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Posts Tagged ‘9/11’

 

Lament

by Louise Gluck

 

Suddenly, after you die, those friends

who never agreed about anything

agree about your character.

They’re like a houseful of singers rehearsing

the same score:

you were just, you were kind, you lived a fortunate life.

No harmony. No counterpoint. Except

they’re not performers;

real tears are shed.

 

Luckily, you’re dead; otherwise

you’d be overcome with revulsion.

But when that’s passed,

when the guests begin filing out, wiping their eyes

because, after a day like this,

shut in with orthodoxy,

the sun’s amazingly bright,

though it’s late afternoon, September—

when the exodus begins,

that’s when you’d feel

pangs of envy.

 

Your friends the living embrace one another,

gossip a little on the sidewalk

as the sun sinks, and the evening breeze

ruffles the women’s shawls—

this, this, is the meaning of

“a fortunate life”: it means

to exist in the present.

 

Group of graves for a family named “Quaintance.”

 

Ah, the last of the poems in the Cemetery Series, and just in time. What with the hurricanes, floods, fires, earthquakes, and today the sixteenth anniversary of 9/11, I don’t like piling on the pervasive sense of death and destruction.

Interesting that Louise Gluck’s poem is called “Lament.” Lamentations are usually expressions of grief by those left behind. We read their thoughts (“Lamentations” in the Book of Jeremiah) or look at pictures of them grieving (Giotto’s Lamentation of Christ) or watch them dance it out (Martha Graham’s iconic Lamentations), so that we can enter into the desolation they feel, to understand or just to witness. Forget about the feelings of the dead person. Depending on your belief system, the dead person is either resting in unconscious peace or has found better digs. We save our sympathies for those who have to sort through the clothing, face an empty breakfast table, sell the baby stroller.

 

Not here. In Gluck’s “Lament,” we’re asked to dismiss the grief of those left behind. After all, they enjoy sunshine, affection and diverting conversation. Instead Gluck asks us to imagine the emotional life of the dead person. By using the conditional tense, the poet assures us the dead don’t have emotions even as she brings those emotions to life–

you’d be overcome with revulsion

 

and later, watching the guests file out into the sunlit afternoon–

that’s when you’d feel

pangs of envy.

 

The “fortunate life” mentioned in the eulogy belongs, in the end, to the living–

 “a fortunate life”: it means

to exist in the present.

 

This is no comfort. I find this poem existentially horrifying. The dead seem stuck in perpetual regret and longing.

Louise Gluck was born in 1943 in New York City, the second of three daughters. Her older sister died before she was born. Her father, a Hungarian Jewish immigrant, was instrumental (pun intended) in inventing the X-Acto knife.  At sixteen she suffered from anorexia and almost died and entered psychoanalysis for the next seven years. She attended both Sarah Lawrence and Columbia but graduated from neither.

 

Gluck has published fifteen books of poetry and two books of essays, the second one just out this year. She’s taught at University of Iowa and now Yale University. She’s received the Pulitzer and National Book Award for Poetry among many other awards and was named Poet Laureate of the United States in 2003.

 

A 2012 New Yorker profile names her “among the most moving poets of our era, even while remaining the most disabusing.”

 

Details on her personal life are difficult to find beyond that she’s been married and divorced twice and has a son.

 

R.I.P. to all victims of 9/11, the dead and the living alike.

 

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Last weekend I went on a spending spree in New York City.  Unfortunately for the economy, it was a poem-elfing kind of spending spree.  I hoard poems for future occasions the way some people keep money in special accounts for emergencies.  I decided to “spend” my poems in our most literary of cities.

 

Here’s my Sunday in New York, in reverse order.

 

Walking back to my hotel from Central Park, I came across an enormous, street-closing parade celebrating El Salvador.  And here was this little sweetie, just finished with her gig on a parade float.  I handed her Byron’s “She Walks in Beauty” and asked if I could take her picture.  Living in New York, she is surely used to nutcases and was agreeable to my request.  I told her the poem was about a rare beauty.  I hope she hangs on to it her whole life.

 

I love that little mouth, so serious above the poem.  “A mind at peace with all below/ A heart whose love is innocent!”

 

Earlier in Central Park I left Grace Paley’s “Whistlers” on a tree by the Bethesda Fountain.

poem is on tree in foreground

 

I’ve had this poem for years and years and find it funny but I still don’t completely understand the last stanza.

