I recently re-encountered the 9/11 Commission report. It’s a good, if politically-simplified, document—a useful, painful, reflection of its times: just when you thought you’d never hear the names Paul Wolfowitz and Condoleezza Rice again. Rumsfeld was derelict on duty. Cheney incompetently assumed powers not his. No surprises there. Everyone was trying to keep Bush out of the picture as long as possible—“stay safe, Mr. President”—etc. A clear example of what happens when ideologues are put in charge of national institutions.
By way of comparison consider those who simply did their jobs, Orio Palmer for example, a 45-year-old FDNY chief and triathlete, widely-published in national firefighting journals, one of the most brilliant, capable members of the department, a star. Unlike leaders in the lobby of WTC 1 he was able in the south tower to make use of a signal “repeater” system that enabled him to communicate within the building, and that preserved his radio transmissions.
With several members of his battalion he reached the 40th floor in an elevator he modified to bypass its safety circuitry. Sending civilians down behind him, wearing 60 pounds of gear and carrying lengths of hose, he hurled himself up 38 flights of stairs in 35 minutes. At 9:55, breathless but composed, he reported-in from the crash zone, briefly described what he saw, and commenced fighting fire. At 9:59, with a simple click, the transmission ended. Listening fourteen years later, I wept with relief that he made his destination before he died.
Fourteen months later, for unrelated reasons, my wife-to-be and I moved from Brooklyn to the city that had seen it coming. When the Minneapolis FBI field office, having scented the plot in Zacarias Moussaoui’s strange behavior at a local flight school, was criticized internally in August 2001 for too-aggressively raising its concerns about suicide hijackings to the national level, the local agent in charge of the investigation said “yes, that’s what I’m trying to do; I’m trying to prevent someone from flying a plane into the World Trade Towers.”
Such as it was, I was at my post as a civil service lawyer for the New York City Housing Authority when that happened. Our building was located three blocks northeast of the site. Airplane parts would be discovered on its roof. After leaving my desk and conferring with co-workers, I descended into chaos, saw death, and crossed the Brooklyn Bridge on foot with many others. Because our offices were in the “frozen zone” my colleagues and I were paid for two weeks to stay home, watch TV and fixate/decompensate. Our return to work was charged with grief and horror.
Though I thought of myself then as a writer it was all clearly off limits as subject matter. Anything that could sustain itself in such fire would betray.
Only years later, unbidden, did the first useable image appear, at the end of “Infection.” Some time after that I tried a direct look at a terrible moment (“It’s a Tuesday”). Both pieces are contained in my first collection, Salt Pier.
Nine additional perspectives have emerged. Because each arrived on its own schedule and for its own reasons, significant variations in style and approach occur between pieces separated by minutes on the real timeline. What follows is, correspondingly, more a compilation than a series. As detailed in the Notes below, much of it has appeared previously in magazines, sometimes in earlier forms. I’m deeply indebted to Daniel Lawless and to Plume for this first opportunity to present the group whole and in chronological order.
My experience of that Tuesday, and the slow-waning spell it cast locally for weeks and months, is a familiar interior zone. I’ve thought many things about it in a decade and a half and my thoughts have changed. I fear that focusing on spectacular catastrophes distracts us from systemic domestic problems that are worse. The number of firearm-related homicides in an average year in this country, for example, is an exponentially larger and more insidious story of terror.
Much has been said about the spirit of good will that cocooned New York in the days that followed. It’s my primary takeaway. I remember that it crossed physical, economic and cultural boundaries. With natural civility, we worked collectively to stabilize and heal. We can do that.
Better to stand naked
in dawn’s demon grass;
dueling pistols’ large-bore balls
pushed pieces of cravat, love
note, biscuit, talc, all borne
or worn accoutrement
between them and skin
into honor’s sloppy room—
cologne splashed on
vertebrae, pen quills
high in humid skies, snuff
gone deeper than an addict’s
festered and killed
more than aim.
On its way into him,
one luckless fucker’s
pocketwatch at last
told perfect time.
The outline of its crown
and stem in the edges
of the wound?
Distinct as wings
in steel and glass.
Close upon a long hiccup in the light comes
clockwise torsion incident to the sound
of a huge cupped hand slapping water.
Concussion’s shiver shuffles your guts
on its way to Tim’s office and parts
northeast. Minutes later on the street
commuters flow up from the subway,
having heard—in clattering, reception-
less train cars—nothing. On a good
day it’s horrible. Someone mentions
an airplane engine in the intersection.
Someone’s had time to stretch yellow
tape. The professionalism of the
first response is outstanding but
you see how shocked the cops
are. North north north they chant
but keep turning back and looking
up. In a turbulent flow of faces
you recognize one, late to work,
not among the early birds lying
uncharacteristically down on the
job three blocks away. What’s going
on? It’s never been so hard to say.
