Galway Kinnell: When the Towers Fell

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Galway Kinnell was born in Providence, Rhode Island, on February 1, 1927. In his youth, he was drawn to both the musicality and hermetic wisdom of poets like Edgar Allan Poe and Emily Dickinson. In 1948, he graduated from Princeton University, where he was classmates withW. S. Merwin. However, while Merwin studied with the critic R. P. Blackmur and John Berryman, Kinnell felt what he called in one interview "a certain scorn that there could be a course in writing poetry." He later received his Master's degree from the University of Rochester.

After serving in the United States Navy, he spent several years of his life traveling, including extensive tours of Europe and the Middle East, especially Iran and France. His first book of poems, What a Kingdom It Was, was published in 1960, followed by Flower Herding on Mount Monadnock (1964).

Upon his return to the United States, Kinnell joined CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) as a field worker and spent much of the 1960s involved in the Civil Rights Movement. His many experiences with social activism during this time, including an arrest while participating in a workplace integration in Louisiana, found their way into his collection Body Rags (1968), and especially The Book of Nightmares (1971), a book-length poem concerned with the Vietnam War.

Kinnell has published several more volumes of poetry, including Strong Is Your Hold (Houghton Mifflin, 2006); A New Selected Poems (2000), a finalist for the National Book Award; Imperfect Thirst (1996); When One Has Lived a Long Time Alone (1990); Selected Poems (1980), for which he received both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award; and Mortal Acts, Mortal Words (1980).

He has also published translations of works by Yves Bonnefroy, Yvanne Goll, François Villon, and Rainer Maria Rilke. Prose works by Kinnell include collection of interviews, Walking Down the Stairs (1978), a novel, Black Light (1966), and children's book, How the Alligator Missed Breakfast (1982).

About his work, Liz Rosenberg wrote in the Boston Globe: "Kinnell is a poet of the rarest ability, the kind who comes once or twice in a generation, who can flesh out music, raise the spirits and break the heart."

Kinnell is the recipient of the 2010 Wallace Stevens Award. His other honors include a MacArthur Fellowship, a Rockefeller Grant, the 1974 Shelley Prize of the Poetry Society of America, and the 1975 Medal of Merit from National Institute of Arts and Letters. He has served as poet-in-residence at numerous colleges and universities, including the University of California at Irvine, Columbia University, Sarah Lawrence, and Brandeis, and divides his time between Vermont and New York City, where he was the Erich Maria Remarque Professor of Creative Writing at New York University.

He served as a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets from 2001 to 2007.



