September 11, 2001: American Writers Respond
William Heyen, editor
Reviewed by Joe Lockard
Wednesday, September 11 2002, 06:03 PM
The expressive sluices of the American nation are open and this first anniversary of September 11, 2001 has witnessed a deluge of spiel-on-automatic, with worse to come. It requires a definite cultural talent for babble as rhetorical art form to package the pain and loss of that day for political consumption, for washing out suffering while simultaneously invoking it as a phenomenon delimited by citizenship. For that globalization of American pain has claimed many more lives, with more likely to come.
Television news in my town on a recent evening broke away from its usual breathless reports on crime and sports to provide a feature story on a local artist. She refers to herself as a photographer, a claim apparently based on the possession of a 35mm. camera rather than any larger sense of the word. Since September 11, 2001, this woman has specialized in photographing any and all displays of the American flag. She rushes up to a laundromat with an American flag painted on the front window, leans out of her SUV to snap another photo, and then gushes to the television camera about how the thousands of such flag display photos she has taken teach us how the nation has joined as one. The Fox channel anchor nods sagely and offers the report a supportive compliment. Next stop, an NEH local arts grant.
This is not monomania, for there is a world of possibility within that focalization, remembering that Melville reached for the word 'monomania' whenever he attempted to describe Captain Ahab. Rather, such symbolic repetition is part of a learned expressive incapacity constituted by inability to broaden either vocabulary or argument. Absent a genuine expressive reach, currently-popular synecdoche becomes a quick substitute for insightful words or images. Individual speakers open their mouths and out come the words of a dominant chorus, nothing that is recognizably individual beyond the circumstance of a new head delivering familiar words.
Last September I learned this through an exercise of astonishing naivete one where I failed to predict the easily predictable. Because the English course I was teaching began shortly after the 9/11 attack and the Afghanistan war was on-course, I opened by setting aside normal business and asking students to write their own reaction to September 11 and developing events. Nearly all the resulting essays followed the same exact narrative pattern: recitation of where the writer was when s/he heard the news, followed by repetition of phrases current in the media. The unoriginality was striking. It was discouraging to listen to the banality of class discussion, one that failed to engage substantively with the political and ethical difficulties of the situation. I had imagined students bursting with a desire to speak and be heard in time of crisis. Instead statements such as 'what makes me proudest is how we've all come together' were about the apogee of cogence.
Inability to write, speak or photograph with discernment and depth emerges from cultural emphasis on mechanical proficiency to the exclusion of expressive proficiency. Joined with refusal to imagine other unpleasant and shortened lives, this social flat affect provides implicit permission for a politics of domination and imperialism. If imagination of distant lives stops with a shrug, if problems gain no persuasive words, if issues meet no strong arguments, then democratic discussion is a mirage, a mere gust of borrowed phrases.
For this reason, it is useful to steer clear of the declamatory pile-ups surrounding September 11's first anniversary. The American Writers Respondanthology gathers initial reactions to that day's events and speaks with a more convincing voice than do most of the small library of anniversary publications now on the market (although Ulrich Baer's anthology 110 Stories: New York Writes After September 11from NYU Press also stands out). The book packs about 420 pages of reflective poetry and prose, enough to provide a resonance of some manner or another for readers who want more than USA Today-style expressive ineptitude. For as Bruce Bond writes in an essay included in this volume, "The challenge of all politically charged art is for the authority of the work to reside not merely in the situation, charged as it is by ready-made pathos, but in the quality of spontaneous imaginative participation in that situation." That sense of connectedness constitutes a high and difficult standard, one that simple repetition of the tragic and gruesome facts does not meet.
Some of the materials do well in achieving that imaginative participation, and in fashioning reaction into reflective thoughts. One of the best is Ishmael Reed's rant, "America United," which he likely began chanting in anger to himself on the day of the catastrophe. The poem spills out over pages and its voice is hugely powerful, compelling, and by turns ironic and scornful. In truth, Reed has been writing in this voice for years, but calls for national political unification that disregarded domestic oppressions in the US, a false unification to which he could never assent, crystallized his anger. Similarly, Tess Gallagher reaches into her deeply expressive persona to bring out a poem like the anti-militaristic "I Never Wanted to March," a counter-anthem to the militarism that seized the United States in the months following September 11. The moments of these poems, of entering into their voices, are worth the price of the book.
A mixture of prose and poetry populates the book. In the nuanced prose Ray Gonzalez writes of teaching Thoreau to students absorbed by the unfolding events in New York, he captures narrative moments where the speaker seems as much an observer of himself as of his students. Naomi Shihab Nye writes a gentle letter "To Any Would-be Terrorists," that attempts to suggest the possibilities of decency within any human, even in so unlikely a figure as a terrorist bent on quasi-apocalyptic violence. Such ameliorative imagination, with its exercise of willful naivetȬ seems oddly reassuring for its contrarian hopefulness.
Among the less insightful contributions is Richard Wilbur's two-sentence letter of reply to the anthologist, written two months after the event: "The only thing I can say right now is this. There is no excuse for the inhumanity of 11 September, and there is no excuse for those Americans, whether of the left or of the religious right, who say that we had it coming to us." For such brief exercises in uninspired truisms, Wilbur did not win his Pulitzer prizes: one wonders why these sentences were included, other than for the recognizable name behind them. Maxine Hong Kingston, whose political horse-sense departed long ago, contributes an unmemorable and sappy exercise in public meditation; still, it is one that could not help but improve on her pronouncements a decade ago that the Oakland Hills fire was God's punishment for the Gulf War. Fortunately there are only a limited number of boors who indulge in overheated political rhetoric (David Watson being one of these few), but there will inevitably be the sorts who mistake public somberness as an occasion for a lecture they believe oh-so-needed. Interestingly, it is New Yorkers like Laura Hinton and Erica Jong who contribute good observational essays that engage with that city's mood and, in so doing, avoid such critical self-elevation from a distance.
The difficulty of writing about September 11 will continue to be how we can avoid the simplicities, agitprop, and ultra-patriotic banalities of official culture that demean its centrality in the politics of these days. Anthologies like this one are a start towards reclaiming the meanings of the event, towards shaping a popular post-September 11 history.
September 11, 2001 is available from Etruscan Press