Featured Selection: Dore Kiesselbach

Albatross

 

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.

Dore Kiesselbach

 

*

 

Infection

 

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

dream. Pre-antisepsis,

homespun shrapnel

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

impressed

in steel and glass.

 

*

  

Plume

 

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

touching anything.

Those of us looking up

are already there.

 

*

  

Albatross

 

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.

 

*

 

Blood

 

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.

Many thousands

headed to Manhattan

hadn’t gone, like

a colony of seabirds

on a cliff in a gale

were simply

trying to stay put,

thoughts of

feeding eclipsed

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

came running.

Across boroughs

the impulse

rose like a tide.

But no moon

governed.

The harmed

had construed

enough of

sacrifice. In

our bloody

numbers

we were wrong.

  

*

 

Downwind Vacation

 

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.

 

*

  

Jacks

 

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.

 

*

 

Girder

 

I did touch it although you said no.

Bent and twisted it

was passing slowly

on a flat bed truck.

The trucks had been

emptying zero

around the clock

for weeks.

And would be.

You had wanted

to see it. Not like

one of the gawkers.

(They became

a kind of fringe,

like hair around

a body cavity.)

You thought

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

of prospects.

It was a date.

I felt something.

 

*

 

Catafalque

 

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.

  

*

 
Notes:

 

—“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.

***

Postscript:

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.

Featured Selection Issue #62 September 2016
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