Using their words to heal
A poet compiles literary responses to Sept. 11
Brockport, N.Y. ? Instead of a jetliner taking deadly aim at the World Trade Center towers, Pennsylvania’s state poet pictured a hawk “with winglights … like eyesight.”
“His arcs are perfect as geometry./His eyes hunger for something about to panic,” Samuel Hazo wrote in a new anthology, “September 11, 2001: American Writers Respond” (Etruscan Press of Easton, Md., 496 pages, $19 paperback and $29 hardback).
And after witnessing that day’s savagery, Hazo told how “we slept like the doomed or drowned,/then woke to oratory, vigils,/valor, journalists declaring war/and, snapping from aerials or poles,/the furious clamor of flags.”
In this Erie Canal village nearly 400 miles from ground zero, William Heyen gathered poems, memoirs, letters, essays and fiction from his literary colleagues in the months after the unfathomable terror attacks. They were used to shape the anthology.
“Who has the right at such a time to say anything at all?” the 61-year-old poet, a retired English professor at the State University of New York in Brockport, asked in a preface.
The book, which is being published in the spring with profits destined for a scholarship fund for the victims’ children, combines the work of 128 writers, from luminaries like Henry Taylor and Lucille Clifton to those just starting to make their mark.
An answer to the editor’s anguished query is found in the opening poem, in which Pulitzer Prize winner W.S. Merwin beseeches wordsmiths to do what they do best, despite every limitation:
“… you that were/formed to begin with/you that were cried out/you that were spoken/to begin with/to say what could not be said/ancient precious/and helpless ones/say it.”
At Heyen’s suggestion, contributions are concise, none more than five pages long. A few run for just a few painful paragraphs. Some express utter disbelief and sadness, others ring with anger and cries for action.
Novelist, poet and essayist Ishmael Reed mocked political leaders who call for solidarity even while their actions pull in the opposite direction. “They say that we should chant/USA! USA! with people/who shadow us down the aisles/of department stores, hassle us/for living while black,” Reed lashed out in his essay, “America United.”
Wendell Berry, the Kentucky essayist, poet and farmer, thrust forth a series of declarative “thoughts in the presence of fear.”
“If our enemies are now to be some nations of Islam, then we should undertake to know these enemies,” he implored. “Our schools should begin to teach the histories, cultures, arts and languages of the Islamic nations. Our leaders should have the humility and the wisdom to ask the reasons some of those people have for hating us.”
Eighteen pieces previously appeared in pamphlets, newspapers or magazines. Among them was Merwin’s poem in The New Yorker and author John Updike’s eyewitness account in which he described “a groan of concussion distinct across the mile of air” when the south tower fell.
“We knew we had just witnessed thousands of deaths; we clung to each other as if we ourselves were falling,” wrote Updike, who watched with his wife from a Brooklyn rooftop.
Heyen, highly praised for his poetry on topics as diverse as nature, war, the Holocaust and Princess Diana, called it “a very democratic book, both in terms of idea and form.”
Heyen said the works “seem to me to be sort of ungainly, on the edge. Everybody is taking a chance here. To launch your pen and not know where you’re going and then be surprised, that’s writing as discovery.
“Much of what we say will be nonsense, will be foolish and shortsighted, but maybe some of it will be truly human and compassionate. Either we’re connected with other people or we’re not.”