons.
Or the nation called “satisfying labor,”
whose coat of arms is the entrance to the subway.
Early frost killed the basil–and the last of summer’s
and the leaves on the walnut fell with a wet patter,
weighted with silver.
The lake was white with mist, and a single heron
stood hunched in his cloak like a brooding ambassador.
Sunlight struck the earth with an iron ring.
“I stood down by the yellow tape” said the U.N. relief worker
on the radio: “where the I-beams are snarled like tree roots—
there was the smell of hot plastic and rotting flesh
that took me back,” she said, “to the early ‘80s,
the Peshawar valley, after the Red Army
had pounded a village—the women all had the same look,
searching the rubble for pieces of someone they loved.”
An image from CNN:
the Afghan desert,
the small figure of a man
in caftan and turban,
surrounded by white packages,
their banners fluttering
with indecipherable signs.
He does not know if
they are food or bombs,
their number extends to his horizon–
good, or bad, intentions
kicked out of the rear door of an airplane
at an altitude too great
to tell the difference.
After launch, the wings unfold for lift,
the airscoop is exposed and the turbofan engine
is switched on for cruise flight. Over water, the missile
uses inertial guidance or GPS –
once over land, the Tomahawk’s path is aided
by Terrain Contour Matching Terminal guidance, which
is provided by Digital Scene Matching Area Correlation,
and is accurate to ten meters. It’s the targets that can’t be
to be military. To not be women and children.
“The savages make war upon us without respect to age or sex”
said Thos. Jefferson, detailing the King’s malfeasance–
inciting the Iroquois against the population.
War whoop. Ambush by night. Ash handle and totem feather.
Men in breechcloths sent by men in uniform.
Slash of a jet trail over the Indian Ocean.
Past my kitchen window now,
every two minutes,
the yellow flicker of a walnut leaf
twirls as it plummets–small
spinnaker of descent.
The place it falls from reveals a little more blue
in the end, there is only
the temple of blue
and the veins of hard shadow
and the burial mound of leaves.
“The Office of Homeland Security”
The asters are secure in their radiant faces
The walnut leaves are secure in their vagrant piles
The crows are secure in their ragged squadrons
The moon is secure in the arms of the white pine
I wish you were here to see my daughters dance
to the Goldberg variations.
They make such lumbering, graceful gestures
in their dress-up tutus. When they jump
the record skips, a turntable is as antiquated
as the clavichord Goldberg played
(according to these liner notes)
to help a Russian nobleman sleep.
Out the window, the dusk is violet,
a string of colored Christmas lights
decorate the house across the street.
You are somewhere –under a Himalaya of concrete
and aluminum flashing, and asbestos insulation
crushed to eerie ash—all lying under
hard autumn stars that once,
like your days, seemed bright and endless:
and now are all named and ancient.
The thought of which can make it hard to sleep.
As darkness falls, it’s mirrored in the window
like a star map, or night traffic. From the branches
dangle an odd assortment of ornaments–
collected in our short family life:
a Swedish mitten, a Pooh bear, a knitted bird,
a mirrored ball, a reindeer made of Popsicle sticks
with glued-on eyes, a blown-glass angel,
a candy cane still in its crinkled wrapper—
things so giddy and random,
as if tossed by a whirlwind
then frozen mid-descent,
caught in the arms of this tree –
living and fragrant, and commemorative.
Yesterday New York’s Mayor claimed the fires were out
under the debris-mountain, the parking garage of fragments.
Meanwhile the men who lit them were hiding in caves
issuing proclamations in scratchy videos.
Didn’t we begin in caves? Tracing images with our fingers,
in ochre and charcoal, and animal tallow,
watching what we depicted become more beautiful
than experience, so we might surmount death, so we might affirm
what comes in at the eye belongs to the soul,
to kindle desire, and deepen the logic of dreams.
Even now, telling the story, writing this poem
to you, I hold up the things I lack,
giving shape to the paradise that torments me.
“… the World Trade Center should become a representation of man’s ability to find greatness.” Minoru Yamasaki, chief architect of the World Trade Center
At sunset they were rich with the sun’s gilding,
at night, they rose like converging ladders of light;
and people loved them. “I feel this way about it, “
said the architect; “World trade means world peace,”
his optimism rose thirteen hundred feet.
But most of the time they were dull as children’s blocks,
two anodized Tylenol, white grocery lists,
twin exclamation marks at the end of a century
of excess. “Filing cabinets,” Mumford called them.
Two candle pins at Broadway’s lower reach.
Yet on the day they were hit, they burned like torches.
When they went down, they went down like ships,
leaving in their absence sudden vistas
through which we glimpsed—not peace—but its opposite.
The poster on the wall, a crummy Xerox,
holds the features of someone who’s missing–
the weather has faded it; the features are receding
into the paper. The simple message
soon will be illegible—along with the number
we could call to report, should the unlikely happen,
should someone pass us in the street who was standing
on the eightieth floor, waiting to go to a meeting,
before the roar of angels and the flame.