And the LORD God said, Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever: therefore the LORD God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken.
Sometimes, I’d rather just forget it all,
that almost chemically pure fatigue
in feet and lungs and… nose. It was the smell,
that post-industrial residue of flesh,
burned paper, hard drives, staplers, pulverized
concrete, polyester-cotton blends
scorched to nothing, melted to a stench
that conjured all—and none—that I remember.
I used to keep the paper from the tenth,
yellowed, crumpled from the trash, retrieved
like a lost letter from a distant home
that seems more real than this, and even now,
I can still hear the obsolete debates.
It’s so far off. The Battle in Seattle?
Remember that? So many demonstrations—
in the end a brief, deceptive thaw.
Hardly Eden. Still, though, hardly this.
We didn’t fall, but lost initiative
in toxic smoke—distant now as heaven.
Something changed, and something had to give.
This is the public part. And where were you
when the towers fell? It doesn’t matter
in the greater scheme of broadcast threats,
secret flights, and politicians’ chatter.
Like hell it doesn’t! Only scale divides
the micro from the macro, part from whole.
Metropole, periphery—each slides
into piles of rubble, though one’s role
varies—are you predator or prey
or passerby? Far off or too near
or in the middle distance—either way,
there was a break, and it began right here.
Beneath the raptor’s eager eyes, the shapes of land
are laid out like a map,
the creatures crawling in the dirt look up and pray.
The long-expected trap
will soon snap shut in wings and beaks. His blood is up,
and he needs scant excuse
to turn at greater angles as he gyrates down.
No bargaining, no truce,
no lesser offers satiate his need to gorge,
and pleading is denied.
He jackknifes like a Stuka as he grazes ground.
Aloft again, his glide
is steady as his shadow sweeps across the plain,
majestic, proud, and fast.
He’s headed somewhere distant as he flaps his wings—
but that’s too good to last.
The trains moved back and forth like worms beneath the ground,
and safely out of sight
of what moves though the sky, the tabloid headlines throbbed
through weak anemic light
in lurid colors, graphics bristling on the front
like paper porcupines,
and in the spectral, seated crowds, I strained to read
the threats in newsprint lines.
Oy vey! Here goes another day! But life goes on
despite the evening news,
and train delays in rush hour set my teeth on edge.
One rarely gets to choose
one’s useless fights or losing cause, and so I rode
my circuit as before,
emerged at 116th and Broadway at a run.
I muttered and I swore
under my breath through lectures and through snaking lines
in grocery stores at night,
through meals I microwaved and cigarettes I smoked
while trudging through the blight
New York in winter splattered on the city streets—
the faded, grayish glow
of streetlights shone on curtained windows, billboard signs,
and pellets of black snow.
And on those lonely, late-night walks, I clutched my keys
and scurried like a bug
to read the paper once again when I got home.
Gratified and smug,
the president was smiling almost every day.
The opposition cooed
mild reservations. So it wasn’t if, but when
a bully’s chosen feud
would come to blows—but still, the monthly bills were paid,
and every curse I’d sneer
was matched with sighs and mantras that I told myself
no one would ever hear.
Defiance ebbed and resignation flowed, but still
I swore that I would fight
with words, at least, or aching feet when morning came,
but shudders late at night
proclaimed what we could not admit—not to ourselves—
no slogan-ridden shout
would save the creatures in the raptor’s line of sight
or throw the bastards out.
Invent a story and don’t change the names
or worry if the images are stock—
it doesn’t matter. Telling’s the important part
in half-forgotten chants, in memories
like photographs are memories,
or songs… or like a long-suppressed lament
as distant as a saga, or as close
as languid anecdote. It’s hard to tell.
Our plotlines come out piecemeal, episodes
of shows we hardly ever watch but see
on listless Fridays, know by reference
or catch-phrase—we despise them second-hand
or laugh at snippets, yawn as new clichés
assert themselves as truth. Accustomed order
rules each sentence—only for a while.
