Friday, August 26, 2011

Found memories: September 11, 2001

Michael Tsai contacted me about a piece he's writing for the Star-Advertiser on the effects of 9/11 on Hawai`i. It took me some time to remember that Alison Croggan in Australia had asked for reports on the event just after it happened. Her website has since disappeared, so I'm re-presenting this found text as we approach the tenth anniversary of that day. I'll follow up with a new report soon. (Oh my, how Sangha has grown!)

Report from Honolulu, September 16, 2001

I remember the day last year I drove over the top of a hill and looked down on Pearl Harbor, which was in flames. Taken aback, I suddenly remembered, “they’re filming the movie.” This memory assumed new importance for me this week, when two of the first reactions one heard all over television to the terrorist attacks of September 11 were: “it’s like Pearl Harbor” and “it’s like a movie.” My friend Miriam says that if they didn’t keep telling her it was real, she’d think it was a movie. My mother, who remembers Pearl Harbor well, wondered where it was on December 7, 1941. No one wonders where New York and Washington are.

The president disappears the first day. Reports have him in Florida, where he was reading to schoolchildren when the first planes hit; in Louisiana, where he landed at an Air Force base, and finally Nebraska, before returning to Washington to deliver a four minute speech late in the evening. My husband says it sounds like there was a brush-fire in Nevada and two firefighters died. For consolation, the country turns to New York’s mayor, Rudy Guiliani, best known recently for the acrimonious end to his marriage. Somehow he seems always to be there (eight press conferences the first day) and to be saying the right things.

Five thousands miles away from “ground zero,” Ala Moana Shopping Center was closed on Tuesday, as were public schools on the Big Island, whose mayor (yes, here islands have mayors) used to be head of civil defense for the state, which is constantly under threat of tropical storms, hurricanes, earthquakes.

Two days after the bombing, I drive through Kalihi, a working class area of Honolulu. On many of the telephone poles I notice color photographs of an Arab man with a beard and the words, “Osama Bin Laden: Wanted, Dead Or Alive.”

On the day after the bombing, my prose poetry class is scheduled to sections of Joe Brainard’s book, I Remember. I ask them to write their own “I remember” sentences, inserting recent events where they wish. Most of them linger on childhood memories.

I ask my Form & Theory of Poetry students to write a “sonnet” based on Shakespeare’s rather forgettable # . Make a list of eleven images from the past day, I tell them. Then write a one line “introduction” and a two line “conclusion.” After they read their poems, one of the students bursts into tears. Her classes have all discussed the attacks, done nothing else.

Images, the ones that wake you up at night and then won’t let you get back to sleep: one plane hitting one trade tower. Later in the day, another plane hitting another tower. Fireballs. What one witness calls a “reverse mushroom cloud” as first one, then the other, tower falls. Men and women on the streets of NYC wearing nothing visible except ashes, concrete dust, asbestos. Someone worries about the asbestos. Someone wipes off his camera lens as the billows of dust reach him, huddled next to a SUV. Early in the day, people were jumping from the towers. My friend Gaye’s son saw a man and a woman jumping holding hands. Later in the day that footage disappeared. Apparently, the networks will spare us something. But already we have the theme songs, the video-taped lead-ins to special reports, the titles: America Under Attack, America Unites. People holding photos of their loved ones who are missing, walking from hospital to hospital in New York to see if they’re there. After seeing the towers collapse, we know what “missing” means. The words “pulverized” and “evaporated” make more “sense” now.

Sounds, reported or in one instance recorded on an answering machine (that which does not answer, in this instance): the cell phone calls made by people trapped in the Trade Center or in one of the doomed airplanes. “I love you,” all these voices say or are reported to have said. What people say into their video cams: “You saved my life. Thank you,” and “Jesus Fucking Christ,” which CBS ran with a prefatory warning about its language.

The strikes are an invitation to us all to do something horrible. Many of us, those now termed "academic defeatists” by the right wing minions of Fox News, do not want to strike back militarily, do not want this called a “war,” do not want the USA to kill more people. My adopted son is from Cambodia; read any contemporary history of that country and you will know what evils American foreign policy is capable of. But what should we do? One circulated email, from an American Studies professor in Washington, DC, noted the instant politicization of our grief by the president and his men (patriarchal language is back, without apology, this week). Grief, by any other means, is now our politics.

I’m tortured for a couple of days, as a teacher of creative writing, by the sense that this attack was brilliantly imaginative. It was 9/11 (911 is the phone number to call in an emergency); planes hit the twin towers and the Pentagon, paragons of American might; these killers knew how to define the word symbol. “Poetry can kill a man,” Wallace Stevens wrote. He did not mean this, but we might. This is not what we want poetry to be.

The New York Times Magazine is on-line only this week, to be printed next week. It’s virtual pages are devoted to photographs and to commentaries by prominent American writers. If you want to see what they’d already printed for September 16, please click here, my screen says. I do. That issue was titled, “9.16.01: The Way We Live Now,” and included an essay on Silicon Valley, another on television viewing from the point of view of a network exec, another on the Japanese baseball star, Ichiro, who plays for Seattle, and another called “Fire and Spice.” “Remember when perfume was naughty?” it reads. “It is again.”

My two-year old son, Sangha, still plays delightedly with his aten (airplane) and fie duck (fire trucks) and do do do (bulldozer). For the first time, surely not the last, I’m thankful he can’t be drafted.

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