KR OnlinePoetrySpecial Collections

September 11


Morning, stretching sore muscles on the floor by the bed,
sifting the night’s quota of thoughts, images, tasks,
half-remembered insights, odd lines of poetry stranded

by the ebb and flow of the mind. So it is an ocean,
then, this Sea of Consciousness
mitigating, filtering, accommodating everything?

A child’s unfinished alphabet puzzle on the sunporch
overlooking the reconfigured beach after the hurricane,
the beyond-dazzling shimmer of light across water.

Twenty-six letters, a to z, fingerable, adept.
Is it possible to intuit from these simplistic characters
Leaves of Grass, the Duino Elegies?

Who, shown a hydrogen molecule, would envision the sun?
As from leaf to rain forest, as from ant to biosphere,
as from a single brick to imagine Manhattan,

as from a human instant the totality of a life,
of lives interwoven, families and affiliations,
the time-trawled nets of societies and cultures.

So the arc of creativity is an ungrounded rainbow,
and cause for hope. Why distrust the universe?
We are engines burning violently toward the silence.


Frigate birds in high wind over the inlet, enormous chains
of the construction cranes rattling like rusty wind chimes,
current running hard out through the channel,

schools of quick minnows along the rocks while midstream
the big fish wait for a meal, silver-gray flashes
of their torpedoing bodies—tarpon, bluefish, snook.

Heaps of seaweed on the beach, rim of clouds on the horizon
to mark the trailing edge of the storm pinwheeling
north to ravage the Carolinas, while along the jetty

Cuban fishermen with cruciform tattoos
are hand-netting baitfish to dump in old roofing buckets
like needling rain or schools of silver punctuation marks,

liquid semicolons seething in paratactic contortions,
prisoners seeking to deny a period to their sentence.
Surfers by the dozen—this is what they live for,

the cyclonic surge—waxing their boards,
paddling out, rising and tumbling.
Three fish on the sand, Jackson says they are cowfish,

one still breathing, we throw it back.
A few other families picking through the flotsam,
eel grass, purplish crenellated whelks,

a brittle-shelled starfish,
his little polyp feelers probing our palms,
estrella de mar, estrellita,

butterflies lit by chimerical sunlight on orange-fingered
sea fern fronds, the smooth black coral trees
we use as Halloween decorations,

tubular mangrove seeds, coconuts, and buoys,
blue and yellow tops of soda bottles,
pink cigarette lighters, a toothbrush, a headless doll.


That they were called towers, the irony of that
ancient fortress word, twin strongholds, twin keeps,
that they fell and the day was consumed

in smoke of their ruination, in dust and ashen iota.
And the next day came and still the towers were fallen.
That morning I went for a long, aimless walk

along the beach, listening to Blonde on Blonde,
watching the sunlight stroke and calibrate the waves
like the silvery desire in Dylan’s voice

as the skipped heart-beat cymbals declared closure.
Later I met the gods emerging from a topaz-faceted sea,
their long hair flashing in the wind,

and the gods were beautiful, bold, and young,
and one called out to me as they arose and came forth.
Come and see the world we have created

from your suffering. And I beheld a city
where blood ran through streets the color of raw liver,
stench of offal and kerosene and torched flesh,

tongueless heads impaled on poles and severed limbs
strung on barbed wire beneath unresting surveillance cameras,
industrial elevators shuttling bodies to the furnace rooms,

and speakers blaring incongruous slogans, the tinkle of a toy piano,
maudlin and inane, and vast movie screens depicting
the glittering eyeballs of iron-masked giants,

and beyond the city hills of thorn trees and people in shanties
talking softly, awaiting their time in the carnage below.
No, no, laughed the god. That is your world,

the world we created is here—.
And I saw rolling hills carpeted in wild flowers,
tall grasses swaying in the wind,

no trees, no streams,
just grass and wind and endless light.
These fields are watered with human tears.


