Monday, July 2, 2007

Reflections on Poetry and Disaster

It seems that everyone and then some has weighed in with his or her responses to or thoughts about the events of September 11, 2001, so I thought that I would make my contribution as well. Poetry played an important role in helping me come to grips with both those events and what was made of them in the media. As for most people in America and around the world, my only access to those events and their aftermath was through their media representation. Though I grew up there and remember the construction of the World Trade Center, I no longer live in New York City and don’t know anyone who was directly affected.

William Carlos Williams famously but not, I think, accurately wrote that, though the news cannot be found in poetry, men die every day for lack of what is found there. It distorts what poetry actually offers to aggrandize it in this way. People die every day, often in large numbers, for all sorts of quite material reasons, and many people live perfectly well, even happily, without poetry. As Edna St. Vincent Millay, also famously, wrote of love, it is not meat nor drink, nor slumber nor a roof against the rain. And yet, it’s much better to live with it than without it.

I do believe that poetry embodies and enacts kinds of knowledge, and not just thematically, but in its form. One kind of knowledge poetry enacts is that of rightness of relation, of part to part, of part to whole, and of whole to part. This rightness of relation is a model or an imago of a just society. Though many things in our world are an affront to the very idea of such a society, that rightness of relation was a consolation to me in responding to what has become known as 9/11.

Death, Continuance, and the Lights

A poem that I turned to in the aftermath of the destruction of the World Trade Center seems on the surface to have nothing to do with the disaster, but it nonetheless resonated very much for me. It’s by Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, and appears in her first book, Random Possession, published in 1979 by I. Reed Books and sadly now out of print. Here is the full text of the poem.

Suspension Bridge

You say all of us
even if we fail become lights
along the awesome bones. Separated
by darkness, humming through wires
on windy nights, bellying out
you’re so sure the current is personal

Not like the firefly
that lives for a month
jolted at random by a blank force
that never knows the brightness
of its shocked body
even on cool nights above the grasses
when it loves, victim to victim.

One thing that moves me about this poem is the promise of continuance, the sense of cycle in the poem’s melding of the man-made with the natural world: we die as individuals but life goes on, our works fade or collapse but the work of making continues. The hint of immortality in the promise that we will all become lights makes the terribly clichéd notion of a thousand points of light concrete in the image of the world as a field of glowing fireflies (corresponding to the image of the bridge as a string of lights). Given the context of socio-political extremity, I can’t help but think of the end of Auden’s “September 1, 1939” (rather too obvious a choice about which to write, though I re-read it many times in the weeks following September 11), the ironic points of light of the Just flashing out their messages. I don’t have Auden’s confidence of being among the just, let alone the Just. The modesty of Berssenbrugge’s claims feels much more appropriate to me, the tentativeness of the hope it proffers more accurate and realistic.

Though this poem is about a bridge, I think of the World Trade Center’s awesome bones (the myriad vertical struts making up the structural redundancy that was intended to permit the towers to survive the impact of an airplane crashing into them), now bent and broken. “The blank force/that never knows the brightness/of its shocked body” will for me always evoke the planes crashing into those shining towers on that bright clear morning. But I am still consoled by the poem’s assurance that our lights are not merely fireflies, fleeting victims flickering quickly out of existence, but will go on: that though lives end, life goes on. There are moments at which truisms are nothing less than true. Despite the apparent distance of its subject matter from the horrors of September 11 (though the poem does deal with a massive structure of human design), it’s the poem’s juxtaposition of death and survival, its sense of recurrence and things going on despite death, including and containing death, that makes the connection for me. And the lights.

Some Things to Do With Tears

I read Allen Grossman’s collection How to Do Things With Tears several times in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks and it was a source of great solace to me, a reminder of the news it is possible to get from poetry, and the life, of the spirit if not always of the body, that poetry can help sustain. The book addresses the question of what is to be done with tragedy and mortality, of how they can be addressed without being trivialized or merely turned into more poetry.

My poem “Objects in Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear,” which appears in my most recent book, Fata Morgana, is a poem “about” the World Trade Center disaster, or at least about the mediated spectacle of the disaster (the mirror being of course the television screen through which I and most people experienced it). The poem was born under Grossman’s sign, as it were. How to Do Things With Tears, and the notes at the end of it, especially the second note, gave me a way toward this difficult subject, as well as an admonition about the dangers of approaching it at all. And I did find myself in tears at several points watching the televised deaths of strangers in a city in which I had not lived in years. Grossman’s book showed me what might be done with those useless, vicarious tears.

I used Grossman’s phrase “there is nothing that will suffice,” as one of the poem’s original epigraphs, to underscore my sense that in such a situation poetry indeed, as Auden wrote, did nothing, and that perhaps what it did was of dubious worth, but then decided that it was perhaps too directive and explanatory of my intentions. I felt somewhat ambivalent about writing this poem, and about the impulse to write it, not wanting to make poetic capital out of suffering (in the way that the relentless media exploitation of the catastrophe made so much more literal capital out of it), but the poem is critical (and self-critical) about the impulse to turn suffering into song (what the marvelous poet Michael Anania called in a note to me elegy as felix culprit), and about the vicarious participation in the pain of others.

