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Oh did you see the ashes come thickly falling down?

Poems Posted in the Wake of September llth


A few years ago, when TWA Flight #800 crashed into the Long Island Sound, mourners brought flowers to the seaside; they wanted to get as close as possible to the spot where the plane went down. They approached the place where it seems the souls of the dead must hover. On September 11th, when United flight #11 and American flight #175 sliced into the towers and erupted, family members and friends, in their grief, were anxious to approach Ground Zero, the place where their loved ones died and where their souls may have lingered. In the days that followed, one child wrote in the dust of a shopwindow close to the scene, "Daddy, I came here to find you." In the weeks that followed, arrangements were made for the families to visit Ground Zero, and they adapted the existing Policeman's Memorial in Battery Park into an improvised shrine, leaving teddy bears -- now thousands of them -- along with photos and messages to loved ones.

At City Lore, documenting the memorials in the wake of September 11th, we too made our pilgrimage down to Ground Zero, to the ghost town of Lower Manhattan, where the smoke has not yet cleared. Standing in front of the Battery Park shrine lined with so many Teddy Bears -- selected perhaps for the way they bring comfort to children, and perhaps for Smokey the Bear, who survived fires, we shook our heads in wonder at the scene. I found myself questioning: What kind a shrine is this that pays homage to the Teddy Bear?

But on that wet and cold October day what seemed silly and sweet took on significance as we started to read the inscriptions. Joseph Dobkin, a City Lore intern who accompanied me, described the experience, "As I breathed the scent of wet Teddy bears and bouquets, along with the still unsettled stench of disaster, my fingers cold and slightly numb, each note I read revealed it's own separate tragedies, and I tried to keep the paper dry on which I wrote. It sometimes feels completely beyond me as to what to do amidst all the tragedy felt in this city right now... But when I write down a line that crushes me, just before it gets washed away by the rain, it wipes away some of the numbness I feel after watching the news for days on end. I see the beautiful poem of this city unfold, and I feel a little humanity return."

Reading the inscriptions left on the bears, we realized that the shrine at Ground Zero, and the shrines in all five boroughs had become portals where the living and dead touch one another. "To Lee," one inscription read, "We came here today to tell you how much we love you & miss you. We are trying to remember all of the good times. We're just staying hello because there will never be goodbyes." At a memorial in New York's Inwood neighborhood for Brian Patrick Monaghan, put together by his friends, many of whom played handball at a court adjoining the shrine on 207th and Seaman, a girl casually addresses Brian from across the grave. "What's up Babe. It's me, ROSIE -- I'm here in the corner looking at all your pictures and candles..."

Many of these missives from the living to the dead are written as poems -- this one from the Battery Park shrine, written from a wife to her husband:

Where did you go?
You gave me a beautiful little angel,
But didn't stay to see her grow.

On one of the missing person flyers put up on the memorial at Grand Central Station, this one for Clyde Frazier, Jr., a visitor added this post-it, a sentiment felt by all of us haunted by the beautiful faces of fellow New Yorkers on these missing posters that were put up with such desperate hopes in the days after September llth, and gradually transmogrified into touching memorials for the dead.

Every morning
I see you
smiling.
I miss you.
We never met.

But the shrines are also places where the dead speak to the living often in verses posted as anonymous, this one found at many of the different NYC memorials:

Do not stand at my grave and weep
I am not there, I do not sleep.

I am a thousand winds that blow
I am the diamond glint on snow.

I am the sunlight on ripened grain
I am the gentle autumn rain.

When you wake in the morning hush
I am the swift, uplifting rush
of quiet birds in circling flight.
I am the soft starlight at night

Do not stand at my grave and weep.
I am not there. I don not sleep

Or again the dead speaking to the living:

If you could see where I have gone
and the beauty of this place
And how it feels to know you're home
to see the Savior's face

To wake in peace and know no fear
That joy beyond compare
While still on earth you miss me yet
You wouldn't want me there.

