"Only in darkness can you see the stars.”
— Martin Luther King, Jr.
Sometimes you look out from your
lush mountain rubbed low and round
by old glaciers, trees climbing up long before you
with their leaves open wide as green palms,
and you notice how the deepest blue spills
over everything, dripping through openings
in the dense forest, pouring between
the mossy shoulders of other mountains.
This is what it means to wake up, to open
the shining pebbles of your eyes, and let them see
where they have come from.
But on a day like this, such blue
is only a grim flame and one cloud,
a plume of smoke. The entire world can disappear
beneath a single eyelid—yours, or a stranger’s.
Who is there that can bring it back?
People will gather in sun and rain
and between the embers of stars and rubble,
digging ash for days. They will give away their blood
and their money. They will cry. They will try hard
not to catch themselves being content even briefly.
But it won’t be enough, will it?
You will pace your mountain and breathe in
the air of loss, the actual soot and debris,
someone’s last cell blown loose, the invisible fleck
of skin caught up on a thermal.
Nearly three thousand gone
before the second cup of tea. Whatever they
hoped for when this morning began,
whatever love hummed below each one’s
singular rhythm of thoughts, belongs to you now—
part gift, part burden. What can your one animal body do?
You wake up, you let your mountain lay down
its new layer of dust, you allow the leaves to keep on
holding up the sky, you wade out
into that brilliant blue again, and you live.
I was living in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, home from work to care for my cat suffering with cancer, when my husband and I flipped on the television just in time to see the second plane, United Flight 175, hit the South Tower in real time. People in our community had family in those towers. President of the community foundation then, I called into my staff to close the offices and go home to their families—tomorrow there would be many calls as our community looked for ways to help. It was an utterly beautiful day in both New York and Pennsylvania. Inside, over several hours, we watched the towers crumble, the plane hit in Washington, DC, and then the fourth plane crash in another part of our state. Stepping out on the deck that afternoon, looking at Bald Eagle mountain on the other side of the Susquehanna River, the sky was eerily quiet due to the grounding of all aircraft—we’d never realized how many planes flew over our home on a regular day until then, in that somber quietness, where the only sounds were migrating birds and our neighbors’ televisions, distant, faint, tuned into to the tragedy. Feeling otherwise helpless, my husband and I were grateful that, ironically, we had long-scheduled appointments to donate blood on September 12th. So many others arrived to give blood, and many were turned away, as there weren’t enough staff, volunteers, and supplies to handle the crowd. Blood and money—we gave what we could, but it still seems paltry. September 11th remains the most surreal day of my life. This poem was written over the next couple of days, and originally appeared in the Williamsport Sun-Gazette. The only change in this poem from the original, thankfully, is that initially it appeared that more than 5,000 had perished—the final loss totals 2,977 (excluding the hijackers): 2,606 in New York City either in the towers, involved in rescues, or near the buildings; 125 at the Pentagon; and 246 on the 4 planes.