Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Out of the Blue

Up until now, the best poems I have read about September 11, 2001, have been Martin Espada's "Alabanza" and Glyn Maxwell's verse novel The Sugar Mile. But now I can add a third item to that list: Simon Armitage's "Out of the Blue."

In a 24-page sequence, Armitage puts himself into the head of an English trader who works at the World Trade Center. In section 4, he presents a catalogue reminiscent of Günter Eich's "Inventory":

Arranged on the desk
among rubber bands and bulldog clips:

here is a rock from Brighton beach,
here is a beer-mat, here is the leaf

of an oak, pressed and dried, papery thin.
Here is a Liquorice Allsorts tin.

A map of the Underground pinned to the wall.
The flag of St. George. A cricket ball.

Here is calendar, counting the days.
Here is a photograph snug in its frame:

this is my wife on our wedding day,
here is a twist of her English hair.

Here is a picture in purple paint:
two powder-paint towers, heading for space,

plus rockets and stars and the Milky Way,
plus helicopters and aeroplanes.

Jelly-copters and fairy-planes.
In a spidery hand, underneath it, it says:

'If I stand on my toes can you see me wave?'

Section 7 is a prose poem of the responses of the World Trade Center workers after the planes hit the buildings. Shortly before I got to the end of it, I realized that it reads the same backwards as forwards, trapping the people in the poem, as it were, along the lines of how they were trapped in the doomed building.

The sequence's timing is excellent—it is just long enough to make you forget section four, so when you get to the list of things found in the rubble in the final section, the return of the items from section four is all the more powerful.

And then the sequence concludes (reminding me, as I typed it in, of this):

Five years on
what false alarm can be trusted again,
what case or bag can be left unclaimed,
what flight can be sure to steer its course,
what building can claim to own its form,
what column can vow to stand up straight,
what floor can agree to bear its weight,
what tower can vouch to retain its height,
what peace can be said to be water-tight,
what truth can be said to be bullet-proof,
can anything swear to be built to last,
can anything pledge to be hard and fast,
what system can promise to stay in place,
what structure can promise to hold its shape,
what future can promise to keep its faith?

Everything changed. Nothing is safe.

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