The instalment below was the first I published after 9-11, and marks the point at which “She Is Still Burning” became no longer something I loved to do, but something I’d started and didn’t know how to let go of. I loathed including Elizabeth Brownrigg’s essay on why she supported the US-led “war on terror.” I published it anyway because she’d done a great job of writing it. It’s still as vivid a picture of the time as any I’ve seen. And I am still thoroughly creeped out by what she’s saying.
But this instalment also includes the best poem Ann Stokes ever wrote (according to me) as well as Ann’s favourite Lynn Martin poem. And it begins with some stunning lines from a long Susan Wood-Thompson poem that Catherine Nicholson and I loved and published in Sinister Wisdom 7 (Fall, 1978).
SHE IS STILL BURNING
An Expanding Reader To Encourage Life Lovers
Installment # 9
26 September 2001
“The bond of suffering
is that we know
we begin with what we have
and do not measure each other
against a perfect husk
that never burst with pain.”
– Susan Wood-Thompson
(from her poem “Trying To See Myself Without a Mirror”)
I was in Montreal, in the midst of a glorious visit with friends, when the U.S. was attacked. That afternoon I phoned my mother in Iowa to see how she and my father were taking the news, and she said, “Well … these things happen.” “They sure do,” I replied. And in that moment we understood each other perfectly.
These things happen, and nobody comes through them unscathed.
In the days since, I’ve developed a near-total aversion to language. Events move faster than the mind can keep up. I begin this letter a dozen times over; I cross out every paragraph and begin again. Friends call, and when I hang up the phone, I can’t remember what we just said—only the warmth or the shakiness in their voice. It’s the voice that matters, the fact that it is still there.
Life is never more precious than when it is threatened, and it is threatened now from every side. I have no words to alter that situation, nor, it seems, does anyone else. But I can at least say this: there is no such thing as a war of good against evil (where would the soldiers be found? do you happen to know anyone who is wholly good or wholly evil?). And there is no such thing as winning a war (read history: both sides lose).
Last September I was struggling to write “The Fire This Time,” a founding vision for She Is Still Burning. In it, I said that She Is Still Burning, along with her editor, would be “devoted to clear-seeing in a confusing and deadly time, and to fanning the flames of our desire to live.” I’d like now to rededicate myself to that purpose.
Bon courage, my friends, wherever you may be at this time (remember to eat, remember to sleep, remember to balance human atrocities with human beauty),
Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada
IN THIS INSTALLMENT
•“Beautiful Terrors” (a personal essay by Elizabeth Brownrigg)
•“The forbidden four letters fruit” (a poem by Claude)
•“Someday maybe” (a poem by Lynn Martin)
•“Invisible, in Slides” (a poem by Ann Stokes)
•Petition for Moderation and Restraint
by Elizabeth Brownrigg
September 11, 2001
I’m in a beach cottage on the North Carolina coast. Dee calls to me to come see, come see what’s on TV. It’s a beautiful September morning. I’m getting ready to go back home to Durham to teach a class that evening. I finish tying my shoe before I go to the bedroom to watch. The cast of The Sopranos was being interviewed. I think that Dee wants me to see the actor who plays Tony Soprano.
“Look,” she says. There’s a smoking slash in the side of a tall building. The announcers think it was a small plane. It’s amazing, mesmerizing.
“Look!” the TV announcer cries. “Another plane!” and we see it hit this time. We see the explosion that billows out like a blooming scarlet flower. It is just like a horror movie. The special effects are marvelous.
My brother comes in from his walk. He and I discuss how fascinating the Concorde crash was last year, how we could watch the flaming plane hurtle across the sky over and over again.
“Are the buildings swaying?” the announcer asks. But no, it is just the camera’s movement.
“How are the people going to get out?” asks Dee. For some reason we think they can all escape, except the ones on the floors above the smoking slashes. We don’t see any people on the TV screen. We only see the buildings and their gorgeous destruction.
Another plane hurtles into the Pentagon. Dee has the sense to be afraid. I’m still caught up in my fascination, in anticipating the next exciting event. I cannot grasp the meaning of any of this, and so it is like a movie, like a story with a terribly twisted plot.
I get ready to leave. Dee says, “Wait. Stay here with me,” but I want to do the next normal thing that I have planned to do. I still don’t understand.
I drive across North Carolina for hours, past fields of golden tobacco and puffy white cotton, beneath a serenely empty sky, through small towns with a white clapboard church at every center. On the radio, I hear that the towers have collapsed, but I don’t see them. I can’t imagine.
It’s the firefighters. The radio reports that 10,000 people may have died, but my first tears are for the firefighters because 10,000 is too many to comprehend—how could death have come to so many? I can see the 300 firefighters running to their deaths.
And then I cannot bear the people jumping because they would rather fly than burn. They are falling, “like apples from a tree,” someone says. My worst nightmares are about falling, falling, falling, without end. The people cling to window ledges just before they drop. In the pictures you cannot see their expressions and so they appear to be as calm as suicide bombers.
What will it take to comprehend what has happened as though it happened to you? The sadness is a great billowing cloud, expanding outward with every new body fragment dug out of the rubble. The cloud of sadness says, “Weep.”
I try to give blood and I’m turned away. The dead don’t need it.
Osama bin Laden looks like a saint. He has a beatific smile, a graceful manner. His flowing robes are lovely; he is like a character out of Lawrence of Arabia. I watch his recruitment video on TV. Even though I can’t understand the language, it is still inspiring, the voices raised in song, the brave young men willing to die for Allah.
