did you see the ashes come thickly falling down?
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:
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.
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:
Or again the dead speaking to the living:
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,
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:
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:
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