Images of the aftermath: smoke and rubble,
gothic spire of a wall still standing, ash-white paper
blizzards of notary calculation like the clay tablets

of the Sumerians smashed and abandoned.
They seem, now, already, distant and historicized,
like Mathew Brady’s Civil War photographs—

the dead sniper at Little Round Top, the Devil’s Den,
blasted trees and ravaged fields of the homeland.
And the camps of the Union Army,

numberless crates of supplies at the quartermaster’s depot,
acres of wagon teams like the truckers
hauling debris away from Ground Zero, how Whitman

would have lauded their patriotic industry,
carting the wreckage of empire,
as he praised the young soldiers in their valor,

“genuine of the soil, of darlings and true heirs,”
as he cared for them in the army hospitals in Washington,

apples, tobacco, newspapers, string,
pickles and licorice and horehound candy,
pocket change to buy a drink from the dairy-woman

peddling fresh milk cot to cot in the field wards,
a comb, a book, a bowl of rice pudding

the democratic simplicity of his compassion,
whatever the erotic charge of its currency,
whatever its voyeuristic aspect,

discovering in the moment of material attention
the salve for a wounded life, and in the lives of the wounded
a serum for the injured nation. Meaning, by compassion,

his unique, coercive, actively embodied brand of empathy,
his conspiratorial love of self and other
intermingled, undivided, prelapsarian and entire,

his simple kindness, his tenderness,
Whitman’s tenderness is everything, the source
of his greatness and the key to his enigmatic soul,

the agent that calls sentimental platitudes to task
and elevates his grief into lasting eloquence,
the force that disavows anger for love

even amidst the inconceivable
carnage of that war, the suffering of those men,
the magnitude of that national trauma.

But Leaves of Grass does not negate Gettysburg,
lilacs could not return Lincoln
to a grieving people,

no poem can refute the killing fields,
art will not stop the death squads
sharpening their machetes in the village square before dawn,

the militiamen, the partisans, the cutters-off of hands,
boy soldiers in new barracks playing dice,
the child nailed to the hawthorn tree and the parents

beyond the barbed wire forced to admire the work of the nailers,
the nails themselves, iron ore and machines to quarry it,
mills and factories, depots and warehouses,

the distribution software,
the brown truck and the deliveryman,
wheelbarrows of lopped hands burned in pits with gasoline,

pretty smiling girls favored by the rape brigades,
the believers, the zealots, sergeants at arms, gangsters,
ethnic cleansers and counterinsurgency units,

tyrants, ideologues, defenders of justice,
technological sentinels in hardened bunkers
scanning infrared monitors for ignition signatures,

mass graves and secret facilities,
scientists chained to the lightning of matter,
the atoms themselves,

neutrinos and quarks, leptons
refracting alpha particles as words reflect
the stolen light of truth or revelation,

the faces of the terrorists as the airplane strikes the tower,
the faces of the firemen ascending the stairwell,
the faces of Stephen Biko’s torturers at the amnesty hearing

while the dutiful son listens impassively
as if attending Miltonic lectures on human suffering,
the real, the actual, the earthly, ether of bodily want,

love and its granules pouring from the crucible,
rain to bathe the ingots, a gray horizon of muddy shoals
where ocean-going freighters are taken to pieces

by half-naked laborers wielding hammers and blowtorches,
a wrecking ground reverberating with gong-sounds
and the screams of yielding metal,

black and white photographs to document
that place, that labor, human history,
the work of men.


Strange that we are born entire, red-faced and marsupial,
helpless but whole, no chrysalis or transformation
to enlarge or renew us, unless—who is to say that death

might not signify a wing-engendering reanimation
such as believers in the afterlife propose?
Is it a dream, then, this beach of seraphic sunlight,

silos full of clouds, monarch butterflies
flown from Mexico to roost on storm-uprooted trees
as a school of stingrays weave their way

through a realm of water which is their own,
the breaking through, the crossing over,
wing-tips in the wave-curl

impinging upon us as ghosts or angels might,
cracks in the crystal spheres through which perfume
floods unending into our world?

Which passes, as lightning or a waning moon drawn
above the Atlantic, my Atlantic,
rose petals poured from silver goblets into molten glass,

nectar of apples and papayas,
shoes composed of wampum and desire,
my own Atlantic—but, why are you laughing?

Not at you, no.
Then with me?
No . . .

Clouds more enormous than souls,
more sacred, fatal, devoted,
saints climbing pearl-inlaid stairs into the burning sky,

saints or golden ants, but no—. No?
Are you sure? And the god smiled,
and picked up his scythe.


Odor on the breeze of sea foam and decay,
the stars’ genuflections,
subsidence, forgetfulness, the tides.

And beneath the still surface,
what depths?
And the creatures in the chasms below the waves?

All night I dreamt of mermaids caught in fishing nets
and now, jeweled with sargassum in the surf,
the body of a mermaid, drowned.

Campbell McGrath is the author of ten books of poetry, most recently In the Kingdom of the Sea Monkeys (Ecco Press, 2012). A resident of Miami, he teaches in the MFA program at Florida International University.