Osama bin Laden speaks poetically of the shattered corpses of a thousand infidels and how his heart is glad. He’s protected by the monstrous Taliban, who show less kindness to women than to beasts of burden who are not murdered simply for walking under the open sky.
“What does he want?” I ask. It has to do with Israel, with the Gulf War and our bombing of Baghdad, with Saudi Arabia. It has to do with Allah and capitalism. No one seems to know the answer.
The world has suddenly sprouted thorns. Fiendishly clever danger lurks everywhere, in low-tech weapons like boxcutters, in the hands of mild men who walk under our radar that is tilted upwards to be on the lookout for Star Wars attacks.
I’ve come back to the North Carolina coast. The sunset is spectacular, changing colors every moment. A flock of white ibises flies just over our heads. We’re watching the Harrier jets take off and land at the air base across Bogue Sound. When we raise our binoculars to see them more closely, we notice that they’re carrying bombs beneath their wings. The jets roar with the voices of a thousand demons.
Across the Internet come pictures of the World Trade Center rebuilt in the shape of a hand with middle finger extended; there’s another with the Statue of Liberty extending the same finger, saying, “We’re coming, motherfuckers.” I feel the same rage.
Who are the motherfuckers? Osama bin Laden and the Taliban are in power because we supported them against the Russians, in the same place, in another time. Where are the motherfuckers? Hidden among impoverished people, changing, shape-shifting. George W. Bush talks like a cowboy; “Wanted: Dead or Alive,” he says, and I wish it were so simple. I, too, would like a fight in which only the guilty are punished.
Our armies are on their way to wreak vengeance. No one knows when the fight will be over, how many innocents we will murder along with the guilty, how many unholy alliances we will make, how many new sins we will invent. No one knows what damage we will do to ourselves, now that we have an Office of Homeland Security that can spy on everyone, that can stop crimes before they happen by guessing who the perpetrators will be, that can infiltrate groups who are saying the wrong thing or who are the wrong color with the wrong surname.
I have never supported American military actions before, not in Vietnam, not in the Gulf War, not in our dozens of other escapades, but now I want vengeance. I’m afraid of what we will destroy in the pursuit of it.
note: Elizabeth Brownrigg is the author of Falling to Earth (Ithaca, NY: Firebrand Books,
1998) and is currently at work on a second novel.
THE FORBIDDEN FOUR LETTERS FRUIT
When presence brings dawn into darkness
Caresses, rivers of shivers to still lands
Kisses, a melting of eternal snows
Nibbling, a new budding
Sipping, a blooming for dew
And picking, a shedding of joy
One is discovering the forbidden four letters fruit
There he is, glimpsed from my car window
mowing the lawn on a soon to be stifling day
bare headed, tanned, bare backed.
Not heavy, but solid as a Sumo wrestler
sweat polished and brilliant.
Resentment pricks my early morning calm.
You would be so beautiful to see
topless and barebreasted, sun tipped nipples
aglow in my arrested eye.
You, of course, would be arrested
for a female body exposed in total tan.
Instead I know your midriff as pale and freckled
hidden behind the lightest blouse you can find,
you are yard and lawnless and
beaches are only a dream in your working eye.
Still, as I drive to town this morning
I take with me the sight of you
mowing the lawn, bare from the waist up,
seen for a split second in my imagination
burnt into memory, making my day.
– Lynn Martin
INVISIBLE, IN SLIDES
The wild gusts of heaven have thrilled
this mountain. Winds have swept so long,
rounded the rock cleaned the rock
undone the evergreen roots to the moss
we lay our heads upon seven thousand years later.
Once clothed it now bares scars,
muted colors of the stone that is its bone and surface.
Stretching into every heat of summer’s brief sun,
its heart cannot contain itself.
Awaits the rush of blue. The first and last pink.
A peregrine whose wing tips hold its name.
Close to those wings the mountain surrenders
to ageing so customary by now; invisible,
in slides. Gashes stark in the light
the moon throws without cover. Its ridge
rises to collide with the setting moon in ancient reassurance.
Everything comes down upon it, is thundered at it.
Even the mist does not hover but enters
to give moist rest. This mountain
takes all and gives all back, in astounded silence.
– Ann Stokes
PETITION FOR MODERATION AND RESTRAINT
By the time I’d added my name, on September 25th, nearly 600,000 persons had signed the following petition:
We, the undersigned, citizens and residents of the United States of America and of countries around the world, appeal to the President of the United States, George W. Bush; to the NATO Secretary General, Lord Robertson; to the President of the European Union, Romano Prodi; and to all leaders internationally to use moderation and restraint in responding to the recent terrorist attacks against the United States. We implore the powers that be to use, wherever possible, international judicial institutions and international human rights law to bring to justice those responsible for the attacks, rather than the instruments of war, violence or destruction.
Furthermore, we assert that the government of a nation must be presumed separate and distinct from any terrorist group that may operate within its borders, and therefore cannot be held unduly accountable for the latter’s crimes. It follows that the government of a particular nation should not be condemned for the recent attack without compelling evidence of its cooperation and complicity with those individuals who actually committed the crimes in question.
Innocent civilians living within any nation that may be found responsible, in part or in full, for the crimes recently perpetrated against the United States, must not bear any responsibility for the actions of their government, and must therefore be guaranteed safety and immunity from any military or judicial action taken against the state in which they reside.
Lastly and most emphatically, we demand that there be no recourse to nuclear, chemical or biological weapons, or any weapons of indiscriminate destruction, and feel that it is our inalienable human right to live in a world free of such arms.