I read one of the most striking missives at the Memorial set up in Grand Central. Alicia Vasquez, whose name appears at the end appears to be writing to her husband,

don't look for me anymore
it's late and you're tired
your feet ache standing atop the ruins of our twins
day after day searching for a trace of me
your eyes burning red
your hands cut bleeding sifting through rock
and your back crooked from endless hours of labor

It's my turn
I'm worried about you
watching as you sift thorugh the ruins of what was
day after day in the soot and rain

I ached in knowing you suffer my death
rest in knowing that my blood lies in the cracks and crevices
of these great lands I loved so much...

don't look for me anymore
hold my children as I would
hold my sisters and brothers for me
since I can't bring them up with the same
love you gave me
and I'll rest assured
you're watching my children

don't look for me anymore
go home and rest

The poems in the shrines serve as a portal to talk directly to the terrorists, whose remains also lie in the Ground Zero rubble. This one is from the memorial wall at Grand Central:

Well you hit the World Trade Center, but you missed America
You hit the Pentagon,
Again you missed America
You used helpless American bodies to take out other American bodies,
but like a poor marksman, you still missed America

Why? Because of somethings you guys will never understand
America isn't about a building or two, not about financial centers not about military centers
America isn't about a place, American isn't about a bunch of bodies
America is about an IDEA.

An idea that you can go someplace where you can earn as much as you can figure out how to, live for the most part, like you envisioned living, and pursue Happiness

(no guarantees that you'll reach it, but you can sure try)!

And some of the poems are about a communion with the living and the dead, this one posted anonymously in a number of the memorials:

As the soot and dirt and ash rained down,
We became one color.
As we carried each other down the stairs of the burning building
We became one class.
As we lit candles of waiting and hope
We became one generation.
As the firefighters and police officers fought
their way into the inferno
We became one gender.
as we fell to our knees in prayer for strength
We became one faith.

As we whispered or shouted words of encouragement,
We spoke one language.
As we gave our blood in lines a mile long,
We became one body.
As we mourned together the great loss
We became one family.
As we cried tears of grief and loss
We became one soul
As we retell with pride of the sacrifice of heroes
We became one people.

In our culture, we think of art as taking elements from what passes for real life, rearranging them, and offering them as a comment metaphorical or lyrical about our lives. After September llth, poems were written with the urgency of art but put back into the flow of life to take their place anonymously with ritual objects that were part of the mourning process. Particularly in the weeks after the disaster, most of the poems were anonymous. Now, months later, new poems still appear, but these stamped with copyright notices and posted web sites.

On the day of the disaster, a copy of Shelley's "Ozymandias was sent to an expanding group of friends on the web, suggesting that if the World Trade Center were ever to be rebuilt, it should bear a plaque with the inscription 'My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:/ Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!'" For me, the poems left at the shrines are also reminiscent not of the Sphinx, but of the poems carved into the tombs of Egyptian Pharaohs and dignitaries, poems that are named according to where they were found the Pyramid Texts, the Coffin Texts.

On the memorials, the words seem forged into poetry not for art's sake, but to pierce the very barrier that separates the living from the dead. In a language of symbols and ritual acts, New Yorkers refused to give death the last word. In this wordly city, along our secular sidewalks, stoops, and parks, in all five boroughs, New Yorkers were able to draw on their powers of creative expression to forge a spiritual response of a magnitude commensurate with the loss.

A few days ago, I received a call from a reporter from the LA Times who was writing a story on how September 11th changed the American psyche. Sitting across the table from him in a nearby restaurant I strained to come up with my most august ruminations. I spoke about how these informal, spontaneous practices of creating the memorials reveal the spirit. They are rituals of remembrance that are about the care and nurturing of the soul not as it approaches heaven but as it dwells among the living in story, memory, family history, and tradition. Listening to me groping towards a thought, he rephrased my comments. "I guess what you're saying is that a folklorist is a scientist of human expression -- and that the expression becomes evidence for the soul." He paused for a moment and thought. "I think we've had a metaphysical breakthrough," he laughed.

 

Steve Zeitlin is the director of City Lore in New York, and coauthor of the recent book, Giving a Voice to Sorrow: Personal Responses to Death and Mourning, with Ilana Harlow. The title of this essay is from an anonymous poem handwritten on a scrap of paper posted in New York's Union Square. For other poems on the events of September 11, go to http://www.peoplespoetry.org

 
 
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