In one passage of his book’s notes, Grossman writes that “Any NEW poetry must be aware that there is nothing that will suffice. Any new poetry must be aware of insufficiency, unanswerability in response to what anybody knows, with respect to what consciousness is conscious of. There is, in this matter of poetic thinking (poetic realism), no distinction possible to be made between consciousness and moral consciousness.” I tried to get something of that sense into the poem, to have the poem itself critique poetry’s relentless urge to turn the world into elegy, another occasion for song, music however mournful. My own work has tended to be much about that mournful music, so there was definitely a self-critique involved. The church sign, by the way, is real, as are the songs.

In an interview with The Harvard Advocate, Grossman says that “A strong poetry would be a poetry that discerns and finds a poetically adequate means of bringing to mind the catastrophe of history.” “Objects in Mirror Are Closer than They Appear” was my attempt, perhaps foredoomed by definition, to find such a poetically adequate means of confronting rather than simply surrendering to history.

Objects in Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear

I stow this moment with all the other baggage
too heavy to be carried or left
behind. Roadside church sign says The Lord
is the Lord who made us the way we are us
He scatters the remnants and collects
them at a later date (unspecified): sorts them
into neat piles. I have watched twin towers fall
a dozen times. An absence moves through
the wreckage while the light stays put; the rats
will have to find another home.

Song keeps repeating I watched you suffer
even after the song’s turned off.

History picks her way in high heels
through the structural redundancy (still shimmering
with its recentness, its haze of airborne ash
and grit), compassion makes his way through the structured
inequality in blue serge suit to interview survivors of
the structural adjustment, the combined
and uneven development that bursts into flames
at half an hour intervals, implodes
in slow motion with a televisual sigh
(catches up with photogenic falling bodies).

Song wants to soothe the sidewalk misery
into grief, smooth the debris into a shroud.

Lamed truth hobbles into another dark
through crumpled girders and concrete, calibrating
ruin and song, ruining the song
for the sake of what was life: hands out these
glass splinters, mercies and atrocities
that can’t be lulled into music,
the ignorance we call innocence.
They taste like burning (a violent antidote),
incapable of caring if it harmonizes, or
unwilling to succumb again.

Song won’t shut up, keeps saying Don’t look
. Justice tries to listen for a low tapping sound.


Thinker said...

Your poem reminded me of what I thought when the Bamiyan Buddhas were destroyed....some things occur out of ignorance. There is no lesson for us to learn there except that we are all dust and to dust we will return-whether ignorance lights a tomb or whether destiny crowns us with the inevitable.

Thank you.

scotland said...

Dear Mr. Shepherd, Ongoing thanks for your efforts.

There should be no theme and its details which is unapproved to explore. My own guiding viewpoint however does not easily lean towards allowing personal motives the right of commanding reason to rule theme. I think a strong distinction could be made between work which either does or doesn't act out this tendency.
You have written in the past of the long poem. I can't imagine the event of this theme outside of requiring massive proportions. It being reduceable only in a sense of proximity and mathematical measurement.

The distance from which history is confronted is seen in the rightness of relations expressed,like a mileage marker traveling on the highway, or distance figures on the paper pages of Rand-Mcnally or a swatch of brown/grey and green partly hidden by patches of clouds in a satelite photo. Tell me I'm Tripping,wanted to say Hello. SPH

Mark Granier said...

Dear Reginald,

Excellent post, and I liked your poem, which takes interesting risks with language, humanising (or at least making figurative and bringing down to earth) those large abstractions beloved of tabloid journalists and politicians and feared by many writers, myself included. If there is an arena for such risk-taking, this, of course, is it. The atrocity warped language along with so much else; "ground zero" for god's sake!

I love the song/refrain, and the last couplet, which really DOES bring everything down to earth.

The subject is a raw wound, difficult to know how to begin to approach, if approach it one must. Deborah Garrison managed it beautifully in 'I Saw You Walking'. Heaney was serendipitously involved in translating Horace at around the time of 9/11; he might not have made an attempt at it otherwise. He came up with the brilliant opening line: "Anything can happen."

Alan Contreras said...

Reginald, I enjoyed your blognote on poetry about disaster. The trick is to write from the experience of the disaster without writing about the disaster so specifically that the poem ages poorly. Poetry and emotive journalism are not the same thing.

James Merrill once said in an interview that a problem with writing about current events is that "when the tide of feeling goes out, the language begins to stink." I have always appreciated that view and the Merrilly twist to the phrase.

Alan Contreras

Andrew Shields said...

"those useless, vicarious tears": what a beautiful phrase. It goes right to the heart of the problem of how to write about such an event when it is actually far from you.

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