I once thought Lucille Clifton was the only American poet who wrote anything worth reading about 9/11/2001. For awhile, she was. Her simple, searing poems moved me in a world that had gone mad with patriotism, anger, and revenge. Years later, I was at St. Mary’s College of Maryland for a reading, where Clifton taught for many years, and I was walking around the beautiful lake on campus. Along the path were small signs with her 9/11 poems. I was so surprised. The location didn’t seem right for these poems. Yet the place was perfect for these poems . They were beautiful and important because they remembered, they gave voice to sorrow, and they found the personal truth in the political tragedy of that day’s events.
Then, just this summer, the summer of 2022, I read the poems in Crossing the Rift: North Carolina Poets on 9/11 and Its Aftermath. These poems powerfully take up the task that Clifton’s poems began. Editors Joseph Bathanti and David Potorti, along with the good people at Press 53, give America a gift in this book. These are poems that remember, hold sorrow, explore personal losses, and do not fall prey to the break down of language that happened in so many ways after 9/11. These poems matter. If you want to understand 9/11, this book is required reading. Poems find a way in, where other genres stumble.
Needless to say, 9/11 was a horror. Lives were lost, husbands, wives, daughters, sons, friends, grandparents, some names still unknown. It is one of those moments in a country’s history when everyone was touched, no matter how close one was to Manhattan, Washington, D.C., or Shankesville, Pennsylvania. Capturing it can never be comprehensive. But like many moments in human life, poetry is well-positioned to raise the seemingly small moments, the pieces of jewelry, the reflections in windows, the text messages. In these every day moments, we get a sense of our fellow citizens’ breath and breaking on that day.
For this reflection/review, I would like to focus on three poems in this beautiful and necessary collection. Joseph Bathanti’s poem “Katy,” Allison Adelle Hedge Coke’s poem, “Teaching,” and Fred Joiner’s poem, “Sovereignty.”
The narrative in Joseph Bathanti’s powerful poem, “Katy,” grabs the reader in the second line. His niece was there. She called. Then she was out of touch until hours later. This was the nightmare Bathanti’s family lived, as did so many others. Watching the television for signs of the missing daughter, scouring lists of those discovered, thousands of people lived this uncertainty. Some were found, others were not. Some were alive, others were not. This is what war does. It tears at every fabric. Bathanti does a masterful job in this poem of holding us until the poem’s end. He also uses what every poet writing about horror must use: restraint. No poem about 9/11 needs blood and grit. The story is its own. But in a restrained way, this poet invites us in and we feel the terror of not knowing. The bit of language that gave his family both hope and heartbreak. The simplest details, like:
To cast wider our search,
Marie and I tuned to different networks,
watching for Katy among the fleeing hordes.
He even brings us into the day’s ordinary decision:
…what she’d wear to her client meeting:
a brown suit, a black bag…
This poem captures a moment in a young woman’s life, in her family’s life, that was a sacrament for what so many others experienced.
As a teacher myself, I was moved by Allison Adelle Hedge Coke’s poem, “Teaching.” She shares her experience that day of helping children, assisting colleagues who fell apart, trying to urge a gentle response to what was going to be a violent reality.
Chair of English stopped me.
Quivering, crying, asked. could I take her classes, said
she couldn’t teach, didn’t know. what she would say to the kids.
Even her language is broken, stuttering, just like all of us that day.
She reminds us of the demand the country made on everyone for anger after 9/11. She reminds us that there were other reactions possible, though they were nearly drowned out in the national fury. She remembers:
One sixteen year-old put in jail, as an adult, for not wanting
to greet Bush on the football field, saying he felt like slapping
anyone who waged war.
She reminds us that if 9/11 was a stone thrown in water, it created many ripples.
Finally, Fred Joiner’s poem, “Sovereignty,” reminds me of the human truth of inter-connectedness. We all experience something of what everyone experiences. We are
Broken by a wall
& a people’s history
Crumbling in another’s wake
He reminds us too of the dangers of “empire.” The ways that “flag,” “land,” and “language” can destroy us “from within.”
These are but three tender, thoughtful, and moving poems that emerge from this necessary book. I don’t know if America was ready for these poems, could even write these poems, until now. We often need the distance and space that time gives us, to see an event for the human and immutable loss it is. This book offers us the humanity and the loss, in ways we can see, hear, and feel. Maybe in ways we can finally heal.