By Peter Vankevich
Poets have a long tradition of reacting to major – often tragic events. One of the most notable being W.H. Auden in his famous poem “September 1, 1939.” That was the day Germany invaded Poland and started World War II.
I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Crossing the Rift: North Carolina Poets on 9/11 & Its Aftermath is a commemorative anthology with 116 contributors following this tradition. Their poems are reflections on what transpired that day and much of which personally and culturally have occurred in the 20 years since then.
“This Innocent Sky” by Anthony S. Abbott juxtaposes pleasant and violent imagery. Each stanza starts with images of the bemusing summer of 1974 when high wire French artist Phillippe Petit made world headlines with an unauthorized high wire walk between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, which also is shown on the cover of the book, followed by the morning of Sept. 11.
He smiles at them, happier than he has ever been,
he floats beyond time, here in this innocent sky.
Masses huddle on the streets, their mouths agape
as the flames pour out, the buildings start to shake
Many of these poems in this anthology capture the morning of the attack. “Asides” by Betty Adcock begins with:
On a sun-drenched street, one man looked up just in time to see hundreds of pigeons startle / skyward just before unbearable impact.
“Up North” by Ricardo Nazario y Colón. includes: We entered central park mathematically calculating how far the skyscrapers along the edge / would protrude into the park if they too would have toppled.
Sept. 11 was a school day and throughout the country, parents and teachers alike went into high alert with many thinking their schools could be next and some poems capture this angst.
“Tuesday Morning, English 11” by John Thomas York: Chatter and lockers slamming, taking the roll, announcements, /
and, finally, we read from “Song of Myself”: “Agonies are one of my change of garments.” / The intercom: “Teachers, turn on your TVs.”
Current North Carolina Poet Laureate Jaki Shelton Green’s contribution is “lifting veils 11 september 2001”:
in the flash of a distant storm
i see you standing on another shore torn hijab
billowing towards an unnamed wind
we both wear veils blood stained
enshrouding separate truths
“Letter to Bill Heyen” by Peter Makuck is a reference to the editor of another anthology September 11, 2001: American Writers Respond published in 2002 and a bit of a lament for not contributing to that work back then.
Valéry was right: we’re locked outside ourselves.
Which is why poems exist. Something in me
wanted out, I found the right key, and it finally emerged,
but late, Bill, too late for the book. Sorry I couldn’t deliver.
The two editors of this anthology are poet and novelist, Joseph Bathanti, a former North Carolina Poet Laureate and current Appalachian State University professor of creative writing, and David Potorti, the former literature and theater director at the North Carolina Arts Council (NCAC) in Raleigh, a journalist and former commentator on WUNC in Chapel Hill.
Potorti’s poetic contribution to the anthology is a tribute to his brother Jim who was killed in the North Tower of the Trade Center that morning. Soon after the tragic event, he co-founded September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, a non-profit organization which was nominated for the 2003 and 2004 Nobel Peace Prize.
Bathanti has a long history of working with the downtrodden, going back to 1976. That year, right after graduating from his hometown’s University of Pittsburgh with a degree in English, he left his East Liberty neighborhood for North Carolina, having signed up for Volunteers In Service To America (VISTA), the precursor to AmeriCorps. His assignment focused on prison outreach and teaching writing. He has continued to teach writing and hold workshops in prisons and has worked extensively with military service members suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder due to their war zone experiences.
The inspiration for this anthology goes back 10-plus years when the two editors mused about assembling poems to memorialize the 10th anniversary of 9/11. Word went out seeking poems that “in some way touched directly on the events of 9/11 or reflected associated themes of peace, hope, reconciliation, loss, etc.”
The collection was posted in the Poet Laureate section of NCAC’s blog.
With the 20th anniversary approaching, the editors got a bigger vision: to publish an expanded collection of poems in print.
“While we remained preoccupied with our original themes, we were also very aware that the lenses and sensibilities through which to view and write about 9/11 had grown exponentially,” Bathanti wrote in the Preface.
This expansion is confirmed by the themes in these poems written by a diversity of North Carolina authors.
Crossing the Rift is well-named for this anthology. Many would argue that the rift — a crack or split to our culture — has grown much wider in these 20 years. “It feels as if we’ve lived, for the past two decades, in a liminal space,” writes Bathanti.
“The question I would ask is, was it worth it?” Potorti said in a recent interview. “When you look back over the past 20 years after 9/11, was the $2 trillion worth it–on the wars and all of the deployments and the redeployments and the trauma of people being bombed 8,000 miles away and the trauma of the men and women in uniform coming home and the trauma that has had on our own country?”
For the editors, what continues to challenge us 20 years later is the fallout: Islamophobia, the vilification of refugees and asylum-seekers, nationalism, supercharged military budgets, and rises in virulent racism and domestic terrorism, which speaks to the point of the book.
Crossing the Rift, published by Press 53, is available in hard cover and paperback and can be purchased on its website.
Peter Vankevich is co-publisher of the Ocracoke Observer and former head of Copyright Information at the Library of Congress. He was on Capitol Hill the day of 9/11.