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Words to Comfort

A selection of poems and photographs

...from the benefit readings to support the WTC Relief Fund at the New School, New York City, Wednesday October 17, 2001

The World Trade Center Relief Fund
was established by New York Governor George Pataki to assist the families and dependents of the victims of the September 11th terrorist attacks. All of the proceeds collected at both readings were donated to the fund.
      Many of the poems being read were selected from the enormous public outpouring of poetry posted at New York City fire stations, Union Square, and numerous other memorial sites around the city. Readers included musician Lou Reed, film-maker Ric Burns, actor Claire Danes, poets Sharon Olds and Cornelius Eady, novelist Rick Moody, Oscar Hijuelos and Richard Price, and 60 other readers who joined NYC Firefighter Anthony Castagna, NYPD Sergeant Edgar Rodriguez, Salomon Smith  Barney employees and NYC grade-school children in this reading. More information at http://www.dialoguepoetry.org/wtc.htm
      Thanks to Ram Devineni, Publisher, Rattapallax, for compiling this selection.


Introduction: Here is New York City

     By Flávia Rocha and Richard Pearse

IN HIS FAMOUS articles about New York City, E. B. White praised New Yorkers for their untouchable individuality: ‘ New York blends the gift of privacy with the excitement of participation; and better than most dense communities it succeeds in insulating the individual (if he wants it, and almost everybody wants or needs it) against all enormous and violent and wonderful events that are taking place every minute.’
      The attack on the World Trade Center has unified the people of New York City and has made them proud to be called ‘New Yorkers.’ This new potentiality of New York has been experienced everywhere in the city, in all different fields of activities and is evident in the City’s new slogan, ‘I Love New York More Than Ever.’
      Among the arts community, poetry has assumed an important role in the urgency of grief. Soon after the tragedy, the streets were covered by a sea of words, written on small pieces of paper, napkins, walls, and posted at New York City fire stations, Union Square, and numerous other memorial sites around the city.
     Most of the poems left at the sites were selected from collections written by well-known poets like W.H. Auden, Walt Whitman or Emily Dickerson. There were also poems written spontaneously by people who had the need  —   perhaps never felt before    of expressing and anonymous registering their feelings at the memorial sites. In the following weeks, various poetry organizations and poets began setting-up readings to raise funds for the victims, becoming one of the many different benefits varying from concerts to comedy shows that were organized to offer support for the victims of the attacks.
      ‘Words To Comfort’ (containing the initials WTC in its title), one of the major reading programs, took place at various cities. On October 17th at the New School’s Tischman Auditorium in New York, and at the San Francisco’s Main Library. The readings were organized in just two weeks, and immediately caught the attention of the readers, media and public.

Photo of poet Suheir Hammad

Poet Suheir Hammad



      In the New York auditorium, poems, letters and lyrics were read by celebrities, officials, citizens of an improvised, but authentic community. Musician Lou Reed, actor Claire Danes, poets and writers Sharon Olds, Rick Moody, Oscar Hijuelos, and Richard Price and the Personal Representative of the United Nations Giandomenico Picco joined NYPD Sergeant Edgar Rodriguez, grade-school children and sixty other readers at the New School benefit.
      The reading in San Francisco featured San Francisco Poet Laureate Janice Mirikitani and award-winning poets Kim Addonizio, Chana Bloch, and Ruth Daigon. Both readings drew a large audience and raised funds to benefit the New York State World Trade Center Relief Fund established by NY Governor George Pataki. The New School Writing Program, Rattapallax Press, Poets for Peace and House of Xavier sponsored the readings.

