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Photos for Focus 9/11 ©2001 Rochelle Ratner
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Focus 9/11: Part One

Poetry guest edited by Rochelle Ratner

Rochelle Ratner’s new book of poetry, HOUSE AND HOME, will be published by Marsh Hawk Press in Fall 2003. She’s a novelist and a poet, and edited the anthology BEARING LIFE: WOMEN'S WRITINGS ON CHILDLESSNESS (The Feminist Press, 2000). For more of her work, see www.rochelleratner.com/

Click poets' names below to read their poems and biographical notes, or scroll down.

Karen Alkalay-Gut | Bob Heman | Rochelle Ratner | Sophie_Cabot_Black | Kim D. Hunter|Click to Part II poems->


Over 35 years ago, when I was first starting to write, Denise Levertov was one of a handful of poets whose work I found endlessly inspiring, in particular her early New Directions books. The Sorrow Dance was published around that time, and I recall being disappointed, as I was with her subsequent protest poems. Apolitical I branded myself. I longed for those lyrical, personal poems Levertov used to write.

In his 1968 essay, "Leaping Up Into Political Poetry", Robert Bly points directly to why I was having problems. Lamenting that America had not seen good political poetry since writers such as Muriel Rukeyser and Kenneth Fearing wrote in the 1930s, he also admits that even these "were not really poems at all, but opinions." Thirty years later, at a point when he, along with Levertov, Rich, Ferlinghetti and others, were writing poems in protest of the Vietnam war, they were still mostly opinion and rhetoric. As he points out: "The true political poem does not order us either to take any specific acts: like the personal poem, it moves to deepen awareness."

Like the personal poem. It was the personal connection that I was continually searching for.
But how could American poets write political poems from a personal viewpoint? The poems Randall Jarrell or Karl Shapiro wrote during World War II drew upon experience, not dissent; intended for an audience hungry to validate the government’s actions, they can hardly be called "political." As for Vietnam and the Gulf War, the best poems protested a war which was, in the words of the classic American song, "Over There." For those living on the North American mainland, it was always Over There. Until now.

On September 11th the terror (I refuse to call it war) struck our own shores, in true dramatic fashion. This wasn’t a boy we knew slightly in high school killed in Vietnam. These were civilians, people New Yorkers passed on the street or sat next to in the subways every day. These were friends, neighbors, co-workers. Missing. Feared dead. Dead. It could have been any one of us.

The political had become the personal.

On September 14th, I returned to teaching a creative writing workshop at a senior center in Forest Hills. All the lesson plans I’d drawn up over the summer break were scrapped. I asked people to write about the tragedy – from a personal, political, historical, futuristic, journalistic viewpoint – I didn’t care how they approached the material, so long as they tackled it. The resulting work was better than any of us had anticipated, but we also realized this was an event that would unexpectedly haunt our writing for a long time to come. ("Suicide Bomber," by Kate Iscol--see Part II of this feature-- was written as an assignment for that workshop over six months later).

The Internet is capable of distributing immediate responses, and in the weeks following 9/11 several sites took up the challenge, as I wrote in an overview I did for American Book Review last winter. But for this focus, I wanted something more. I wanted poems written in the aftermath which reached beyond the events of September 11th.

I started by writing to friends I thought might have appropriate work, and they wrote to other friends, many of whom live outside the New York area. I was particularly delighted when Karen Alkalay-Gut sent me work; an American who’s been living in Israel since 1972, she’s been active in the peace movement there. Kim D. Hunter’s poem is especially interesting, since it’s clearly from the viewpoint of someone living near the Trade Center, when actually Hunter lives in Detroit.

Bob Heman, a friend for over thirty years, worked in the World Trade Center for more than a decade, often writing during his lunch break, and it seemed fitting to begin with his poem, giving a glimpse of the way things used to be. It was written November 19, 1984; as he says: "a poem looking back over a decade would have been quite different - this was a documentation of a single day… No other day was quite like it - in that way it is a true (if stylized) historical document." My own poem, "Top of the World" (written in October 2002), is one more attempt to capture the way things were, and just how much we took for granted.

The political has become the personal. Suddenly everything I expected in a poem coalesced, not only in my writing, but in the writing of those I’d long respected. As I read poems in other magazines, or those submitted for this focus, I was looking for work I wasn’t even sure had been written yet, or could be written yet, and I was lucky enough to find it.

There are wonderful little accidents that occurred while putting these poems together, such as Tracy Mishkin’s mention of Legos, picked up as the centerpiece of Corinne Robins’s poem, or the fact that I could begin and end with poems about the Statue of Liberty. But what I’m most excited about is the transitive nature of cyberspace. The words here are not written in stone. As time goes by, as poets absorb the experience of the world around them in the light of these terrorist acts, I’m sure new poems will be written. This focus is a beginning, not an end.

