There’s a scene in “Pink,” one of the stories in The Artstars, where a traumatized character looks at the words of Walt Whitman embedded in a railing, under the sky where the Twin Towers used to be. In the months after 9/11, as I wandered through the transformed downtown taking photographs both mental and literal, Uncle Walt’s metallic words gave me comfort: “City of the World! (For all races are here, / all the lands of the earth make contributions here) / City of the Sea! / City of wharves and stores -- city of tall facades of marble and iron! / Proud and passionate city -- mettlesome, mad, extravagant city!” I needed Walt’s exuberant love of this place. In addition to doubling down on my identity as a finance/database worker, I doubled down on being a New Yorker. These were my mettlesome people. I loved my city, where strangers pitched in and helped each other to cross rivers. Where strangers ran into burning skyscrapers to rescue strangers, or later walked into smoldering ruins to recover strangers’ remains. Where strangers gathered at ground zero and risked filling their lungs with poison to give food and succor to strangers. Everyone was pitching in and I was in love with everyone. All lands of the earth were making contributions! With exclamation points!
But with time, and with a change of civic loyalties, it dawns on me that I should read the whole Whitman poem. Here it is:
City of Ships
CITY of ships!
(O the black ships! O the fierce ships!
O the beautiful sharp-bow'd steam-ships and sail-ships!)
City of the world! (for all races are here,
All the lands of the earth make contributions here;)
City of the sea! city of hurried and glittering tides!
City whose gleeful tides continually rush or recede, whirling in and out with eddies and foam!
City of wharves and stores - city of tall facades of marble and iron!
Proud and passionate city - mettlesome, mad, extravagant city!
Spring up O city - not for peace alone, but be indeed yourself, warlike!
Fear not - submit to no models but your own O city!
Behold me - incarnate me as I have incarnated you!
I have rejected nothing you offer'd me-whom you adopted I have adopted,
Good or bad I never question you - I love all - I do not condemn any thing,
I chant and celebrate all that is yours-yet peace no more,
In peace I chanted peace, but now the drum of war is mine,
War, red war is my song through your streets, O city!
I can’t help but consider the lasting legacy of 9/11, not just on those of us who were incarnated by firsthand experience, but in the global realm. Despite my lament of innocence lost, my old letters are so innocent in time. On the funny side, I was fretting over the painstaking restoration of a forty gigabyte database. On the less funny side, I referred to the war in Iraq, not quite realizing that we were about to have another one, a really long one, that the attacks on New York were going to become a battle cry, an excuse to rush into the world with our American war technology and punish without precision. The collateral damage of the aftermath of 9/11 just might overshadow the psychological damage we New Yorkers felt that year. I don’t want to minimize the feelings. The grief is real. I definitely don’t want to minimize the pain and serious illness now felt by the rescue and recovery workers who were poisoned by the dust at ground zero. But I do want to pay attention to what the United States chose to do in response.
Whitman got it. Maybe without enough irony. Maybe a bit gung-ho, because his war was a righteous one. But he got it: “In peace I chanted peace, but now the drum of war is mine.”
What do we do with our anger? Especially if people we know and love were killed? If places we loved were obliterated? What do we do?
Now, in Maine, I live in a city that welcomes refugees from Iraq, escapees from the situation we created over there. I teach young veterans from our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, whose stories are amazing and heartbreaking. And I sit and think a lot, and write a lot. I’m still too confused to beat a drum. But that may change, if I write into it enough.
That’s the last I’ll say on it for now. Thanks for reading. Comments welcome.