Notes from Sept. 11

           

I

 

And the sun behind the plume went out orange and then violet

then strong and bright at end of summer

flurries fell, the sun silvered the flakes

there was a sound of fighter jets

 

My mother did not leave her house

when the cloud fell on Brooklyn a mile away

In her garden, on the evergreens, the powder silky and hot

 

She told me later that she understood

what was in it

 

            II

 

They were asking for water on the bridges

the day already heating up 

the exodus, the slow processions to Brooklyn

the ferries fleeing over the water

 

Ash on every shoulder and every head

whole ash men

smothered in plaster

silent without shirts

streaked with blood from glass

black women become albino

covering their mouths

in wet towels, bandannas, carpenter’s masks 

 

They are trying to call home on cellphones

and the police are screaming No cellphones!   Goddammit no cellphones!

They set off bombs!

 

            III

 

I was told of the woman

who after the fall wore only a charred skirt and a bra

and a suit-coat slipping off that a man had given her

As they huddled in a door

she had burns on her thighs and her calves and her arms

her cheeks bled warm

Someone cradled her and carried her away

I was told how the cloud fell straight down from the towers and was breathing

how it was sentient, it moved like a being

and it spread darkness

There was no sound, someone said, and you couldn’t outrun it and when you breathed it you choked

 

            IV

 

The ambulances race south trailing ghosts of dust

over street corners where there are shoes

Oakton wingtips and Doc Martins and worn leather tongues and Carolina boots

and ground-down heels and some so old they’re nearly treadless

lining up black as beetles and neat in stacks and two by two

 

Cop shoes    I keep hearing shield numbers on the air  a policeman says

and behind the gas-mask trembling, his eyes

 

            V

 

In the green light of the leaves of the square by the courthouse

a hundred frantic people driving nails into wood

plywood planks three feet wide and six long

the planks laid over two-by-fours and nailed down, the boards

clattering and thrown and the arms swinging up the hammers coming down

ancient noise of work, the laborers are men in suits  women in heels

students with packs    the nailing sighs like ocean, crescendoes

for a moment two or three hammers out of six dozen swing in straight musical time

making syncopations, the rhythms breaking as quickly

and are just noise, horrid noise

 

The boards get tested      At each end where the two-by-fours poke out as handles

a man and a woman take hold, another lies down on the board, the bearers lift

they nod heads, the patient alights, the stretchers are placed in piles

 

A man approached the work, wondering

and now under his breath (I could touch him) OmiGod   louder: Oh my God

seeing how many stretchers already falling over each other await the trucks and the trucks

coming with more two-by-fours and plywood boards and there are rumors of 20,000 dead

bound for Ellis Island which they say is now the Morgue

 

And the man, as if a great hand had pulled him by the hair and wrenched him

from behind, stumbled back four long feet and crumpled under a tree heaving and dumb

 

            VI

 

In the back of a flatbed truck

They wear the black long-coats and the white shirts and the sidelocks and beards

There are forty of them holding shovels and spades

The police wave aside the crowd

The truck passes

Someone asks Where are they going?

Someone answers In Israel, when there are bombings

the religious Jews, the Orthodox Jews

do a special job, they retrieve body parts

to identify the people who have died 

 

            VII

 

Into the fire zone at dusk with Vinnie Dolan the thug who gypped me once

for ten dollars in a bar on the waterfront

that was a long time ago

we were much, much younger

 

Now he was looking for his father, a cop

He said his father was alright   I just wanna see him

my father and I we never really saw eye to eye you know?

haven’t spoken to him in a while

And Vinnie apologized about the ten dollars

I said  I hardly know you at all

but let’s stick together as we go

 

Still at 6 pm, attack plus nine hours, the dust the ash the flame the plume

in the purple summer dusk

 

We went to Pace University as volunteers with the Red Cross

At Pace the first triage had gone up early on

Dr. Morgenthal and his men and women

had water and food and blood and oxygen and mounds of shiny equipment

Later Dr. Morgenthal would tell us We’re shutting down, moving south 

We’re useless here    There are no patients

 

So Vinnie and I went south into the Zone

with six medics who stuffed our packs

with gauze and saline and water and masks

who said We’ll set up at Ground Zero

 

Then it was darkness and men running saying Turn back, ‘s gonna collapse, turn the fuck back!

