This week, we focused on Whitmanian influence in a post 9/11 world, and the complications that ensue when trying to reconcile Whitman’s optimism and ideas of connectedness in an America that seems to have been tarnished and mutated. As many of our other bloggers have pointed out in reference to this week’s showcased poet, Juliana Spahr, the idea of connectedness presents a sort of double edged sword — on the one hand, we are all connected by the breaths we take, but this also links us to the M-16s, the rapists and murderers, the death and destruction of war and hate. This is not an easy concept to grasp, nor is it one that can be understood by mere constructs of optimism or pessimism, black and white.
I would like to share another 9/11 response by another contemporary poet, who I believe reconciles the ideas of Whitman and connectedness a little bit, and will help continue our discussion on these matters.
This poem, called “The Names,” was written by then-poet laureate Billy Collins in 2002, and delievered by him at the first anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks. As poet laureate of the United States, it was Collins’ job to commemorate important events in a universal manner. This is what he wrote.
Yesterday, I lay awake in the palm of the night.
A soft rain stole in, unhelped by any breeze,
And when I saw the silver glaze on the windows,
I started with A, with Ackerman, as it happened,
Then Baxter and Calabro,
Davis and Eberling, names falling into place
As droplets fell through the dark.
Names printed on the ceiling of the night.
Names slipping around a watery bend.
Twenty-six willows on the banks of a stream.
In the morning, I walked out barefoot
Among thousands of flowers
Heavy with dew like the eyes of tears,
And each had a name —
Fiori inscribed on a yellow petal
Then Gonzalez and Han, Ishikawa and Jenkins.
Names written in the air
And stitched into the cloth of the day.
A name under a photograph taped to a mailbox.
Monogram on a torn shirt,
I see you spelled out on storefront windows
And on the bright unfurled awnings of this city.
I say the syllables as I turn a corner —
Kelly and Lee,
Medina, Nardella, and O’Connor.
When I peer into the woods,
I see a thick tangle where letters are hidden
As in a puzzle concocted for children.
Parker and Quigley in the twigs of an ash,
Rizzo, Schubert, Torres, and Upton,
Secrets in the boughs of an ancient maple.
Names written in the pale sky.
Names rising in the updraft amid buildings.
Names silent in stone
Or cried out behind a door.
Names blown over the earth and out to sea.
In the evening — weakening light, the last swallows.
A boy on a lake lifts his oars.
A woman by a window puts a match to a candle,
And the names are outlined on the rose clouds —
Vanacore and Wallace,
(let X stand, if it can, for the ones unfound)
Then Young and Ziminsky, the final jolt of Z.
Names etched on the head of a pin.
One name spanning a bridge, another undergoing a tunnel.
A blue name needled into the skin.
Names of citizens, workers, mothers and fathers,
The bright-eyed daughter, the quick son.
Alphabet of names in a green field.
Names in the small tracks of birds.
Names lifted from a hat
Or balanced on the tip of the tongue.
Names wheeled into the dim warehouse of memory.
So many names, there is barely room on the walls of the heart.
I feel that Collins’ poem reads in conjunction with Spahr’s, adding the idea that the pain of 9/11 is something that affects and connects us all as Americans, that we are joined by sympathy and love despite the atrocity. Who is to say that those we are connected to who may be less desirable did not feel that pain as well. And, these multi-faceted, mulilingual names represent us all, and will forever be etched in our bodies and the psyche of our country. They have become the breath we take.
I find this to be a beautiful poem, with lists, images, and ideas much like Spahr’s, in the style of Whitman. Perhaps it does not dive as in depth as Spahr’s. I want to hear what you all think. Which do you prefer? Do you think this is a more Whitmanian interpretation? Or do you think something is lost by the fact that Collins does not take this idea as far as Spahr does?