Every year in August I wait for a sign that the September 11th anniversary of my brother Aaron’s death is approaching. This year it was at a souvenir store in Rhode Island, where amidst lobster trays and anchor pillows I saw a rack of Christmas tree ornaments that included a 9-11-01 ornament. It was a sort of drag queen bald eagle with luxuriously golden wings folded into a heart-shape, penciled eyebrows, squeezed into a cuirass of a Captain America-type shield and perched atop a scroll with that indelible date. A bewildering sight to me…I wondered what this thing meant to people who had no personal connection to the lives lost that day? And why Christmas?
According to the manufacturer’s website, “Old World Christmas glass Remembrance ornaments were designed to honor the thousands of lives lost on September 11, 2011, and keep their memory alive.” That is a worthy goal, but for me seeing this ornament was one small example of how American culture seeks to make the lives lost on September 11th into a beautiful scar on the American body: something suitable to be depicted on a ribbon-shaped magnet, but also to be flexed in public to justify any paranoid or violent urge our leaders and fellow citizens might indulge. I have a lot of anger about how the memory of Aaron and the others who died that day is deployed in American culture and politics. This is something I talked about last year with Colby, a Hampshire College student whose senior project included interviews with me and other 9-11 family members.
All of this public wrestling is very far from the personal loss my family and I bear from missing Aaron, who was no hero, just someone at work; representing only his own life and its connections to many who loved him, and not anyone else’s idea of what America means or how it relates to the world.
It was with this perspective that I tried to write a poem about this ornament from the perspective of a shop-owner who would display it. I tried not to bring too much of my personal anger and elitist cattiness to bear on this persona, because I am a nice person. But I wanted to push this character into extreme displays of what I imagine as a strongly-felt but inchoate set of emotions that give rise to this kind of ornament. My favorite part of it is evoking the Latin phrase from Horace, “dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.” This literally means something like “It is sweet and proper to die for your country,” and was famously rebuked in Wilfred Owen’s First World War poem, “Dulce et Decorum Est.” If I am not the first person to make this translation of “decorum” into “decorative,” don’t tell me! I also was delighted to put ‘ol baldy into the heraldry context with his self-sacrificing friend the pelican.
But really this is a trivial poem. The tougher question I found myself asking was, why, in this grief/history-induced creative work I’ve done at this time of year the past few years, do I end up writing myself inside the weird confines of such poetic vehicles as a Christmas ornament, a memorial candle, or even an imagined mezzanine of the WTC itself? And why is it that I rarely write poetry except at this In Memoriam season, or indeed much of anything (well I did put my heart and soul into an Adrienne Rich/Claudia Rankine piece this winter), now that the whole blogging moment is past?
I’ve been reading Dante’s Inferno (translated by Robert Pinsky) and Seamus Heaney’s long poem “Station Island,” which uses Dante’s rhyme scheme and also stages various encounters between Heaney and the dead in a pilgrimage setting. Inspired or egged on by these masters, I permitted myself to imagine encountering Aaron in the “space” of my poetry and my struggles to write in the wake of his loss. The “workshop” I write myself and him into is the hardest place I’ve ever had to go as a writer, and I was grateful for the sense of release and freedom to write joyfully that I found there. I also made myself cry reading in “Aaron’s” voice which probably means I’m on the right track.
Of course part of the poem’s point is that I have only been writing on this most grim of deadlines (mostly) and that the Poet Josh self that Aaron knew was someone who would be writing all the time. Hopefully this confrontation I’ve conjured will slap some more urgency into me. And if you are reading this thinking of Aaron, me and my family, thank you.
Encounter in the Workshop
I open up the workshop at the end
Of summer, pulled through locks and stops of this
New water-clock that keeps my time with grief,
Sometimes releasing me to fill some lines
With annals from the Roman-numeraled year.
But now, inside this parallel bachelor pad,
A curling snapshot of my brother drops
His jaw—abruptly, straight down cartoon-style—
And with eyes still delighted in the past
“Oh hi. I felt you knock
This time. Years back, the door you half-prayed stood
Between us was a mirror—shrouded too.”
“After you left, I couldn’t line you up
Inside my usual pentameter.
I went from juvenilia to BOOM…”
“Wait, isn’t that no-motopeia? Look,
You made it back, but onto a small page
Of bric-a-brac. A candle glass? “Prezi”?
When all the guys on 103 asked you
To use some of their poetry terms—looked up
That morning on their Bloomberg terminals—
They wanted some real magic from your mort-
arboard, not Gollum’s Treasury
Of Mournful Stuff. You didn’t learn the spells
So you could curl yourself around this dreck?”
“I grabbed on shiny objects in a grayed-
Out world. For all I lived, my writer’s gut
Was stuck in time, still constipated from
A life of legendary feasts with you.”
“Your head’s the gray zone: make sure that our voice
Does more than rue lost meals. That’s right: your faint
Superiority was trained up on
My adoring little head; your wordy wit
Built up from all our dipshit banter. Write
Your balding ass off and I might come too.”
The echoes of the mic I had him drop
Fill up that space like a good-natured slap.
Copyright 2015 Joshua S. Jacobs