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Poetry: 9/11

Former Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky reads his poem, "9/11," commissioned by the Washington Post for the September 11 anniversary.

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  • ROBERT PINSKY:

    9/11

    We adore images, we like the spectacle Of speed and size, the working of prodigious Systems. So on television we watched

    The terrible spectacle, repetitiously gazing Until we were sick not only of the sight Of our prodigious systems turned against us

    But of the very systems of our watching. The date became a word, an anniversary That we inscribed with meanings-who keep so few,

    More likely to name an airport for an actor Or athlete than "First of May" or "Fourth of July." In the movies we dream up, our captured heroes

    Tell the interrogator their commanding officer's name Is Colonel Donald Duck-he writes it down, code Of a lowbrow memory so assured it's nearly

    Aristocratic. Some say the doomed firefighters Before they hurried into the doomed towers wrote Their Social Security numbers on their forearms.

    Easy to imagine them kidding about it a little, As if they were filling out some workday form. Will Rogers was a Cherokee, a survivor

    Of expropriation. A roper, a card. For some, A hero. He had turned sixteen the year That Frederick Douglass died. Douglass was twelve

    When Emily Dickinson was born. Is even Donald Half-forgotten?-Who are the Americans, not A people by blood or religion? As it turned out,

    The donated blood not needed, except as meaning. And on the other side that morning the guy Who shaved off all his body hair and screamed

    The name of God with his boxcutter in his hand. O Americans- as Marianne Moore would say, Whence is our courage? Is what holds us together

    A gluttonous dreamy thriving? Whence our being? In the dark roots of our music, impudent and profound?- Or in the Eighteenth Century clarities

    And mystic Masonic totems of the Founders: The Eye of the Pyramid watching over us, Hexagram of Stars protecting the Eagle's head

    From terror of pox, from plague and radiation. And if they blow up the Statue of Liberty- Then the survivors might likely in grief, terror

    And excess build a dozen more, or produce A catchy song about it, its meaning as beyond Meaning as those symbols, or Ray Charles singing "America

    The Beautiful." Alabaster cities, amber waves, Purple majesty. The back-up singers in sequins And high heels for a performance- or in the studio

    In sneakers and headphones, engineers at soundboards, Musicians, all concentrating, faces as grave With purpose as the harbor Statue herself.

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