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Book Review: Poetry After 9/11 (Newsday)

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Poetry After 9/11

By Emily Gordon

POETRY AFTER 9/11: An Anthology of New York Poets. Edited by Dennis Loy Johnson and Valerie Merians. Melville House, 112 pp., $12.95.

110 STORIES: New York Writes After September 11. Edited by Ulrich Baer. New York University Press, 333 pp., $22.95.

POEMS OF NEW YORK. Selected and edited by Elizabeth Schmidt. Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets/Alfred A. Knopf, 256 pp., $12.50.

“It is difficult to get the news from poems,” William Carlos Williams wrote, “yet men die miserably every day/for lack/of what is found there.” After the horror of Sept. 11, both professional writers and ordinary people rushed to fill that void—to tell, in effect, the news. As Dennis Loy Johnson and Valerie Merians write in the foreword to “Poetry After 9/11: An Anthology of New York Poets”—one of the many commemorative anthologies to come out this fall - “there were, in the immediate aftermath, poems everywhere. Walking around the city you would see them—stuck on light posts and phone stalls, plastered on the shelters at bus stops and the walls of subway stations.”

Seasoned poets, meanwhile, were struggling to break the muteness that kept threatening to take over in those frightening first days and weeks, and started producing their own responses to what was happening around them: grief, fear, guilt, dissent, war.

“Poetry After 9/11” and “110 Stories: New York Writes After September 11” are both specifically local; they collect poems (in the former) and a variety of writing forms (in the latter) to give readers a highly concentrated sampling of the reactions New York writers had to Sept. 11 both as New Yorkers and as writers. Johnson and Merians have assembled an impressive roster of poets for their anthology, including Jean Valentine, Stephen Dunn, David Trinidad, Molly Peacock and David Lehman. Lehman’s 1996 poem “The World Trade Center” serves as frontispiece for the book; it begins: “I never liked the World Trade Center./When it went up I talked it down.” And yet, he goes on, after that year’s bombing “my whole attitude … changed overnight.” The monoliths’ sudden vulnerability had made them precious. The other poets in the collection take the same attitude toward the relative peace New York enjoyed before last fall; they aim to capture the new insecurity even as they mourn the lives, and the world they occupied, that were lost.

They do this in an astonishing variety of ways. Several poems are recollections of the immediate experience; Eliot Katz’s “When the Skyline Crumbles,” for instance, is a week in the life of the aftermath. Stephen Dunn casts himself into the minds of the hijackers: “It just takes a little training, to blur/a motive, lie low while planning the terrible,/get good at acting one way, feeling another.” Miranda Beeson, writing about a wayward finch found after the towers’ collapse in her poem “Flight,” uncovers some beauty and a hint of continuing life in the bewilderment of the destruction.

Throughout “Poetry After 9/11,” poets find comfort in small moments, connections with the living or dead. Other poets are haunted by the idea of who died that day and who was spared, which inevitably brings up questions of divine absence or responsibility. In “Circling,” Shelley Stenhouse writes, “God is probably passed out somewhere warm and dark,/still sleeping off his whole world, seven day binge/and it’s just us, warring unhinged teenagers/trashing this big beautiful park.”

“110 Stories,” with an arresting cover image by Art Spiegelman, presents a more fractured view of last year’s events. Editor Ulrich Baer asked 110 writers—poets, fiction writers, dramatists, journalists and others—to fill about two pages each with writing they had produced since Sept. 11. There are plenty of famous names here, too (including figures as disparate as the avant-garde playwright Richard Foreman, academic Catharine R. Stimpson, novelists Jonathan Lethem and Edwidge Danticat and Paul D. Miller, aka DJ Spooky) and an almost disorienting range of responses.

Writers are moved to remember other disasters and brutalities, both historical and personal: a Civil War battle, Guatemala, the deaths of parents or friends. Many of the pieces deal, directly or indirectly, with the glut of stimulus, information and memory the time provided (and continues to provide). Paul Auster recalls his friend Philippe Petit, the high-wire artist, walking between the towers in 1974—“a small man dancing on a wire more than a mile off the ground—an act of indelible beauty. Today, that same spot has been turned into a place of death.”

Other pieces bring back the shock and confusion of the days immediately following—Jessica Hagedorn documents the “hard, brilliant blue” of the sky—and the lives that both adults and children struggled to continue. Masood Farivar, an Afghan writer, writes about buying an American flag and being startled to see a man openly reading the Quran on the commuter train. Tony Hiss gives a brief but lyrical history of the towers and their place in New York’s imagination.

Not all the vignettes or narratives here are set in New York, or in the present. Some writers turn inward, to their origins and the past, others outward to politics and the world community. What we’re left with is the way the tragedy fits into individual lives, the impression it makes on impressionable, expressive people.

Amid all the remembrances, it’s well worth noting what drew those people to New York in the first place. A handsome edition in the Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets series, “Poems of New York” shows off the city through the voices of its great chroniclers—from Walt Whitman to Audre Lorde, Frank O’Hara to Galway Kinnell, Hart Crane to Li-Young Lee. As Crane writes in “The Tunnel,” “Someday by heart you’ll learn each famous sight.” These poets have done that, and more.

—Published in Newsday, September 8, 2002

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