From Our Staff | September 11, 2008

Today at the University of Missouri, the bells on the Quad and in the student union rang at 8:46 a.m, in commemoration of the victims of Sept. 11, 2001. A mass-email announced this plan to the faculty and students yesterday, but today, some of us who teach between eight and nine were a little unsure how to proceed. Should pause the lesson for a moment of silence? How long should that moment be? What if we can’t hear the bells from our room on campus? Should we stop the lesson, or should we carry on in a spirit of unflappability? This small dilemma, trivial though it may seem, nonetheless speaks to the still uncertain status of 9/11 as a significant day in our national culture. It has not been officially designated a day of memorial (or at least not in a capacity that carries any real weight), and yet it carries with it an aura of solemnity. But we haven’t yet fixed for ourselves a clear ritual response. 9/11 is a day whose meaning and legacy is still very much in flux. And as we each consider for ourselves how we might respond to this day and its memory, some of the staff of The Missouri Review would like to offer some works that might help shape that response for their readers.

1. Martín Espada, “Alabanza”

A friend of mine emailed me this poem three years ago, and I was amazed by it.  You can find a copy on Martín Espada’s website: http://www.martinespada.net/alabanza.htm.   

In my experience, choosing to write about September 11th is controversial.  Especially right after the tragedy, many of my friends felt it was insensitive to treat the subject directly in a poem.   That year, I heard David St. John give a lecture in which he spoke of his surprise by the demand for poetry in the wake of 9/11.  As I recall, his argument was that people needed a new kind of language in order to come to terms with what happened.   Martín Espada treats the subject directly, and with great sensitivity.  He imagines the Local 100 workers at the Windows on the World restaurant, who were prepping food for the day when the planes hit.  I can’t explain why this poem is so magical.  Part of it has to do with his use of both Spanish and English, and how the combination does seem to invent a new language.  Part of it is the litany form that echoes like a prayer.  The lines are a chant invoking the ones who passed away.  No matter how many times I read this poem, I am always incredibly moved by it.          –Katy Didden

 

2. Haruki Murakami, After the Quake

After the Quake by Haruki Murakami is not about 9/11, but it comes from another tragedy, the 1995 Kobe earthquake in Japan.  The book consists of 6 short stories, each with a unique reaction to the event.  There are moments that are hauntingly similar to what we experienced after 9/11, one example being a man whose wife stares at the television constantly for five straight days without speaking.  The stories look at the tragedy from a variety of angles–that of the businessman who has lost “something” intangible, or the artist who tries to discover something in the fire he uses, or the man whose mother believes him to be a messia, or a man who is visited by a giant frog determined to save Tokyo from a similar disaster.  The stories range from serious to surreal to comical, displaying Murakami’s gifts as a writer, but also his thoughtful consideration of the many ways such an event impacts our varied souls.            –Darren Pine 

 

3. National Commission on Terrorist Attacks, The 9/11 Commission Report

I do not have much to say about the literary stylings or content of The 9/11 Commission Report, but reading it does give one an added sense of participation in the national attempt to comprehend this moment of history. But my real pitch here is not so much for the book itself as it is for a unusual and memorable way to experience it.

The 9/11 Commission Report is one of the recording projects of Librivox.org, an online volunteer organization dedicated to creating free (and public domain) audio recordings of public domain works. Librivox recordings are largely homemade, introducing a range of audio quality (some as intimate as as listening to someone read to you in their living room with a bit of light traffic noise outside and a pinging radiator, and some as carefully recorded as professional audiobooks) as well as a range of voices (young, old, and accents from every corner).

The 9/11 Commission Report is still a work in progress at Librivox, currently going through its “Proof Listening” stage. But you can listen to all of the different recorded sections uploaded so far, made by no fewer than 18 different volunteers. You can listen, entirely free of charge, from this link.          –Patrick Lane

 

4. Francine Prose, Goldengrove

I’m currently reading Prose’s most recent novel.  Unlike some of her previous books that are essentially comic satire, Goldengrove is a direct and sensitive illustration of grief from the perspective of an adolescent girl narrator, Nico, whose older sister, Margaret, drowns at the outset of the novel.  It’s partly a story about how children-because Nico is really a child-can fall through the cracks when the adults they depend on are beyond helping or paying attention to them. In this sense it’s about a kind of danger that in the safety of exurban America is more frequent and threatening than a terrorist attack. The novel’s post 9/11 setting is explicit and deliberate, though for the most part it does not seem central to the narrative: Nico’s family lives in a remote spot in New York in what was formerly her mother’s family’s summer home.  In the wake of 9/11, Nico observes, the area has seen an influx of yuppies from the city, apparently to escape the potential dangers of urban life.  The town is so remote that there are no nearby cell towers, so cell phones don’t work, and the teens in the story are strikingly disconnected from technology.  Nico and her dead sister’s boyfriend, Aaron, criticize the adult population, who appear to them to be in denial about global dangers, obsessing instead about small-scale threats such as local environmental issues-or the drowning of a local teen.  That’s what Nico and Aaron think, but Prose is suggesting the opposite: that most of the time it’s the small tragedies that have the power to hurt us and throw our lives off course.          –Evelyn Somers

 

5. Art Spiegelman, In the Shadow of No Towers

Art Spiegelman’s first book since Maus is a swirling cloud of debris kicked up after history collided with his personal life and the collapse of his mental stability that soon followed. That collision is mirrored graphically by his colliding of essay into cartoon, with shards of digitally manipulated images scattered throughout. It’s a colossal mess, but so was Speigelman, as he admits in his introduction, having grown to fear Al-Quaeda and the U.S. government equally, and struggling just as hard to connect with new flag-waving Midwesterners as with other New Yorkers at post 9/11 mixers and poetry readings.

The cover image – high-gloss silhouettes of the Twin Towers on a matte-finish background – will be immediately recognizable to many readers, but the illustrated disintegration of the artist’s sanity on the pages inside might not. The drawings summon back those feelings of helplessness, paranoia, and outrage many of us felt during fall ’01. The ceaseless barrage of images is chillingly familiar, too. So is the frantic search for something simple and comfortable to escape with. In Speigelman’s case, that took the form of comic strips from a century ago, and he devotes the last section of the book to some particularly poignant ones that became his lifeline.

Check out In the Shadow of No Towers not for its success in making sense of 9/11 – in that regard it is a miserable failure – but for its success as a portrait of an artist who, like the rest of us, looked at what happened and couldn’t make any sense of it at all.          –Dustin Michael

[Next week: Some of our favorite bookstores and booksellers…]

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