More than words

September 25, 2001

In the weeks after the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, images have seared our collective conscience. But so too have words. We asked four Maryland poets to share the verses that have haunted them since Sept. 11, 2001. The poems they chose couldn't be more different. Some have the anguished weight and force of prophecy. Others look to past traumas to provide lessons for the present. And others manage to transform a heartbreakingly painful event into something beautiful, to find solace in a visceral expression of fear. Perhaps the elegance of the words and the stately march of syllables help us believe that reason and order will prevail. Perhaps the despair in each poem gives voice to our own. But perhaps each also teaches us to hope, because each rooted in love - whether for a person, an ideal or mankind. What could be more life-affirming than that?

Stanley Plumly

I can think of no poem in English that better evokes the emotional death that follows in the after-shock of great trauma than Emily Dickinson's #341. It's a poem in which the soul as well as the body have been reduced -- "after great pain" -- to a different level of being. "Like a stone," as the poet says. Or, in the now common language of loss, reduced to the level of a survivor, for whom life is suddenly more numbingly painful if more precious.- Plumly's most recent book is Now That My Father Lies Down Beside Me. He is a professor at the University of Maryland, College Park.

#341

After great pain, a formal feeling comes -

The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs-

The stiff Heart questions was it He, that bore,

And Yesterday, or Centuries before?

The Feet, mechanical, go round-

Of Ground, or Air, or Ought-

A Wooden way

Regardless grown,

A Quartz contentment, like a stone-

This is the Hour of Lead-

Remembered, if outlived,

As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow-

First-Chill-then Stupor-then the letting go-

Michael Waters

National Book Award-winner William Stafford (1914-1993), a pacifist, served his country as a conscientious objector in the Civilian Public Service during World War II. This Petrarchan sonnet, both eloquent and modest in its refusal, links us to those "other citizens" who commit themselves to peace through simple and unassuming gestures.

-- Waters, professor at Salisbury University on the Eastern Shore, is the author of Parthenopi: New and Selected Poems.

OBJECTOR

In line at lunch I cross my fork and spoon

to ward off complicity - the ordered life

our leaders have offered us. Thin as a knife,

our chance to live depends on such a sign

while others talk and the Pentagon from the moon

is bouncing exact commands: "Forget your faith;

be ready for whatever it takes to win: we face

annihilation unless all citizens get in line."

I bow and cross my fork and spoon: somewhere

other citizens more fearfully bow

in a place terrorized by their kind of oppressive state.

Our signs both mean, "You hostages over there

will never be slaughtered by my act." Our vows

cross: never to kill and call it fate.

-- from The Way It Is: New and Selected Poems, Graywolf Press, 1998

Kathy Mangan

Over the past two weeks I've sought the reassurance of poems which dwell on lasting certainties such as the stars and human love; still, I've been haunted daily by W.B. Yeats' famous poem, "The Second Coming," a work marked by looming uncertainty and sinister unease.

Based on Yeats' belief in 2,000-year cycles of history and civilization, the 1920 poem expresses both his immediate disillusionment with the ongoing civil strife in Ireland and his pervasive fear of the rise of evil forces. The poem's darkly compelling images - the "blood-dimmed tide," the Sphinx with the "pitiless" stare, and the wheeling desert birds (creatures Yeats associated with "laughing, ecstatic destruction") - seem strikingly relevant to the horrific events of Sept. 11.

A spiritual antidote to the unsettling vision of The Second Coming is Yeats' The Lake Isle of Innisfree, a quiet poem in which the speaker imagines a contented escape to the water-lapped isle and observes, "I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow ... "

-- Mangan teaches writing and literature at Western Maryland College and is the author of Above the Tree Line.

The Second Coming

Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;

Surely the Second Coming is at hand.

The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out

When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi

Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert

A shape with lion body and the head of a man,

A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,

Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it

Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.

The darkness drops again; but now I know

That twenty centuries of stony sleep

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