It’s a Tuesday
in September and as clear
as they will say.
If days had ribs
and skirts of muscle
it would be a dancing day.
In the blossoming
shadow of a tall tree
a father swings his daughter
by an ankle and a wrist.
He lifts and lowers her
so she makes curving
motions in the air.
Because the world
is tilted, if he were
to let go she would
travel a long way before
Those of us looking up
are already there.
Car bombs sound likelier to me than a burning
polygon. Today the Bridge, too, is a rumor.
Some of the thousands I’m on it with
bear residue of fire. On the far side,
red, valve-sided trucks assemble.
I’ve told someone local I’m alive.
In the swelling cellular tsunami
forget outside the city. As part
of a long parenthesis I pass a lock-
jawed photographer athwart a large-
format camera on a platform. He
must have raced like a doctor here
with a bag so big he needed help
carrying it. I cede him my looking.
Tomorrow I’ll see what he saw on
the cover of the Times. I’m done
turning so learn later than most
that the blast heard in Brooklyn
mirrored a fall. There’s no room
for takeoff here and it wouldn’t be
right but someone crossed a wider
Channel on a bicycle with wings.
It was harder than he thought. Only
while maneuvering to board a water-
companion and conclude the attempt
did he find the fluency he needed to go on.
Did you hear me? I was the one
shouting donate blood
on the streets of Brooklyn
as I ran from the Bridge
more than a mile for a land-
line to my family.
The streets were crowded.
headed to Manhattan
hadn’t gone, like
a colony of seabirds
on a cliff in a gale
trying to stay put,
for the day. I was
a cliché: I had
to do something.
As if for the Barney’s
sale we were
to stand in lines
in sum longer
than what had gone.
They were so busy
that I overflowed
and the attendant
rose like a tide.
But no moon
we were wrong.
paid for nothing (smell)
paid for nothing (smell)
paid for nothing (smell
paid for nothing (smel
paid for nothing (sme
paid for nothing (sm
paid for nothing (s
paid for nothing (
paid for nothing
paid for nothing )
Windows on the World
Looking for a black tie meant to hang straight,
I see the winged one with its clip I wore
at a law firm party atop the north tower,
that made the news for 20K spent
on roses flown from the equator.
It had been a banner year.
The last silk I held
I held against particulates
to my nose and mouth;
gram by gram it
more than dazzles
steel. The larva gets
a chance to boil in
situ without ruining
its cocoon. So high
above steerage, who
would have thought
to pray that nothing
should prevent us
from going down?
When the fog rolled
in like silk the city
shed its wings of light.
When the fog rolled
in like smoke we were
as good as drowned.
After two weeks and an equinox we walk in wool
past men in camouflage with magazines and
one in a plastic suit waving then reading
from a wand. Blocks from buried fire
it burns where the pharynx and the voice
box meet. We’re issued surgical masks
to wear inside the building. Ventilation
systems in the debris shadow spun pulver
in. An aerosol prayer surrounds us,
spectacles, testicles, wallets and watches
that dust timesheets no one signed out of.
From a break room at the end of the hall
people dropping like jacks could be seen.
The game known to him as knucklebones,
Sophocles says, was invented at Troy—
something to keep the troops occupied
during fortnights of enforced idleness.
More light comes from that direction now.
I did touch it although you said no.
Bent and twisted it
was passing slowly
on a flat bed truck.
The trucks had been
around the clock
And would be.
You had wanted
to see it. Not like
one of the gawkers.
a kind of fringe,
like hair around
a body cavity.)
I would know
the best place
but I had made
it my business
not to know.
It was like searching
for a picnic spot
in a park full
It was a date.
I felt something.
There are dragonflies in Manhattan
I learn when one uses me to rest.
I keep as still as I can, to be now
what I haven’t been to any person,
a refuge, steady, reliable.
No one made me this way
any more than the sky makes
the dragonfly stagger when
a starling crosses overhead.
That’s what I say to myself.
Were it to breathe fire on my finger
I would feel it as the pinch
of someone who wants
to believe he is dreaming.
Few of the boats driven
on the summer water
have carved dragonfly
prows, though wings
were oars on oars
before anything not
meant for water went there.
I’m Listening Again
to the 9/11 tapes, the ones titled Brooklyn
Fire and Manhattan Fire and Manhattan
EMS, that last fifteen hours and contain
some of the most beautiful Americana
one could hope to encounter, set forth
in a context of historical authenticity.
Consider the early responder who
reveals that the first patients, from
flaming aviation fuel dropped down
elevator shafts, suffered terrible burns.
