Friday, September 11, 2015

Severe Clear

A day so perfect, so crystalline; one on which there's truly not a cloud in the sky.  That's what it was.

Until it wasn't.  Still so clear, so achingly blue, of course, but otherwise changed, completely. We knew nothing; we were afraid. There on a green lawn on a perfect September morning, blinking in the sunlight after a boring introductory lecture was suddenly interrupted: get out, now.  We stood there, in little groups of four and six, staring at tiny screens on big cell phones, watching calls not connect, trying not to stare only at the vast plume of smoke on the horizon not two miles away, trying to decide what on earth to do next.

Unimaginable news on the hallway televisions inside, then (no, get out now) unimaginable words on the radio (a transistor radio in someone's hands, turned loud; when was the last time you saw a transistor radio?).  Going home meant going closer in, and that seemed out of the question.  Going further out was, within a few minutes, essentially impossible, every road clogged, every government building suddenly sprouting cordons of security, and over everything a vast uncertainty: what had happened? Would it keep happening?  What was in that black smoke drifting slowly, malignantly south and east?

We stayed put, for just a little while, and the joined the throngs on the road; a drive of usually ten minutes, tops, took 90, the highway jammed in both directions, people walking uneasily on the grassy shoulder, heading out of town.  We ended up in somebody's hotel room, nervously joking about being up so high - the 14th floor, we realized, really the 13th, that can't be good - and so nearly on the flightpath into National.  Hearing that everything was closing, we went to find some food, ended up in a bar, the sort of anonymous suburban nowhere place you normally find yourself only by accident, drinking perhaps with some uncongenial officemates. Everyone stared at the screens, ate the thrown-together, haphazard dishes coming out of the rattled kitchen.

I thought of Auden, I remember - right month, wrong day.  Hardly an average day, but still we clung to it.  Eventually I went home, to a temporary rental apartment, the leased furniture just delivered the weekend before. It took three hours to drive there - a matter of two miles - because I had chosen such a convenient new place just south of the Pentagon. I'd left the windows open that morning - such a perfect, clear day - to lose the smell of cheap new upholstery.  I never really got the ugly white sofas clean again, and when I told the rental company my address, nine months later when I left that place, they knew why and didn't charge me.

It's another clear, cool day today in Washington, 14 years later.  Everything has changed, and nothing has.  I took a different Metro line than usual this morning, after an early errand or two, and when we stopped for an inordinate time in the tunnel under the river, we shifted uneasily, darting glances at each other, off-rush commuters in a half-empty train, looking for reassurance.  Eventually, when the wheels groaned and the train moved, a sigh of something like relief. The average day.

We must love one another or die.

* * *

September 1, 1939

W. H. Auden1907 - 1973
I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright 
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

Accurate scholarship can 
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad,
Find what occurred at Linz,
What huge imago made
A psychopathic god:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return. 

Exiled Thucydides knew
All that a speech can say
About Democracy,
And what dictators do,
The elderly rubbish they talk
To an apathetic grave;
Analysed all in his book,
The enlightenment driven away,
The habit-forming pain,
Mismanagement and grief:
We must suffer them all again.

Into this neutral air
Where blind skyscrapers use
Their full height to proclaim
The strength of Collective Man,
Each language pours its vain
Competitive excuse:
But who can live for long
In an euphoric dream;
Out of the mirror they stare,
Imperialism’s face
And the international wrong.

Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day:
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play,
All the conventions conspire 
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home;
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.

The windiest militant trash
Important Persons shout
Is not so crude as our wish:
What mad Nijinsky wrote
About Diaghilev
Is true of the normal heart;
For the error bred in the bone
Of each woman and each man
Craves what it cannot have,
Not universal love
But to be loved alone.

From the conservative dark
Into the ethical life
The dense commuters come,
Repeating their morning vow;
“I will be true to the wife,
I’ll concentrate more on my work,"
And helpless governors wake
To resume their compulsory game:
Who can release them now,
Who can reach the deaf,
Who can speak for the dumb?

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.


  1. I was in NYC on 9/11. Thank you for posting this poem. It is very fitting.

  2. The piercing blue clarity of the sky on the drive in to work that day. Whenever we have another morning that clear, I think back to that Tuesday. That has, for some unknown reason, always stayed with me. It was Tuesday.

    I was running late and caught the early Today show reports on the radio about (maybe) a piper cub hitting one of the towers.

    By the time I entered the office ten minutes later, everyone was clustered outside cubes and offices watching it unfold on monitors. The second plane hit shortly after I walked in. It was so quiet. People dashing out of the office as they processed the event and realized they had a husband, wife, son, or daughter working downtown. My ex-boyfriend (then and still) calling me up in tears.

    Someone suddenly called out, "The home office!" Only then did I remember that we kept a statutory home office on the 90th floor of the North Tower. How many times had I typed that address on documents and forms? By some grace, most of the NY staff (predominantly Japanese nationals) were at a meeting at our NJ location that morning and most of the NY support staff was running late that day. The sole person in our WTC office when the first plane hit three floors above was a recent Japanese transfer who somehow made his way out of the building. His first attempts at the stairwells were met with fire and bodies. But he got out and, not knowing what he should do, made his way to our NJ offices.

    I will never forget the feeling of absolute dread when word came in about the Pentagon. What's going on?

    My cube neighbor Veraleen calling out "Oh, oh, OH!" as the South Tower fell 25 minutes later. Incomprehensible. This could not be real.

    And then word about the crash near Shanksville, PA. "Would it keep happening?" was the only thought then.

    Heading home and beginning to do the accounting. Mom & Dad are at the beach house. All bridges and tunnels closed indefinitely. They were stuck there, too close to Manhattan, for the duration. My brother-in-law was a NYC policeman working third shift. Had he gone back in? Was he there? (He wasn't but would be downtown for weeks after). My niece and nephews were safe in PA but so young. How frightened were they? Did they understand anything? Buddies, exes, neighbors, high school and college friends who worked downtown or in the Towers. Did they still? Did they get out? (a series of train delays, sick children, first days of school, business trips, traffic, job transfers, etc. saved all).

    Talking to Mom that night or the next day - whenever phones were back in service. So certain she would be terrified. She said, "Billy, I lived through World War II, Korea, Vietnam. I was pregnant during the Cuban Missile Crisis! You have no control over events this big. You just do the best you can." If she wasn't worried at 70 yrs old, I wasn't going to worry at 36.

    The helplessness was the worst for me. I wanted to help but there was precious little to do.

    On Sept 14th when all were urged to step out their front door with a candle at 7 PM, I was shocked to find myself alone on my front stoop among the 25 units in my development. A few minutes later, a woman across the parking lot came out and sat on her stoop with a candle. I crossed and sat with her. We'd never met. She was alone. No family or friends in the area. She just sobbed on my shoulder asking "why?' and "how could they?"

    I still don't have an answer.