The morning the planes flew into the towers, the US president was reading “The Pet Goat” to a group of second-graders at the Booker Elementary in Sarasota, Florida. This year’s incoming college freshmen were one grade ahead of that Florida class the Tuesday morning the towers came down. In my classes at Bryn Mawr College this month they’ll be reading Kafka, Orwell, Tom Junod’s masterpiece of 9/11 reporting, “The Falling Man.” They’ll read Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad, and note the mention in that novel of the towers absent from the lower Manhattan skyline.
I don’t know if we’ve yet had the singular 9/11 novel, but the event has saturated the literature of the last decade. In the past ten years The Kenyon Review has felt the dust left in the air since it was stirred at Ground Zero. Between Fall 2003 and Summer 2007, KR published a half-dozen or so pieces that take on 9/11 as their subject: some overt, some subtler. In his poem, “September 11,” Campbell McGrath looks directly the “images of the aftermath,” which the poet recognizes “seem, now, already, distant and historicized, like Mathew Brady’s Civil War photographs.” Novelist Amitav Ghosh moves from a meditation on the literature of terrorism to his experience of the morning of the WTC attacks in his essay “The Greatest Sorrow,” describing how “Downtown Brooklyn was choked with people, and in the distance we saw a plume of dust rising into the clear blue sky.” And in the poet Timothy Liu’s “On Broadway,” we watch “The St. Petersburg Chamber Orchestra/ trying to rebook, eager to risk their lives in order to/ perform Rachmaninov’s Vespers” in the days just after the attacks.
In other pieces we watch as writers catch those events and images out of the corners of their eyes. The poet Tom Sleigh’s “Persian Miniature” reveals a harrowing, elusive image, at once an image not of Ground Zero and yet of it, too:
Fire shinnies up buildings
as it scurries roof
to roof, clearly limning
two towers’ crenellations,
orange flames darkening to purple
burning whatever’s there until it’s not,
that ladder burning downward to the ground.
Robert Wrigley considers a photograph of our new Poet Laureate, Philip Levine, taken just a year before that Tuesday morning, noticing “the blurred towers to the west“ turning into ghosts already, already half gone.” In his poem “Ash,” Wyatt Prunty seems to take on the very difficulty of writing about such an event, as “something new/ assembles“ requiring some new/ Symbol, this alloyed light, this unfamiliar view.” And the poet and essayist Rebecca McClanahan employs masterful subtlety in her essay “’And We Shall Be Changed,’” wherein we never quite see the towers themselves. Instead we watch the essay’s speaker, on the morning of 9/11, walk uptown and release into Central Park a trapped squirrel that’s somehow found its way into her Midtown apartment. “In the distance,” McClanahan writes, “a siren starts wailing“ I look up, but see no smoke, just green stretching in all directions, and the blue sky wedged, in small pieces, between the branches.”
In McClanahan’s essay there’s a sense of a natural wisdom to looking at trauma from the side. I felt a similar desire for perspective in the days after watching the towers hit by planes while I was sitting on a D train traveling over the Manhattan Bridge. I did not set out to write about 9/11 in my story “Undress,” but at some point in the writing, it appeared. I’d recently finished reading Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair. That novel was published a decade after the Blitz ended in London–the story of a love affair upended by the explosion of a Luftwaffe bomb at the outset of WWII. In looking at the way Greene so masterfully allowed the events of the Blitz to play themselves out in the lives of lovers not directly connected to the war itself, something of the reality of such trauma revealed itself. Events so large seep into our lives in ways unexpected and surprising, and so into our books.