Rochelle Ratner
July, 2002

What The Colossus Saw by Karen Alkalay-Gut

I stand here for generations watching
the tired the poor the huddled masses -
pretending to look beyond them,
into some ideal time when all learn
the need for humanity's united progress,
to include, accept, encompass.

Its not that I don't consider those grand ideals,
but what I really watch daily is the island -
developing slowly to transcend
even my wildest dreams of liberty,
the maturing, collective knowledge
of the human mind in its service.

Buildings grow - to accommodate,
unite nations. A Center for World Trade! That idea alone
was reason enough for me to stand here,
waiting, all these years, proud.

Born in London on the last night of the Blitz, Karen Alkalay-Gut grew up in Rochester, New York, completing a Phd in 1975 at the University of Rochester. Since 1972 has been in Israel, raising a family, teaching poetry at Tel Aviv University, writing, and living. She chairs the Israel Association of Writers in English and is Vice Chair of Federation of Writers Unions in Israel. She’s also a coordinating editor of the Jerusalem Review and a trustee for the Alsop Review.

True Adventures by Bob Heman

The barge and its tugboat disappeared somewhere between Bridgeport and Port Newark. Snow flurries in the afternoon were a strong possibility. The woman guarded the crossword puzzle as her rightfully private possession. The images kept coming upside down or backwards. They were related only in that they arrived on the same day at the same time. Two cards bore exactly the same number. The screen that filtered out the reflections seemed to be made of almost invisible strands of tightly woven silk. After the alarm went off he dozed a bit and was given the answer to his problem. When he came back to use the typewriter someone was sitting in his chair. The layer cake had pink icing. Someone was back from vacation and another was about to get married. He typed up four letters and a memo to the treasurer. The temporaries were given yellow lunchroom passes. His desk was full of paperclips.

Bob Heman's prose poems have been published in numerous journals over the past 30 years, and have been translated into Spanish and Hungarian. He currently works in a corporate library across the street from Ground Zero. "True Adventures" was first published in The Prose Poem: An International Journal.

Top Of The World by Rochelle Ratner

The trade center was the first place she ate rack of lamb, a dish in those days usually prepared only for two or more and before him there was no one. They went there for cheap theater tickets, went there once with her parents and once with a cousin from out of town. Aside from that it was the Seaport that attracted them, especially to buy gifts, and sometimes for dinner. There was a desert she ordered there once, a chocolate mousse or whatever, the plate decorated around the edges with raspberry sauce that traced the city's skyline. She’d already taken two bites of the chocolate, her fork a quarter inch away from that raspberry design, when the waiter hurriedly pointed it out to her.

Rochelle Ratner’s new poetry book¸ House and Home, will be published by Marsh Hawk Press in Fall 2003. In terms of 9/11, her most vivid responses have been the photos she’s taken of store windows memorializing and responding to the event. Some of her photos are seen on these pages, as above. More of her work can be accessed through her homepage: www.rochelleratner.com.

The Last Minute by Sophie Cabot Black

As you hold the child tight, huddled,
She asks for one more wish. Someone pushes

You to the back yelling you will soon
Be home. Is this moving away or toward;

Even air cannot find itself,
While you make a way through one last story,

A fumble of buttons, her eyes held to yours
With everything she knows, her voice in

Your voice to drown out the engine
Burning as it was never meant to,

Such acceleration and so much light,
For many are the angels

On their knees, hoping to be first
As the City rises up to greet you

With some on their way to work, some stepping out
To take in the perfect day.

Sophie Cabot Black’s poems have appeared in The Atlantic, Partisan Review and APR, among other journals. Her book, The Misunderstanding of Nature, was published by Graywolf Press in 1994. She currently teaches at Columbia University.

911 by Kim D. Hunter

breathing is difficult
when you’re trying not to swallow
your eyes
when the dead claim all the silences
and jokes taste like oil and sand

strange to have everything
disconnected by corpses
they came to my house
and painted the air
in every room there was nothing
in the mirror
noise felt like sleep

everywhere there were piles of things
bones, songs, receipts,
missed appointments,
machines searched endlessly
but could not recover.

Kim D. Hunter is 46. He has worked in media (TV and radio) as a technical person and host/producer. He’s published one book of poetry. (Boxes of the books arrived at his house from the publisher on 9-12. Of course, like the rest of the nation, his head was already doing a slow constant explosion.) The book is borne on slow knives from Past Tents Press, a small press in Michigan.

The above poems: Copyright © 2002 by their authors. All rights, including electronic, are reserved by the authors and may not be used without permission.

Focus 9/11: Poems edited by Rochelle Ratner continues to Tracy Mishkin, Barry Seiler, Jane Augustine, David Beckman, Maray Kallet Click to Part II poems....>>>

Click back to poems of Karen Alkalay-Gut | Bob Heman | Rochelle Ratner | Sophie_Cabot_Black | Kim D. Hunter

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