Commentary by Katha Pollitt
It isn’t easy to write at history’s command, but in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 poets produced an extraordinary number of poems. A few were exceptional—Adam Zagajewski’s “Try to Praise the Mutilated World,” for example—and many were not, because it is hard not to fall into verbal and emotional clichés when writing so immediately about an event with such a defined, public meaning. We all saw the same news programs and the same photos—what could a poem say that added meaning rather than simply repeated in fancy language what we felt already?
Emily Gordon’s unrhymed sonnet “Tribute in Light” follows Emily Dickinson’s advice: tell all the truth but tell it slant. Instead of writing about the event directly, she writes about an art installation, two towers made out of searchlights, which appears in the night sky every year on the anniversary. It’s a poem about loss of people and of meaning, the mystery of death. What remains? As usual, God isn’t giving any answers.
By the way, this year’s occurrence was almost cancelled due to the coronavirus, resulting in much protest and political pressure. As of this writing, it looks like the towers of light will once again grace New York with their beautiful ghostly presence. —Katha Pollitt
Tribute in Light
They make the empty sky emptier,
pale blue columns on a cloudy night.
The amateur sleuth dusts for fingerprints,
flashes his beacon at nothing. Nothing
waits at the top of this rungless ladder,
too close to earth to be some simple heaven,
too close to the ground packed with bodies,
invisible, caught at that instant
of running or burning. Planes penetrate
the beams without breaking windows,
nobody steps from the bright elevator,
just light parading the still waterfront.
If these are the stilts of God then God
is stock-still, waiting for us to move.
Emily Gordon’s poems have appeared in The Baffler, Painted Bride Quarterly, HIV Here and Now, Transition, and the Toronto Globe & Mail. She lives in New Haven, Connecticut.