Wednesday, July 06, 2022

September 12 Andrea Carter Brown


September 12

Andrea Carter Brown

The Word Works

Washington D.C.

Copyright 2021

109 pages

Review by Lo Galluccio

I left New York City’s Lower East Side around September 1st, 2001 to stay briefly at my mother’s place in Cambridge, expecting to hear about a tour of Italy I had been devising with my band and a promoter in Rome. When my plans fell through, I fell into a deep depression which persisted through the morning hours of September 11th. It was my little sister who said, “This is one of the saddest days in US history,” and roused me from my morose bed-ridden state to watch the horrifying television repeating loop of the airplanes, piloted by al-Qaeda terrorists, crash the Twin Towers in New York City, the event we now call, 9/11. The cavernous holes and billowing smoke, the fire and ash, was a harrowing signal that the US had been brutally and systematically attacked by people who hated us and our way of life. I had worked as a temp secretary in the World Trade Center for Smith Barney, the largest tenant of the Towers, who managed to evacuate all their employees. It was soon revealed that American capitalism was under siege, that Osama Bin Laden and his corps had masterminded an attack on the heart and symbol of it in New York City, our own country’s cultural Mecca And while I had never fully bought into the system as a full-time employee, certainly not as a manager or executive, I felt that those people who had been killed, the nearly 3,000 of them, were innocent in some fundamental way. It was indeed a tragic day for America and a tragic day to be an American. 9/11 was a political and historical reckoning.

Recently, I came across Andrea Carter Brown’s poetry collection titled, September 12, released in 2021, her most recent book, along with two previous chapbooks and another collection titled, The Disheveled Bed, none of which I knew. I felt compelled to read this collection, to try to glean a better understanding of a first-person account of someone who had fled New York City in the immediate wake of the attacks on September 11. As the book is titled September 12, it seemed that the author was also aiming to take stock of the aftermath of the catastrophe. What does the day after an apocalyptic event bring? What’s the damage, the perspective, the prognosis for a person, a city, a civilization, an empire’s people?

Andrea Carter Brown opens with a simple paragraph about how she was alerted by her sister’s phone call to the first hit on the North Tower, while she was sitting and drinking coffee in her apartment in Battery Park City, just a block away at about 9 a.m. She immediately flees the scene and her journey to Staten Island through New Jersey and finally to upstate New York where she meets up with her husband Tom. This takes up the second section of the book, a lengthy prose poem in sections of astute observation, resilient emotions and stunning details. Like any refugee, she is dependent on luck, resources, the kindness of strangers and happenstance. There is no clearer demonstration of this than her parlous ride in the Staten Island Ferry which stalls halfway across the sound and is enveloped by a cloud of black smoke from the burning towers. Brown recounts how she nervously dons a donut shaped life-jacket and takes it off, twice, not knowing what will actually save her. Finally, after a kind Staten Island resident named Joyce takes her and a dozen or so survivors in, affording them clean clothes, internet and refreshment, Andrea is able to reach her husband and let him know she’s okay. She writes:

“All of Lower Manhattan dissolves in a scrim of gray dust. Rising, it rivers the sky as the wind carries it east, raining grit and papers on Brooklyn as far as the eye can see. On the western edge of the island, on landfill made from bedrock excavated to build the World Trade Center, I can just make out the apartment building where Tom and I live. It’s still standing. I don’t understand. How could those two skyscrapers, a hundred and ten stories each, fall down without destroying everything nearby? But there it is: our home.” (p 38).

The names of Jersey cities, including the one where Andrea grew up, fly by as though they are flags on a ski slalom course, as she is transported by a Port Authority pick up truck and finally arrives in a gas station at Larchmont, New York where she and her husband had planned to rendezvous. However, he is not there so Andrea waits and waits. Four days later, on September 15th, escorted by the National Guard they are allowed to go home. She recounts:

“Flashlights on, dust masks positioned over nose and mouth, we walk through the lobby, up five flights of stairs, and down dark hallways reeking of spoiled food. Inside the apartment, dirty white dust covers everything. The dust contains ashes of the thousands who vanished four mornings ago: we know this without being told. The dead now lie in our home, now cover every surface. They coat silverware, the runners on which drawers open and close; they sleep in book bindings; they seep between pages and underneath volumes packed tight on shelves; they find corners of closets where we haven’t looked in years. Yes, the dead are with us, will always be with us. Our home has become theirs; we hesitate to disturb their final resting place. Leave them in peace, if there can be any. As for the living, I long to simply walk away, take nothing, and never come back.” (p 42)

The third section of the book, “The Rock in the Glen,” memorializes and specifies the victims from Andrea’s hometown of Glen Rock, NJ. Here she gives us poignant portraits of the ten residents of the town who on September 11th, “go to work and never come home.” In a homage to Whitman, she writes: “Picture a breeze/ rustling the oaks and the maples, spreading/ the news of the morning of September 11./Picture a pretty town brought to its knees.” (p.46). Through these portraits, the ashen remains are transformed into very real people, people with family and community causes, people who played sports or who had retired, whose children, some of them, still expected their parent to return home after months or years of waiting.