 

Near the stairs above the fountain I left Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “Pied Beauty.”

poem is in the shadows on the right-hand side of picture, halfway up

 

Hopkins poem is about nature.  But putting it here made me think of why I love New York.  “All things counter, original, spare, strange” : could there be a better description of New Yorkers?

 

The other great thing about New York is that no one bats an eye when behavior is unusual.  Even so, I was a little self-conscious taping a poem to a seat on the subway.  It was a rush job (just before I exited) and the photo didn’t come out well.

 

Richard Frost’s “For a Brother” is one of the first poems I collected.  Why I was drawn to it, I’m not entirely sure, because I have four wonderful brothers and I would never call any one of them “a sack of black rats’ balls”  or “a tank of piss.”  Anyway, Frost’s  long-buried feelings seemed to belong in a New York subway.

 

I began the day at the Ground Zero Memorial.  My picture does it no justice.  The footprints of the two towers have been transformed into two sunken pools.  Water cascades over the black walls in a beautiful metaphor of healing.  I hope those who lost loved ones on 9/11 find it a peaceful place.  Art and beauty that come from tragedy are not necessarily consolations but surely companions to suffering.  For that reason I left Elizabeth Bishop’s “I Am in Need of Music.”

poem is on wall between the two people

 

The poem is music itself:  “Of some song sung to rest the tired dead / A song to fall like water on my head.”

 

The most surprising display at the memorial plaza was the Survivor Tree.  One single tree, a Callery pear, survived the attack.  Nowhere else would so many people crowd to take pictures of an ordinary tree.  Good place to leave Wordsworth’s “She Dwelt Among Untrodden Ways.”

poem is on silver railing around the tree, behind the gal in black

 

“Half hidden from the eye” could describe the tree before the attack and the last lines could speak to all the “ordinary” people lost on that day—dishwashers in the Windows of the World, receptionists at Cantor Fitzgerald, office cleaners, elevator operators, underperforming traders—and to those who loved them, love them still.

 

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In last Sunday’s New York Times former science reporter John Schwartz wrote an op-ed piece about the eerie accuracy of novels in predicting the future.  I can’t make any such claims for poetry–-not least because the scope of my poetry reading is so small and for all I know there exists a tradition of science fiction haiku—-but what I can claim for poetry is an accuracy in describing the human condition.  Centuries-old poems can read as fresh, with a few adjustments of diction, as if they were written today.

 

Which brings me to a poem written in 1947 that has an eerie relevancy to this Sunday’s marking of the tenth anniversary of 9/11.  I came across “Above the City” a few months ago while I was researching James Laughlin, American poet and publisher extraordinaire.  (You can read that post here.)  The subject of the poem is another tragedy in Manhattan involving a skyscraper and a plane.  On Saturday, July 28, 1945, an Army pilot, disoriented in heavy fog, crashed a B-25 bomber into the 79th floor of the Empire State Building. Miraculously only 14 people died.  (If you’re weary of 9/11 coverage, click here to read more about the 66-year old crash.)

 

The poem’s tone is conversational, almost off-hand, surprising for so dark a subject. But the lightness is balanced by the last few lines, words which have only gotten weightier with the passage of time.

 

I’m posting it as a curiosity, not as any part of a tribute or statement.  September 11 is a day of mourning those who lost lives and of tribute to those who saved others or tried to.

 

Above the City

BY James Laughlin

 

You know our office on the 18th

floor of the Salmon Tower looks

right out on the

 

Empire State and it just happened

we were there finishing up some

late invoices on

 

a new book that Saturday morning

when a bomber roared through the

mist and crashed

 

flames poured from the windows

into the drifting clouds and sirens

screamed down in

 

the streets below it was unearthly

but you know the strangest thing

we realized that

 

none of us were much surprised be-

cause we’d always known that those

two paragons of

 

progress sooner or later would per-

form before our eyes this demon-

stration of their

true relationship.

 

(Apologies for the format.  I can’t get the correct spacing with WordPress.  The third line of each stanza should be indented.)

