Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Nine Eleven

Ten years ago I was sending out monthly poetry mailings called The Hundreds to a circle of friends. There were three to five poems in each mailing, one of which was always the latest canto in “2001: An Ottava Rima Odyssey,” which chronicled my personal life with what I hoped was a certain Byronic wit, given the form I was using.

There would have been twelve Cantos, but there ended up only being eight--heh; just as unfinished as Byron’s Don Juan, now that I think of it. And there were only eight because of September 11th. I stopped sending the mailings out after September, and the mailing I sent out at the end of September consisted of two poems, one called “Climbing Up Lombard,” which I’ll post at the end of the week, and one called “September 11, 2001,” which is below.

I won’t say much about it, except to admit that it was deliberately written to echo WH Auden’s poem “September 1, 1939,” which I used to have memorized before the details of my day job pushed that part of my memory into the recycle bin. It was written primarily at the upstairs bar of the Cedar Tavern (the “bar on University Place” of the first stanza). I sent it out to several magazines but it was either rejected or I never heard back, and if I had been blessed with a marketer’s brain rather than a writer’s brain, I would have sent it out a couple of months ago to a few places in expectation of this week’s anniversary. But I didn’t. So here it is.

September 11, 2001

I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn:
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.
--W.H. Auden, September 1, 1939

I sit in one of the bars
On University Place
Uncertain and afraid
As the new millennium’s hope
Is buried without a trace
In a heap of mangled steel --
And I wonder how we can stand
When the earth beneath our feet
Hums like a tightrope wire
And the soot of a thousand lives
Offends the September air.

My pen droops from my hand;
The only thing I can write
Is an echo of Auden’s poem
Of 9/1/39,
The one where he hated the line
“We must love one another or die,”
And changed the “or” to “and”
So his wrinkled husk could deny
The ardour of his youth
With a retroactive lie
And a palatable truth.

The truth I see on my face
Is the look of a shipwrecked soul --
The eyes of a homeless man
Who trusted and was thrown
Down to uncaring streets
By a cold intractable God
Who calls for a pharmakos
To suffer and to die,
So that the rest of us
Can walk past life’s defeats
With an averted eye.

But I cannot look away.
I search for God in the sky
And see a pillar of smoke
That marks our common grave --
Where death is unverified,
Where innocence is a joke
And sleep comes only in fits
Like a seizure between the sheets,
And hopes choke one by one,
Charred leaves that plummet and spin
To earth in the autumn sun.

The world can parse the Koran
Till Armageddon comes
Or catalogue affronts
From Sykes-Picot on down
That led to this offense
And still be blind to the why:
No matter what the cause,
A man who is in the wrong
Will always reach for the rod,
And the righteous will rejoice
To kill in the name of God.

In the face of such belief,
Our patriotic priests
Will clutch the lectern and say
Even Christ would not forgive
This impious infamy;
For God, who does not live
Within one flag alone,
Will surely advocate ours
When we rise up and fight
To avenge the death of our own
Because we are in the right.

And those of us who question
Or talk of common bonds
Or say we had it coming
Will wear the mark of Cain
Till we chant the required truth:
No one is better than us
And no one has been more wronged,
So we all must stand behind
A man who is for the birds,
And say that he speaks for us
When he barely knows the words.

When leaders do not inspire,
Where can we put our faith
To match man’s faith in God?
To trust that the human race
Is better than its worst
Is to wander in a wood
Where outlaws use the weak
As kindling for their fire,
And prepare an unmarked grave
For all who cross their path:
The luckless as well as the brave.

But I have to believe there exists
Some hidden higher power
Whose purpose I cannot see --
Some virtue in the blood
Of the common hurting heart
That drives humanity.
And whether it wears a face
Or comes down from the clouds
Or studies our flaws from space
Or commands us from the fire,
It is something bigger than us.

I bow my head to pray
And I’m begging under my breath
The way I ask for love
When I think life owes me one
Or I’m desperate to death.
It’s not the ask, it’s the act
That determines the return:
Whether Allah or Elohim,
We get the god we deserve
As long as we treat each other
Like the butcher treats the lamb.

And what I fear the most
Is that what gags us now
Will soon be swallowed whole
Down throats too raw to scream.
We will return to rote
And sleep the sleep of forget
And ignore the threat of loss
And barely acknowledge the wife
And give her the usual kiss
And watch the weekly game
And deal with even this.

This bar will be packed tonight
With voices like battering rams,
With nameless fears assuaged
And troublesome answers bought
By the pitcher or the glass
Until the brain has been gouged
Of abominable fire
And human ticker tape,
And a man can face last call
Where the broken promenade
Meets the stench of the rat in the wall.

I pay for my beers and leave
And hit the empty streets
Where soldiers and police
Control pedestrian flow.
In the distance a siren grieves
But its cry brings no release --
I yearn for someone to hold,
To stop the ticking clock
That counts the minutes of
A world that is dire and bleak
And dressed in the rags of love,

And I think of the ancient Greeks
Who invented tragedy
By pitting a mortal against
His morals and his gods
To create his destiny:
How suffering scales the soul
And every choice means loss,
So the question then becomes
Whether a man will be great
When he hears the hollow drums
That summon him to his fate.

And where are we called now,
I wonder as I walk
Down a street blocked off from cars
To Union Square and the park
Where bullhorns compete with guitars
And the hush drowns out it all;
Where little girls kneel down
While their parents, strong and tall,
Crouch over them like a shield
With their hands upon their heads
As if dismay can be healed.

In the park there are endless signs
With slogans affirming stands
And stands with scrapbook shots,
And candles that flicker and glow
Like an army of shooting stars,
Arrayed against the might
Of despair and the unforeknown,
Confronting each daily lie
With honesty’s true kiss
And the irreplaceable light
That flares from our common soul.

Drowning in deep unease,
At the crossroads where belief
Collides with necessity --
Where the way of the righteous sword
And immediate relief
Meets the precipice of peace --
With our innocence in tatters
And poisoned with hate and grief,
We search for the perfect word
That will keep the foolish wise
And a dream from being shattered.

Out of a sleepless bed,
Into a dreamless day,
We stagger towards our fate
Like children who have no say;
And every step we take
And all that we think we know
Mean nothing unless we try
To bare our hearts and see
The world as lovers do:
If you’ll be true to me
Then I’ll be true to you.

Under that heavy charge
Down the hard road of love,
Where every blatant lie
Confirms a hidden truth,
It is how we walk that counts
As we stumble through this gorge
Of panic and despair
In search of higher ground:
The weak to teach the strong,
The strong protect the weak,
The lost to find their way,
And all the silent speak.

Copyright 2001 Matthew J Wells

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