I was living in Boston (Somerville, actually, near Davis Square) when 9/11 happened. I had been there for one week at that point, having just moved there to start my Master’s program at Emerson College. Classes started on Monday, September 10, 2001. On the morning of September 11, there were no classes. There were no trains. There was no traffic.
There was television. There were phone calls. There was the fear of the inevitable.
After several hours I made my way out of the apartment I shared with two other roommates. I needed space from us and the upstairs neighbors huddled around the TV, waiting to breathe, wondering if Boston was next. We were, like everyone else, terrified, and I couldn’t look anymore.
Emerson re-opened the next day. Moving to Boston was culture shock enough that I didn’t walk into class that morning with the “everything is different now” attitude that most people seemed to possess. My world was already different now; this was something else. This was surreal. This was make-believe.
We didn’t talk about literature in my first class that morning; instead, I’m sure we discussed what every other class discussed.
In the days that followed, even the New York Times was flooded with what I can only call “bad poetry” in response to the attacks. As someone pursuing my MFA in creative writing, I was obviously interested in the literary and artistic aftermath of 9/11. And, frankly, it was awful. It was sentimental and sappy. It was filled with a sense of immediacy in an attempt to capture the visceral response of what had happened as opposed to incorporating any real perspective. It needed to breathe, so to speak. It wasn’t poetry so much as an emotional diatribe. I disliked it so much that I swore I’d never write any sort of 9/11 poem.
And then, in 2011, 10 years after the attacks, I changed my mind.
Hang in there, Boston.
The Towers, In Boston
We sit motionless, slack-jawed, scattered
about the living room, glued
to the reverberating hum
of the television screen as we watch
the Towers burn. Nobody moves.
Nobody can move. We watch
people emerge from the tidal wave
of smoke – some swallowed up
completely, some just beyond its grasp.
They run like Hollywood cutouts
from the Blob, from a swarm of ants,
from birds. We watch them run.
We watch their faces painted grey
in rubble and ash scream out loud
for no one, for anyone. We watch them
stumble and trample the bodies
of others. We watch some of them
stand still. We watch some of them
twisting in mid-air, appendages
circling wildly as though exercising
their amped musculature
on machines that don’t exist.
We watch this dying for hours.
We watch this dying for days
until we finally dare to move,
step outside the miasma
of our own gasps and fling ourselves
into the streets of downtown Boston,
tip-toeing through the Commons,
tilting our heads slowly forward
as we spy down Boylston,
down Newbury and Beacon,
moving like this amidst the church bells
until finally we are looking up
at the blue sky empty of everything
but birds beating their black wings
against it – looking at Hancock Place,
at the Federal Reserve Bank Building,
at Prudential Tower, and asking, When?