(Imagine those doors not opening.)
Soon after, as people commence
to defenestrate, he advises be aware,
Manhattan, this is a hard hat operation,
a HARD HAT operation. We hear
character holding up to strain, and
deep feeling. He is back on the city-
wide channel when Flight 175 hits.
On a leaking frequency someone
shouts second plane. A hand in-
voluntarily clutches the transmit
button. For several thousandths
of a second, firewalled engines
wail a thousand vertical feet away.
The next noise billows in rich
complexity past the analog limits
of its medium and is followed by
sounds of people breaking up.
When distinguishable voices rise
in many tones to the bare moment
we can still think there is hope for us.
—“Albatross” On June 12, 1979, pilot and cyclist Bryan Allen crossed the English Channel in a 70-pound, human-powered aircraft designed by Dr. Paul MacCready, called Gossamer Albatross. Special thanks to Don Monroe for permission to use his photograph of that vehicle under construction.
—“Blood” Barneys is an upscale clothier in New York City favored by lawyers and other white-collar professionals. Its annual, half-off sale produces long and anxious lines.
—“Windows on the World” was a restaurant facility, with a venue for corporate events, located in World Trade Center 1 (north tower). Its entire on-site staff, and all customers present when Flight 11 struck, died prior to or during the building’s collapse.
—Though “Catafalque” was written and published without September 11 being consciously in my mind, again and again, in differing sorts of my draft second collection, it came out near or next to the other New York pieces. Eventually I accepted that it belonged with them. It is set in Central Park the following spring.
—At the risk of sounding obsessed with Minnesota: as Flight 77 flew into Washington, a propeller-driven Minnesota Air National Guard cargo plane provided our nation’s only military response. Its crew, homebound out of D.C., was tasked with turning around, locating, and attempting to follow the airliner. They gave an eyewitness report of the Pentagon attack. Relieved of emergency duty, headed west again, by awful coincidence, the same crew offered the first visual confirmation of Flight 93’s crash.
—The 9/11 Commission report reveals that despite vast amounts of widely-disseminated, pre-event intelligence regarding Al-Qaida’s involvement in a coming “spectacular” attack on U.S. soil, operatives in the Bush administration, without any tactical awareness or factual basis, began crudely welding Iraq to the who’s-responsible conversation almost at once. Using the stone of public opinion to kill unrelated policy birds was apparently the point: why let all that destructive potential go to waste? For a hard look in that direction, check out Britain’s exacting Chilcot report, available free online.
—The work in this feature has previously appeared, sometimes in earlier forms, in the following magazines: AGNI Online, Antioch Review, Cortland Review, Pleiades, Plume Anthology 3, Sleet, South Carolina Review and Stand (UK). Renewed thanks to those editors, whose generosity and confidence helped me face private headwinds.
—For those who wish to be rid their final impression of the towers, James Marsh’s Academy-Award-winning 2008 documentary Man on Wire offers a soaring alternative.
Shortly after I submitted this feature, Daniel Lawless sent me Philip Metres’ essay, adapted from a 2007 publication, that, inter good alia, addresses on ethical grounds the propriety of a literary response to 9/11 (see the Editor’s Note). I hadn’t read it. When it originally appeared I was still years away from writing about the subject. Initially apprehensive, I was relieved to find Metres sensitive and sympathetic to the sometimes-delayed, sometimes-warty human impulse to respond to injustice with words.
Metres says “we cannot be silent,” and I agree, but many are, in many ways. Lacking the language and perspective necessary to model the tumultuous rearrangement of my world, I remained silent, sequestered the impressions, adapted and moved on. To sheepishly quote my own work, I “made it my business not to know.”
My fundamental response to 9/11 is to reject its apparent inordinacy. That’s a red herring. We’ve been flying planes into building since before there were planes and buildings. I’m not sure where that leaves me with respect to Auden but, like Metres, don’t think his Icarus offers the witnesses much. I was aboard Breughel’s “expensive delicate ship” that day. By splashes dumbfounded, we did not sail calmly on.
Dore Kiesselbach’s first collection, Salt Pier (2012, University of Pittsburgh Press), received the Agnes Lynch Starrett Prize. Other honors include a 2015 Artist Initiative Grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board, the 2014 Robert H. Winner Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America, a U.S. Department of Education Jacob Javits Fellowship in creative writing, and Britain’s Bridport Prize in poetry. His work has appeared in many magazines and anthologies, including Agni, Field, Plume, Poetry and Stand (UK). He writes copy, occasionally teaches, and works as an editor in Minneapolis. His second collection, Albatross, is inbound from Pittsburgh next year.