 

 

 

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poem is taped to column to the left of trashcan

 

The Overhead Rack 

By John Updike

Worst of all, and most hated by me


as I sit docilely crammed into my seat,


crammed and strapped like a psychotic in restraints,

are these bland-faced complacent graduates


of business school, trained to give each other


and the rest of the poor world the business,


who attempt to stuff their not one but two folding bags


big enough to hold an army of business suits


into the overhead rack, already crammed


with traveling crap like a constipated ox’s


intestine. The blond doors cannot lower,


the hats and bags of earlier arrivals


are crushed. Why don’t the smug smooth bastards check


their preening polyester wardrobes and


proliferating printouts, sheaf on sheaf,

at the ticket counter, or, better yet,


stay home and attend to their neglected wives


and morose, TV-mesmerized offspring


instead of crowding their slick and swollen bags


and egos onto my airplane, my tube in space, my

clean shot home? Like slats of a chicken coop


overrunning with dung are the overhead racks.

If we crash, thus overloaded, the world

will yield up a grateful sigh at the headlines:


one less batch of entrepreneurs to dread.

Oh, kill, kill, kill, I think, watching the filth


strap itself in, exhaling export beer


and nasal exchanges of professional dirt,


these fat corpuscles in the nation’s bloodstream:


oh, would I were a flying macrophage


to eat them all, their bags and all, and excrete


the vaporizing lava into space!

Taping John Updike’s “Overhead Rack” to the outside of an airport’s departure entrance* seemed like a good idea at the time. I had clipped the poem out of Harper’s magazine 15 years ago and found it funny.  I admit I skimmed it then and merely skimmed it again before I left to pick up my nephew at the airport. A fortuitous match of poem to location, I thought.

If I had read the poem more carefully, it might have occurred to me that taping anything with the phrase “kill, kill, kill” at an airport is a bad idea. Let’s hope I’m not on a terrorist watchlist now.   John Updike, at least,  is above suspicion, being dead.

If this poem doesn’t have a place in a post 9/11 world, neither does its vitriol resonate with people floundering in the wake of 2008’s credit collapse.  So many workers, white collar, blue collar, and artistic, struggle to hold on to their jobs; so while most people would share Updike’s roiling anger towards Wall Street types, there’s a sympathy towards the average Joe who’s traveling for business, perhaps coming home after a long week to that neglected, TV-mesmerized family in a house that won’t sell, which is why he’s commuting to a job that he dislikes in another state.

Just about everything about travel irritates these days, so it’s hard to pin all our discomforts on arrogant businessmen.  Now that everyone is stuffing carry-on bags into the overhead bins thanks to baggage fees, the person who annoys us on flights is just as likely to be an innocent baby with an ear infection, a heavyset person squeezing into an ever-smaller seat, or even a self-absorbed writer who considers the plane his, and reclines his seat till his white head nearly reaches our bosom.

We catch Updike (or a character that Updike creates in jest, it’s hard to tell)  in the middle of a rant.  Rants can be fun to observe from the distance of performance or written word (no one wants to be the direct object of one), but they’re best enjoyed in timely fashion, not thirty years later.  It’s not just that businessmen don’t wear hats with their suits anymore or that businesswomen don’t exist in the milieu of this poem; the overheated, overwritten language feels dated too, the humor a little tired. Maybe this is a poem best heard, not read.  Then we might be amused by  “preening polyester” and “proliferating printouts,” particularly if the speaker had an excess of spittle or an English accent.

John Updike was a brilliant novelist, so I’m told, an American original. (I read Rabbit Run years ago and disliked it.  Probably I couldn’t get my head around the poor woman whose baby drowned in the bathtub because she was drunk.)  But if “Overhead Rack” is evidence of poetic prowess, Updike made his name in the appropriate genre.**

These musings lead to the question, what makes poetry poetry? Not being a scholarly type, I leave that for better minds than mine, and can only offer a few of their definitions pulled from old textbooks and memory: the best word in the best place, emotion recollected in tranquility, and Archibald MacLeish’s dictum that “A poem should not mean/but be.”

What I do know is that poetry values an economy of words, the suggestive word or image, the stealth appeal to the subconscious. I’m not finding that here. Is “Overhead Rack” a prose piece in disguise?

Poetry sticks with me in ways other types of writing don’t, so I give Updike credit for at least one phrase that I’ll carry around and think of whenever I fly or commute in any fashion: fat corpuscles in the nation’s bloodstream.  Aren’t we all.

*unintentional oxymoron

**this statement may be completely off-base as this is the only poem by John Updike I’ve  ever read.

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