All the night the rumors of collapse, we took the silences of the backstreets

The fires stirred winds through the canyons

kicking dust-devils and storms and stinging fog yellow as deserts

four inches of ash on cars abandoned

the doors left open, and the wind blew a million million paper bits

 

I ran the ash through my fingers, it was soft and warm and almost dewy

It was concrete and stone and glass and drywall and lime and asbestos

I didn’t yet know what my mother knew or I would never have touched it so carelessly

for it was bone too

 

            VIII

 

The longest night  the firefighters had said

we had no idea what they meant

or how many they’d lost

until the first ruins of the towers rose before us

like bombed churches in mist

little red fires at its heart

the cathedral windows

and we could hear the cries for surgeons among the rubble

someone needed an amputation

 

Eyewashes! Eyewashes! the medics cried out, fanning in teams of two

the firemen lay on curbs, in make-shift forward triage units

set up in the halls of the Dow Jones Company and American Express

old strange names now

The firemen thanked them, the saline ran down like tears

and everywhere there were men alone

not knowing the time or the place at all

their throats hurting and their skin hot

 

Then, into a wall of smoke and out, we entered the very bottom of Ground Zero

and the medics did not cry Eyewashes! 

for their hearts fell away seeing it

the rubble and the girders and the twisted metal stretching into haze and dust

the gray drifts of millions of sheafs of paper

the ambulances, cars, firetrucks

smoking in the mud in paddies where the tangled hoses had burst

or the water had streamed from the ruins

delicate charred lattice walls six and ten stories high

Roman, white-pale steaming in arc-lights

or disappearing in purple plumes

the firemen trawling, stumbling, falling, digging, blasting water

thousands of men in the twisted sharpened warped metal

that flipped up underfoot like bear-traps, tore at legs, popped into chests

It had a name, they called it the Pit and the Pile, it went, you thought, for miles

 

IX

 

Or much later I'm sitting in a Japanese garden cleaning paratrooper boots

wiping hard but the dried slurry of the ash won't come loose

in fact as I wipe harder the white residue turns heavy and bluish and soaks into my rag

soaking back into the boot, so as the boot dries the white grows thicker

 

In the hedgerow maze by the marina the morgue ship lay in a berth of light on the water

near a temple of palms and glass called the Winterdome

where there were gallerias, places to eat and buy and buy

There was a bakery, the men were making cakes or bagels or loaves, the fat yeast rose and fell

still with prints of fingers on hurt soft thighs, old titties over shoulders  

other uncooked loaves lay on trays abandoned, neutron bombs took the cooks away

the coffee cups half-sugared -- Is this what the end of man looks like?

 

In the galleria, shops bombed, sales bombed, glass in ariel pools or hanging from ceilings

slow-drip on uncovered heads, walking the black water, feet moving in liquid

mutterers in piss-soaked bathrooms later tall and wise in the night, clear the way for new bodies

red sea openings of men for the processions in uniforms correct and loving and of proper salute

a firefighter or cop found and then all stop

The men rough with their carving of the work with territorial bare arms, the beards of soot

stop

The metallic Eiffel cranes, blind and intricate dancing with tall dinosaur dances

stop

and tandem to these ancient the lone men on the beams unbound from worldly awe of death’s kingdom

coughing their hard gems to throatful from old stomachs

stop

others only sleepwalkers in scows, backhoes, bobcats, spraying weld fire

stop and with thousand-foot stare to the lights of New Jersey and other lands

that seemed lost and unknown and unknowable and therefore: the work, the work

 

starts, again

 

And one among them, janitorial, ignored even the procession of the famed dead

sweeping glass of seventeen windows shattered into petals, behind him Venetian blinds clacking

as on seashores, the place suddenly unbruted by the sight of his quiet and his looking down

like looking for shells

 

            X

 

Morning – zero-hour, start over, me to sleep on a cot, herds of blank, all men’s makers come to eat

drubbing of kegs rolling, trees torn from roots, gherrrkk    scraping of dugs on gravel floors moos        huts floods cartoons      a faint ruckus of distant mobs        Awake, this time in a coffin, with a tap-tap-tapping of rain or men overhead, and the soft sway of a ship        in port waters    The morgue ship!  Here! 

The Hudson!   I am in the hold    I will be taken to another country and interred     I saw a flying, detached thing, black muck thing, amorphous like cloud, gripping a straw, suck up men on an iron-grey strand, boats lay beached                                       

 

Filling a great big stomach, the Pit where we are removing the debris and put our own 

cancelled eyes in the cafeteria by the blown windows eat like hurt and unknown

doctors moving among us, oxygen, oxygen

also birdbaths in corners   My third Puerto Rican shower this week   Doctor, I can’t breath, I can’t

Forth comes the maiden Sara, 16, strawberry blonde with the spaghetti trays

Who will stay for five days who I fell in love with and out of all at once

 

XI

 

You remember the people in these hours

though you spoke little, you knew very few names

Luke who drove a day from Nashville Tennessee

he cleared out his bank account to buy gauze and bandages

Carl the fireman

Jennifer from the Bronx who wore three pairs of socks in her big boots

given her by a cousin with big feet

She faked being National Guard to pass the police lines

 

            XII

 

Within hours, cigarettes taste like burnt plaster and asbestos

and sometimes, oddly, human flesh; real flavor someone joked

There were jokes

            I just found a firefighter on top of two women

Yeah, what was he doing? 