Photo of Lou Reed



Lou Reed





      The psychological need for poetry and being with your community for comfort was enough to create the atmosphere that made the readings possible and the all of the readers and organizers generously donated their time. When asked why poetry is so appealing in a moment of crisis, poet Bob Holman, also one of the Words to Comfort organizers, answered: ‘You must work quickly while the sirens wail, before the smoke clears, in the threat of danger, the poem is essential.’ Maybe this explains how it took the organizers only two weeks to produce these major reading. Such a short time would be unthinkable in a normal situation.
      Novelist Rick Moody answers the same question by pointing to the transcendental aspects of poetry: ‘I think poetry is the most reflective register of literature, or maybe that literature at its most reflective always tends toward the condition of poetry. This makes it extremely useful during a crisis.’ ‘It was amazing to see so many people in our library during the week of the disaster, especially when the streets were empty,’ adds St. Agnes New York Public (NYPL) Librarian Joan Jankell, ‘I guess New Yorkers were looking for answers in books and poetry.’
      Musician Lou Reed, a notorious New Yorker when it comes to individuality, had an interesting part of this transitory community. After reading an excerpt of a play by Edgar Allan Poe, he went backstage and attentively listened to the others readers. ‘I am a New Yorker and wanted to help in any way,’ he replied when asked by a NBC reporter why he was involved in this event.
      Ram Devineni, publisher of Rattapallax Press and one of the organizers, said, ‘New York City is the only city in the world, where you do not have to be a citizen of the country, an American citizen, to be a New Yorker. A New Yorker is not a single person, rather it is an ideal and a state of mind.’

Audience

Audience



      David Lehman told conversationally of a conversion: how the Towers went from ugly to comely once they were attacked in ‘93. Hal Sirowitz wryly answered our mayor’s urgings to keep doing what we’re doing by vowing to stay home and keep writing about his mother, or his own circular bleeding yes, routine has its rewards. Bob Mack, a broker who worked nearby, testified to the experience of survival. Dana Bryant, an actress, torched her way through Murphy’s ‘Write Me a Poem,’ and dared us all to make a connection between the erotic and political word.
      Willie Perdomo linked the Tower victims with Mexican sharecroppers. Suheir Hammad roared a capacious litany of thank-you’s for missing death, and kept celebrating its alternatives. Alix Olson rapped on outlaws as survivors as outlaws. Bill Kushner found himself walking with Whitman after the disaster and found both of them containing multitudes. Michael T. Young found the twin gaps to be ‘an eruption that rises endlessly.’ Jackie Sheeler lamented the phone’s failure to reach a friend feared missing with other disconnections.
      Samuel Menashe went back to his experiences in the Second World War and the feeling of being defenseless on the night before an offensive, and let us do the updating. Regie Cabico managed a manifold lament, wry and wistful: ‘We are all addicted to collisions.’ John Del Peschio quietly noted the fragility of heirlooms: his mother’s pottery, his hometown’s profile.

Photo of Claire Danes and Bob Holman

Claire Danes and Bob Holman




Other ‘Words to Comfort’ readings will be happening at the Autry Museum of Western Heritage in Los Angeles on November 11th featuring James Ragan, Austin Strauss, Carine Topal, Russell Salamon, Carol Muske, Imani Toliver, Henry Morro, and others from L.A.’s diverse poetry community.
      And at the Cathedral Church of St. Paul in Boston on November 30th featuring Frank Bidart, Glyn Maxwell, X. J. Kennedy, Boston firefighters, police officers, doctors and Imam Talal Eid, Religious Director of the Islamic Center of New England, will be reading with Rabbi Karen Landy. Additional information can be found at http://www.dialoguepoetry.org/wtc.htm

Flávia Rocha was a staff reporter for the monthly magazines Republica and Bravo! in Brazil. She is a MFA student at Columbia University studying poetry.

Richard Pearse has had books of poems published, including Private Drives by Rattapallax Press, Come Back Vanishing, Linear Arts Books, and a chapbook, Landscape of Skin, Audit Press. Some two dozen magazines have published his poems and stories, including The Paris Review, New York Quarterly, Prairie Schooner andFiction. In 1996 he won fifth prize in the Chester H. Jones National Competition. He teaches at Brooklyn College and New York University.



Poems pinned on a memorial wall set up at Grand Central Station, seen on September 25

Do not stand at my grave and weep
I am not there, I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow
I am the diamond glint on snow.
I am the sunlight on ripened grain
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you wake in the morning hush
I am the swift, uplifting rush
of quiet birds in circling flight.
I am the soft starlight at night
Do not stand at my grave and weep.
I am not there. I do not sleep.

Anonymous

Posted anonymously on a small square piece of paper put over a missing persons flyer at Grand Central Station’s Memorial Wall

Every morning
I see you
smiling.
I miss you.
We never met.

