Today is September 11. The day two planes hijacked by Al-Qaeda terrorists flew into the twin towers of New York’s World Trade Center, bringing them down in flames, killing nearly 3,000 people 13 years ago. I still remember the shock and horror of seeing it happen on television. After the television broadcasters live-reporting the tragedy, the shock was expressed most memorably, I think, by Paul Auster in his novel, Brooklyn Follies.
“One should never underestimate the power of books,” the narrator writes in the last line before the final chapter, X Marks the Spot, which goes from happiness to tragedy. The narrator, 60-year-old Nathan Glass, is released from hospital and steps out on the street, thinking of the widow he loves.
I felt so glad to be alive, I wanted to scream. Overhead, the sky was the bluest of pure deep blues. If I walked quickly enough, I would be able to get to Carroll Street before Joyce left for work. We would sit down in the kitchen and have a cup of coffee together, watching the kids run around like chipmunks as their mothers got them ready for school. Then I would walk Joyce to the subway, put my arms around her, and kiss her good-bye,
It was eight o’clock when I stepped out onto the street, eight o’clock on the morning of September 11, 2001—just forty-six minutes before the first plane crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Just two hours after that, the smoke of three thousand incinerated bodies would drift over toward Brooklyn and come pouring down on us in a white cloud of ashes and death.
But for now it was still eight o’clock, and as I walked along the avenue under that brilliant blue sky, I was happy, my friends, as happy as any man who had ever lived.
That’s how the book ends, capturing the last moments when New Yorkers like the narrator were still going about their business, unaware of the tragedy about to disrupt their lives.
The September 11 attack is mentioned in only two sentences, but see how it’s juxtaposed with the narrator’s preceding happiness, making the unexpected tragedy all the more poignant. No one saw it coming.
Ian McEwan describes the shock of seeing a plane crash in the opening pages of his novel, Saturday, also written after September 11. Instead of New York, the burning plane lights up the London night sky.
Both the US and the UK Poet Laureate of the time wrote poems about September 11.
Billy Collins wrote a poem called The Names, which he read out on US public television a year after the tragedy.
Andrew Motion wrote a poem for a service held at Westminster Abbey for the British victims of the tragedy.
The Library of Congress has links to more September 11 poems by poets such as Robert Pinsky and Robert Creeley.
Here you can see Billy Collins reading The Names on PBS.
Andrew Motion’s poem was published without any title in the Guardian. Here it is.
The voices live which are the voices lost:
we hear them and we answer, or we try,
but words are nervous when you need them most
and shatter, stop or dully slide away
so everything they mean to summon up
is always just too far, just out of reach,
unless our memories give time the slip
and learn the lessons that heart-wisdoms teach
of how in grief we find a way to keep
the dead beside us as our time goes on –
invisible and silent, but the deep
foundations of ourselves, our corner-stone.
Here is the transcript of Billy Collins’s poem, taken from PBS. It is also the last poem in Aimless Love, a collection of his poems published in 2013.
By Billy Collins
Yesterday, I lay awake in the palm of the night.
A soft rain stole in, unhelped by any breeze,
And when I saw the silver glaze on the windows,
I started with A, with Ackerman, as it happened,
Then Baxter and Calabro,
Davis and Eberling, names falling into place
As droplets fell through the dark.
Names printed on the ceiling of the night.
Names slipping around a watery bend.
Twenty-six willows on the banks of a stream.
In the morning, I walked out barefoot
Among thousands of flowers
Heavy with dew like the eyes of tears,
And each had a name –
Fiori inscribed on a yellow petal
Then Gonzalez and Han, Ishikawa and Jenkins.
Names written in the air
And stitched into the cloth of the day.
A name under a photograph taped to a mailbox.
Monogram on a torn shirt,
I see you spelled out on storefront windows
And on the bright unfurled awnings of this city.|
I say the syllables as I turn a corner –
Kelly and Lee,
Medina, Nardella, and O’Connor.
When I peer into the woods,
I see a thick tangle where letters are hidden
As in a puzzle concocted for children.
Parker and Quigley in the twigs of an ash,
Rizzo, Schubert, Torres, and Upton,
Secrets in the boughs of an ancient maple.
Names written in the pale sky.
Names rising in the updraft amid buildings.
Names silent in stone
Or cried out behind a door.
Names blown over the earth and out to sea.
In the evening — weakening light, the last swallows.
A boy on a lake lifts his oars.
A woman by a window puts a match to a candle,
And the names are outlined on the rose clouds –
Vanacore and Wallace,
(let X stand, if it can, for the ones unfound)
Then Young and Ziminsky, the final jolt of Z.
Names etched on the head of a pin.
One name spanning a bridge, another undergoing a tunnel.
A blue name needled into the skin.
Names of citizens, workers, mothers and fathers,
The bright-eyed daughter, the quick son.
Alphabet of names in a green field.
Names in the small tracks of birds.
Names lifted from a hat
Or balanced on the tip of the tongue.
Names wheeled into the dim warehouse of memory.
So many names, there is barely room on the walls of the heart.
Here is one for the survivors.
That Love is all there is,
Is all we know of Love…’
— Emily Dickinson
It wasn’t you, it wasn’t me,
Up there, two thousand feet above
The New York street. Were safe and free,
A little while, to live and love,
Imagining what might have been —
The phone call from the blazing tower,
A last farewell on the machine,
While someone sleeps another hour,
Or worse, perhaps, to say goodbye
And listen to each other’s pain,
Send helpless love across the sky,
Knowing we’ll never meet again,
Or jump together, hand in hand,
To certain death. Spared all of this
For now, how well I understand
That love is all, is all there is.
Finally a poem about death and destruction from air.
And the Wright brothers said they thought they had invented
something that could make peace on earth when their wonderful
flying machine took off at Kitty Hawk into the kingdom of birds
but the parliament of birds was freaked out by this man-made bird
and fled to heaven
And then the famous Spirit of Saint Louis took off eastward and
flew across the Big Pond with Lindy at the controls in his leather
helmet and goggles hoping to sight the doves of peace but he did not
even though he circled Versailles
And then the famous Flying Clipper took off in the opposite
direction and flew across the terrific Pacific but the pacific doves
were frighted by this strange amphibious bird and hid in the orient sky
And then the famous Flying Fortress took off bristling with guns
and testosterone to make the world safe for peace and capitalism
but the birds of peace were nowhere to be found before or after Hiroshima
And so then clever men built bigger and faster flying machines and
these great man-made birds with jet plumage flew higher than any
real birds and seemed about to fly into the sun and melt their wings
and like Icarus crash to earth
And the Wright brothers were long forgotten in the high-flying
bombers that now began to visit their blessings on various Third
Worlds all the while claiming they were searching for doves of
And they kept flying and flying until they flew right into the 21st
century and then one fine day a Third World struck back and
stormed the great planes and flew them straight into the beating
heart of Skyscraper America where there were no aviaries and no
parliaments of doves and in a blinding flash America became a part
of the scorched earth of the world
And a wind of ashes blows across the land
And for one long moment in eternity
There is chaos and despair
And buried loves and voices
Cries and whispers
Fill the air
(See also Selected Poems)