 

The hounds and German shepherds are loosed

slipping the dust on girders, sniffing

You watched the fleet-footed dogs nearly lose their balance

over voids twenty feet deep in the rubble

they descended into holes hissing

You watched men follow the dogs, crawling with flashlights and crowbars 

Vinnie Dolan did this again and again

raw and dazed and blank-eyed, spitting green and black phlegm

He brought up three police officers, and at the end of it

the muscles in his cheeks went dead

 

I could not recognize him; he was pale and apart

 

The dogs came out and lay in the gardens by the marina

where K-9 cops gave them water bowls

and some of the dogs died eating

 

            XIII

 

Along the old thoroughfares, the Gristedes was quietly looted

in these early hours when the volunteers were few, the food supplies random

cops and firemen and EMTs took cigarettes, candy, water, chips, big boxes of aspirin terrible headaches that night, it was the asbestos; you took what you needed

zone of mud and ash, a scum of it white on everything

the trees looked like ice

and men in fatigues and gas masks

no refrigeration or electricity or running water

you thought to yourself that much of the planet lives like this

you had no idea what city or country this was  

Then you saw cops in the abandoned Starbucks trying to make frappuccinos

in the health clubs they joked with barbells of ash

this same ash later in my bed in Brooklyn, through the window, a half-inch of it spilled like dune

as sparkled and lonely as dust from the moon

 

I was given black body bags and Civil Defense body tags

to hand to the firemen as the dead were brought out, the bodies a long time coming 

I carried baskets of water across the girders and rubble

tossed the bottles across chasms to wild men who caught and drank them

then I returned, refilled the basket

The men in groups of two and three dug

They find flesh, they finger it, hold it up to flashlights       It looks like shredded rope or carpet

That’s skin they say matter-of-factly Think we got a body!

A dozen men converge

new clues unearthed with hands and shovels

a white knit sweater shredded on tin 

a pair of glasses, fully intact – incredible –

a Nike shoe        Got a shoe, Chief.  Whaddaya think?

                                                Body could be a hundred feet away

The dogs loitered, everywhere the smell of it

even the men hunkered with their noses, bending to ground

I can smell it said a fireman  Right here             But he found nothing

 

            XIV

 

There would be firemen marching in the darkness in single file

looking like medieval warriors, carrying awls, pikes, pick-axes, shovels on their shoulders

You saw them planted in sleep on brown couches

pulled from the smashed windows of ground-floor offices

they had signs saying Dave’s Café  Le Menu: 1) water 2) water

You saw them in rows of stunned silence, soot-faced, white-eyed

some wept quietly then quit it suddenly like hanging up a phone

when you saw them you gave them water

 

And you looked at them now as you would kings who had lost

you imagined it so, because you saw how big their grief was

They’d worked ten and twenty and forty hours in the rubble to forget it

to make something good of it, to find a man, a whole man, give him a burial

perhaps find a survivor

 

At 1:15 am on Sept. 12, Body #1 was brought and laid on a black sheet

he was a curly-haired young man tarred around his eyes and red lipped

sleeping on his stomach with his arms over his head

laying very naturally except he had no buttocks or legs  

The men surrounded him, the firefighters pulled his head up by his hair to show his face

turned him over, a coroner flash-bulbed him, and no one said a word

 

Heavy rain made it hard for the rescuers in the days after

a wind rose from the sea and the rain fell faster

still the plume, its black arm, smoked over Manhattan

When you looked at it from afar across the river

you thought it was the souls of men and women

it was greedy over the sky and foaming

it was a strange new neighbor

 

            XV

 

Vinnie Dolan and I watched the candle-lit streets, the vigils

the people who wept and went away

A candle caught flame in a cup and fell on itself bending and turning very bright

The light hiccupped and died

 

You find your dad?

I drove back in to Ground Zero with him yesterday

 

That’s good

 

But it wasn’t true and whether Vinnie was lying to me

or to himself did not matter

The truth was his father

died trying to save the dying in the fire

Vinnie searched and searched and searched

 

When there was no body

he told himself what he needed to hear

he had many things to say to his father

So he said  I drove in with him yesterday yeah

His cheeks sucked in, I’m gonna see him tonight

 

EPILOGUE

 

A year passes, there are wars, the horns in the air, the people come to ground zero

to watch through fences the unbuilding, and at the year exactly, the families gather

for the reading of the names of the dead, which

the bag-pipers from Coney Island and Morrisania carry in the bright

having marched across the boroughs all the night

now the reading of the names of the dead in the wind off the river and the bay blowing them white

I was drunk at 8 am already, sitting in old strange places where I’d seen the dead alight

thinking of Marcus Aurelius:

            How quickly all things disappear, he says,

            In the universe, the bodies themselves…for as soon as a thing has been seen

it is carried away and another comes in its place, and this will be carried away too.

 

And then Marcus, good emperor of Rome, tells us, Help men.  Life is short.

                                                -fin-