— Anonymous

Found on a handwritten scrap of paper pinned up at Union Square, Sept. 25

Did you see the papers
Come softly floating down
White in the air, white in the trees
White all over the ground.
Oh did you see the fire,
Going from up to down

Fire in the air, fire in the shirtsleeves
And fire brought to the ground
Oh did you see the black clouds
When the building fell down
Day turned to night
So dark you couldn’t see the ground
Oh did you see the ashes
Come thickly falling down
White in the air, white on the trees
White all over the ground.

— Anonymous

Children's Mural

Children's mural






Poem found, New Jersey

Seeking an orphaned piece of wreckage
In a voluminous burial mound of rubble,
Dust perches on a picture frame.
The alighting powder so infinitesimal,
Separate specks invisible to the human eye.
The billows of cinder and ash
Descend languidly from the sky.
An unusual angel of death
Lays down a quilt of despair over a mourning city,
Blanketing the world in a mantle of ruin.
Scattered debris taints the majestic metropolis
A fascinating kind of snow
Clothes the city in unbefitting apparel,
Covering the picture frame
And the face within it.
A photograph of a baby girl
Dressed in Sunday best
Perfect smile sparkling through golden ringlets
Giant blue eyes
Radiating affection and faith.
Dust lands on the child’s holy smile,
An exploited emblem of a nation’s naiveté,
A loss of security and consolation.
No name is attached to the picture.
It is a refugee in an uncertain world.
The sound of weeping emanates from the land.
God Himself grieves in anguish.
A man silently grasps the picture frame and
Gently wipes it with a tattered sleeve
But somehow the dust remains.

Kim Del Guercio, 16-year old student

Poem Found at a Coffee Shop in the East Village

Oh No
What’s happening
The Twin Towers
Are about to fall
Is that a plane?
It’s about to crash
uh oh!
Another plane!
Look at that plane!
It’s going
to crash!
That building’s
about to collapse
What’s happening
to the Twin Towers?
No time to speak
RUN!

— Dilanni Kirkland, age 12

Untitled

I imagine it speaking to me:

Who created you? Man?
Because Man created us and Man destroyed us.

Why were we placed on this earth?

Look at my twin and I standing here so tall,
Nothing will ever penetrate these walls.
From here we could see New Jersey, Staten Island, Brooklyn, Queens, Bronx,
Manhattan,
And the beautiful bridges connecting them all.
We stand tall,
And we share with our people the luxury of seeing it all.
We were never selfish,
We will never die,
We will always protect and provide,
But on September 11, 2001 everything came to a halt.
I remember waking seeing my twin,
The light reflecting and bouncing within.
Eternally, we were feeling fulfilled,
But, now I don’t know we might have been ill.
Something was wrong with my twin,
The horror of it all was a sin.
How can I help you, my twin?
How can I protect the ones within?
What can I do to save you?
This is unreal I am experiencing the same thing.
Please my twin, stay strong,
Don’t leave me, this is so wrong,
Remember there are thousands of people depending on our lives,
We can not die,
We have to survive.
How much longer can we stand?
I don’t know I need your hand,
I can’t reach you,
I am hurt,
Why are you falling to the dirt?
Now, I feel a jerk.
I won’t have time to explain this to the world,
I wish I had a chance, but I am collapsing to the floor,
Now the world will never know that we love them all.

— Annette Diaz
Stock Plan Services
388 Greenwich Street
Salomon Smith Barney

September 11, 2001
Looking South on Greenwich Street

There is a welling within me
Born of sadness, then of anger,
That wants to release a frightful energy
But produces just a tear-streaming down my cheek.

Watching helpless as
All fondness unexpressed,
All farewells unspoken,
All smiles unseen,
In that horrific second-erased.

Such a cruel reminder of the sanctity of moment,
With the past as simply prologue,
And the future unknown and unsure.

It’s not enough this single tear.
A waterfall of tears is not enough.

All the tears will not ease
The sorrow of that azure day
When two irate-piloted comets
Flashed across the morning sun
And crushed a universe, just like that.