When the Towers Fell

From our high window we saw the towers
with their bands and blocks of light
brighten against a fading sunset,
saw them at any hour glitter and live
as if the spirits inside them sat up all night
calculating profit and loss, saw them reach up
to steep their tops in the until then invisible
yellow of sunrise, grew so used to them
often we didn’t see them, and now,
not seeing them, we see them.
The banker is talking to London.
Humberto is delivering breakfast sandwiches.
The trader is already working the phone.
The mail sorter has started sorting the mail
...povres et riches
...poor and rich
Sages et folz, prestres et laiz
Wise and foolish, priests and laymen
Nobles, villains, larges et chiches
Noblemen, serfs, generous and m
Petiz et grans et beaulx et laiz
Short and tall and handsome and homely
The plane screamed low down lower Fifth Avenue
lifted at the Arch, someone said, shaking the dog walkers
in Washington Square Park, drove for the north tower,
struck with a heavy thud, releasing a huge bright gush
of blackened fire, and vanished, leaving a hole
the size and shape a cartoon plane might make
if it had passed harmlessly through and were flying away now,
on the far side, back into the realm of the imaginary.
Some with torn clothing, some bloodied,
some limping at top speed like children
in a three-legged race, some half dragged,
some intact in neat suits and dresses,
they straggle out of step up the avenues,
each dusted to a ghostly whiteness,
their eyes rubbed red as the eyes of a Zahoris,
who can see the dead under the ground.
Some died while calling home to say they were
Some died after over an hour spent learning they would die.
Some died so abruptly they may have seen death from within it.
Some broke windows and leaned out and waited for rescue.
Some were asphyxiated.
Some burned, their very faces caught fire.
Some fell, letting gravity speed them through their long moment.
Some leapt hand in hand, the elasticity in last bits of love-time letting — I wish
I could say — their vertical streaks down the sky happen more lightly.
At the high window, where I’ve often stood
to escape a nightmare, I meet
the single, unblinking eye
lighting the all-night sniffing and lifting
and sifting for bodies, pieces of bodies, anything that is not nothing,
in a search that always goes on
somewhere, now in New York and Kabul.
She stands on a corner holding up a picture
of her husband. He is smiling. In today’s
wind shift few pass. Sorry sorry sorry.
She startles. Suppose, down the street, that headlong lope...
or, over there, that hair so black it’s purple...
And yet, suppose some evening I forgot
The fare and transfer, yet got by that way
Without recall — lost yet poised in traffic.
Then I might find your eyes...
It could happen. Sorry sorry good luck thank you.
On this side it is “amnesia,” or forgetting the way home,
on the other, “invisibleness,” or never in body returning.
Hard to see clearly in the metallic mist,
or through the sheet of mock reality
cast over our world, bourne that no creature ever born
pokes its way back through, and no love can tear.
The towers burn and fall, burn and fall —
in a distant, shot, smokestacks spewing oily earth remnants out of the past.
Schwarze Milch der Fruhe wir trinken sie abends
Black milk of daybreak we drink it at nightfall
wir trinken sie mittags und morgens wir trinken sie nachts
we drink it at midday at morning we drink it at night
wir trinken und trinken
We drink it and drink it
This is not a comparison but a corollary,
not a likeness but a lineage
in the twentieth-century history of violent death —
black men in the South castrated and strung up from trees,
soldiers advancing through mud at ninety thousand dead per mile,
train upon train headed eastward made up of boxcars shoved full to the
corners with Jews and Gypsies to be enslaved or gassed,
state murder of twenty, thirty, forty million of its own,
atomic blasts wiping cities off the earth, firebombings the same,
death marches, starvations, assassinations, disappearances,
entire countries turned into rubble, minefields, mass graves.
Seeing the towers vomit these black omens, that the last century dumped into
this one, for us to dispose of, we know
they are our futures, that is our own black milk crossing the sky: wir shaufeln
ein Grab in den Luften da liegt man nicht eng we’re digging
a grave in the sky there’ll be plenty of room to lie down there
Burst jet fuel, incinerated aluminum, steel fume, crushed marble, exploded
granite, pulverized drywall, mashed concrete, berserked plastic,
gasified mercury, cracked chemicals, scoria, vapor
of the vaporized — wafted here
from the burnings of the past, draped over
our island up to streets regimented
into numbers and letters, breathed across
the great bridges to Brooklyn and the waiting sea:
astringent, miasmic, empyreumatic, slick,
freighted air too foul to take in but we take it in,
too gruesome for seekers of the amnesiac beloved
to breathe but they breathe it and you breathe it.
A photograph of a woman hangs from a string
at his neck. He doesn’t look up.
He stares down at the sidewalk of flagstone
slabs laid down in Whitman’s century, gutter edges
rasped by iron wheels to a melted roundedness:
a conscious intelligence envying the stones.
Nie staja sie, sa.
They do not become, they are.
Nie nad to, myslalem.
Nothing but that, I thought,
zbrzydziwszy sobie
now loathing within myself
wszystko co staje sie
everything that becomes.
And I sat down by the waters of the Hudson,
by the North Cove Yacht Harbor, and thought
how those on the high floors must have suffered: knowing
they would burn alive, and then, burning alive.
and I wondered, Is there a mechanism of death
that so mutilates existence no one
gets over it not even the dead?
Before me I saw, in steel letters welded
to the steel railing posts, Whitman’s words
written as America plunged into war with itself: City of the world!,,,
Proud and passionate city — mettlesome, mad, extravagant city!
words of a time of illusions. Then I remembered
what he wrote after the war was over and Lincoln dead:
I saw the debris and debris of all the dead soldiers of the war,
But I saw they were not as was thought.
They themselves were fully at rest — they suffer’d not,
The living remain’d and suffer’d, the mother suffer’d
And the wife and the child and the musing comrade suffer’d...
In our minds the glassy blocks
succumb over and over into themselves,
slam down floor by floor into themselves.
They blow up as if in reverse, exploding
downward and outward, billowing
through the streets, engulfing the fleeing.
As each tower goes down, it concentrates
into itself, transforms itself
infinitely slowly into a black hole
infinitesimally small: mass
without space, where each light,
each life, put out, lies down within us.

Copyright © 2002 by Galway Kinnell. All rights reserved by the author. First appeared in The NEW YORKER, Sept. 16th, 2002 issue.