Pause for a moment. Take a breath, resume,
suspecting a digression, hoping it,
dreaming of a better narrative
subsuming this one. Speak it anyway,
until the fragments sag and finally give
way to the plot, or hint at it at least.
It’s not the tale. Rather we want the voice,
the way it surges, stops, reformulates
between what seems inexorable… and choice?
Tonight, it’s not dead generations’ weight
that presses against my brain, instead two towers,
a story that I need to tell, though late
in year and politics—and in the hour.
It’s almost muscle memory that forms each word,
recalls sensations I’d believed forgotten,
aspirations, touching and absurd,
and sentences more mothballed now than rotten.
And on the streets, 2003 would not replay
There were no barricades along Fifth Avenue.
The enemy shot straight
with laser guides and missiles and a satellite
and blats on infrared,
with snipers on the roofs and agents in the crowds
and choppers overhead,
with slick provocateurs on AM radio,
mendacities on air,
a rainbow spread of panic and a coded threat
behind a terror scare.
The grouplets quoted, formulated, and condensed
a bellowed politics
and combed the Manifesto for a perfect phrase,
a plan, an easy fix.
We scanned our books by lamplight, phrase by pithy phrase—
“But what would Trotsky do
if he were here?” We dug our mental trenches and
we took the longer view,
preparing for a surge, a push, a grand advance
regardless of the price
for just and fictive futures (maybe for revenge).
a leaflet’s snarled advice
lay stacked on the kitchen table for a weekend march.
A sturdy pair of shoes
was by the bed, and leaflets sat in plastic bags
beside the monthly dues.
And she and I were comrades first, and when we slept,
we did so back to back,
somnolent sentries snoring down the empty air,
and braced for an attack.
But though her touch was cold and though she turned away,
I swore that things were grand,
her picket sign by mine outside the bedroom door,
a permanent last stand.
And through the fast-food meals I ate alone, I swore
there was no other way,
that soon enough the crowds would storm the palaces.
I smoked two packs a day
and paced the carpet in the living room at night.
I muttered to myself—
names and facts and parallels in history.
The books stacked on the shelf
were barbed with aphorisms, filled with figures. They
would prick my nascent doubt,
and life was great, with take-out pizza, dirty socks…
until she threw me out.
But in the meetings and the vapid speeches flung
by speakers to the crowds,
the posture was defensive, bracing for the blow.
The thick midwinter clouds
were always present. Protest posters sagged and flowed.
The chilly moisture clawed
at slogans and at time and place, but still we fought
the rumored storms abroad.
But how to fight? The opposition puckered up
and joined the frenzied cheers
while pleading chants of thousands in the winter wet
were banished from their ears.
Pray, if you can pray, or fall asleep,
or stay up late with twenty-four-hour news,
scanning the ticker for the next attack,
or breach, perhaps. Volcanoes, hurricanes,
floods, new deployments, and rendition flights.
We’ll never be the same, and never were.
A target is an opportunity—
we’ve always known this. Now we know too well.
The march of progress turned into a slog,
a forced march leading into God knows where,
a dull parade of hollow victories.
It doesn’t matter what you think or do—
the radio shouts; the television’s shrill;
the internet takes what is blogged upon it;
and verse? There’s always verse; anthologies
appear before they’re pulped by the next disaster.
But still, somehow, I don’t look at the scar
where, once, the towers stood when I buy ties
or compact discs or shoes. I know it’s there,
but keep on moving and avert my eyes.
It’s everything and nothing, simple loss
as unredressed as thwarted ignorance.
The cries for vengeance fade. Officials change.
The thing that stays with us is circumstance—
this mutilated city and the word
that seems to fit but doesn’t or the threat
from outside or within, the way a bird
flies lower than before, though as of yet
it circles, but we know it has to land.
Call it premonition, call it fate,
conspiracy, or just a sleight-of-hand,
a warning that we all got wrong, too late.