— Bob Mack
Private Client Division
388 Greenwich Street
Salomon Smith Barney

Twin Towers #8

By the people at ‘Words that Comfort: Benefit Readings to Support the World Trade Center Relief Fund 10/17/01’ — Edited By Claudia Alick

1. What can we say 2. Eyes twitch nervously 3. deliberately 4. Perhaps it’s allergy season 5. Please Bridge the Allergy’s to a standstill 6. Think, Peace, Speak Peace, Pray for Peace, Live in Peace 7. Believe in man. 8. Blue, Blue, as he is. 9. Much Love...Much Style 10. Wait awhile 11. Without 12. Knowledge There is no Understanding of 13. Above and you’ll find nothing there 14. The substance which lingers lives in our eyes 15. Burrows down into my belly, building a house 16. and what bird said truth? 17. A table. a chair. a Love. a window. 18. it all meant more, this time, the window. 19. next time the giraffe 20. win defeat the lion 21. No! Blake’s lamb O skin skinless we? 22. No Joke is Joking’s fee 23. except to let go, free 24. to be what? To be normal? Are you kidding? 25. it’s a joke if you want it to be 26. the only thing that is ‘normal’ is change. 27. And our understanding of ‘normal’ will never be the same 28. we shall recreate ‘normal’, peace and our sense of security 29. will grow with each passing day. 30. The courage of trees to dare to live among us 31. and bring us to the yellow mountain with stars 32. and lie by the clear stream watching the wavelet crest 33. and in cresting our waves we are waves 34. Blood. Lust. Greed. Sty. Fly. 35. And from these lists- sorted, clean, valued- we shall name our sins. 36. Place them in envelopes and mail them to our souls 37. and rise to the occasion, along with the light 38. and swing the notion of nation into a river 39. The Hearts that shook and stand a Quiver 40. Two brothers stand Tall, High and proud 41. on an otherwise perfect day, life was changed forever- 42. Shall we never forget what a beautiful day it started out as 43. Or how calm it all seemed before the fall 44. Fear. Anxiety. Rage. Impotence. Uncertainty. This is now my life. 45. For victims of terrorism everywhere 46. terrorists only come in shades of brown, speak another language and practice war as religion 47. and the world, of streams, cities, rivers and huts grows tired. 48. Tired of the maze-ish girls and reams of rows, city streets, 49. Paper houses burn and blow downwind overhead beyond belief 50. is a figment, a fissure, a rapt nothingness of ash and debris 51. Smoke, ash, mirrors of our reflection 52. Seeing Being Alive in the Heart of All 53. broken parts repaired in rivers 54. the city now has ruins 55. but tears can’t clear the eyes and heart 56. Live and let Live 57. Shadows twirl to blades, call me survivor 58. I stand on the wings of those before me, Assata! 59. And I am thankful to see so far- 60. And it is fear that has reminded me that I have moved for anything but 61. Love for I was born out of love to love words in you 62. And this in the town under the town that is really a seahorse 63. I release is relief, let it be. 64. for if the universe has a goal, it is for each of us to be free 65. gathering the light, connecting to our kindness and compassion, gathering the light.

Editor’s note: Imagine it is a crisp fall evening, just cold enough to need a jacket. Maybe you pause to smoke a cigarette outside the doors. Maybe you enter The New School Tishman Auditorium. Are you one of the performers? Are you a famous or powerful person there to give your time? Are you a working poet? Are you the sister of a fireman who can not come tonight because of Anthrax emergencies? Are you a little girl who will read the poem that will make the audience cry? Are you a struggling artist very excited to be in the same space as a personal hero? Are you an African drummer? Are you a confused New School student who just happens to be in the building and you don’t know what’s going on? Each person was allowed to view the previous line. All other lines were covered by a folder. Each person was allowed only to write one line. Writing took place before and during, and after the performances. Spelling has been corrected. Case and punctuation were retained. This poem is a reaction to Sept 11, 2001. It is about the people at the Word that Comfort Benefit. It is also about what people think poetry is.

— Claudia Alick


This benefit reading to support the WTC Relief Fund was held at the New School, Tischman Auditorium, 66 West 12th St., from 7:00 p.m. on Wednesday October 17, 2001


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