The book opens with eight poems that are related to the Hudson River, the great river that graces and enchants Andrea as she lives in Battery Park City. Most of these are beautiful homages to other poets, like Constable and Apollinaire, Dubuffet and Ruscha. In “Each Boat Signs the Water.” She writes in the second stanza,

“I’ve watched the river two years now

I know the names of tugs, the ebb and flow

of tankers and barges, when the next

bright yellow banana boat

comes in. I’ve caught

at dawn an ocean

liner cruise

into port.” (p 24)

In these poems Brown captures the movement and history of the river, its importance in the founding of Manhattan and the way the waters’ reflexes determine her own mood and stance as well as the commerce of New York. Implied by this poet, who is also a birdwatcher and naturalist, is that the river rolls on – it predates and persists beyond the reckoning of shattered man-made metal and glass, the brutal massacre of human life of 9/11.

The fourth section of the book “To the Dust” begins with an epigraph from Charles Bukowski:

what matters most is/how well you/walk through the/fire.” This is a fitting opening to a section that includes poems about ruined buildings brought back to life, about kid necklaces made on the day after, paeans to the varied ethnic laborers and characters that frequented the old neighborhood before the cataclysm, and more poems in the aftermath. It opens with a piece called, “The Kiss” in which Andrea’s husband remembers that he heard about the towers burning in a meeting and was sure that his wife was dead. His friend Andy takes him home and they watch TV to hear news, to figure out what happened. And he ends with “I was glad I had gone back to kiss you a second time before leaving. Do you remember that?” And then the poem turns to her story. “Did I hear your whispered I love you? I don’t know. I drifted back to sleep. Only late that night, September 11, when you ask, do your words come back, as in a dream.” (p 61)

There are two fragmented poems with columns that divide and connect each other: one called, “After the Disaster: Fragments” and the other a blunt ode to the Towers themselves, called, “Pinstriped Bullies,” that ends, “To live/in your/ shadow/was to feel/infinitesimal.” (p 73). In a poem titled “The Garden of Earthly Delights” – a homage to Bosch, Brown describes the trials her husband endures in the months following the attacks….”you waited in that stuffy acrid air/for someone to pick up the carpets/rolled up on our living room floor/since the morning of September 11./Those months doctors banned me/from going within two miles of the site,/you did everything. It took three years/to get the asthma I never had before/under control…” (p 81). In an “Ars Poetica” she writes: “Let’s not romanticize bodies/falling. Others may use float/or dance; I refuse to pretend/…Some screamed. The sound/they made landing? Forget/thud. Louder than the wind.” p. 83. And there is grace. In “This is for You” she gives thanks to all those who helped her and her husband during and after the crisis, a heartfelt tribute and testimony to the fact that no one can survive a catastrophe alone. This fourth part is a powerful section of the book: a poet wielding her full capacity at free verse to capture, in elegiac figures, the loss and realities of the devastation wrought by the 9/11 attacks.

September 12 ends with a fifth and final section called “The Present” with an epigraph from a swatch of London graffiti, “Every day is a gift, that’s why we call it the present.” Relocated to California, these poems shine with the domestic pleasures of cooking and gardening, of trips to Hawaii, of birds and snakes and reminders of what has transpired. In “To the WTC Health Registry” May 2020, Brown reports on the latest survey about 9/11’s health side-effects that arrives in the mail during the pandemic. In it the addressee is warned, “Call the 24/7 toll-free hotline should/flashbacks or raised heart rates/result at any point.” The survey goes on to ask about new cancers and PTSD, nightmares: “Still have trouble sleeping?” The poet ends this bureaucratic summons with “May it do some good./May some future survey/find us filling more spaces that say/Seldom/Almost Never/Not at All. (p 99)

The finale is a poem called, “Domestic Karma” which lists the daily objects of health and renewal, including lemons and tangerines and clothes lines of laundry dried by outdoor air. The author has been restored to an almost regular regimen. “Monday morning/again. May this ritual help us get/ through the week between tests/and results./May it bring/months of Mondays like this,/shirts loving sun on shoulders,/fear faded as favorite blue jeans/pinned to the line, socks ready/to take us wherever we want.” (p 103). There is ironic hope and a touch of glee in this ending – a sharp contrast to the terror and urgency of Brown’s fleeing blindly that morning from the furious heat and destruction nearby. To note, seventy of her neighbors never returned home after September 11th. In the Afterword she states, “In truth, I was very lucky.” And there is more but I will let you read it. In truth, she was lucky, but she was also brave and instinctual in making a fast getaway and dealing with the displacement and damage of that day, for years to come.

This book is an amazing compendium of recollection and transformation. It is an important and singular chronicle of one woman’s survival and insight into the debacle of 9/11. It has remarkable structure, imagination, music and heart – a poetic and historical treasure. On this Fourth of July, 2022, it seems fitting that I recommend it to you. Read it.

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