A Poem For 9/11: Shanksville

This being the anniversary of the terrorist attacks on our country of Sept. 11, 2001, I’m publishing a poem written about the day by my father, who is professor emeritus of comparative literature from Claremont McKenna College.


By Ricardo Quinones

Whatever it was,
Needing a companion at 40,000 feet,
The accumulating spotty clouds
Suggesting the beetle bush wildness
That overhung his eyes;
The patches of ground below
That resembled the  splotches
Of his nearing-ninety skin,
Or the flight path itself
Southeast of Pittsburgh,
Some twenty minutes from  D.C.
Placing us directly over Shanksville,
The last great chapter of American democracy.
All conspired to bring  to mind
The presence that they required.
And so I said to the  presiding form
The poetic father of us all
“Kitty Hawk, Kitty Hawk,”
And he, pleased by the recollection,
Replied, “Shanksville, a name quite different,
Like many along these rural roads,
But what’s in a name?
What matters  are the revelations they contain.”
Out of the depths of the American past,
He established the tableau of vision
That would govern our conversation.
The Wright brothers had it all,
The turn-of-the-century
Tinkerer’s genius of invention
Coupled with the thirst for competition.
The French were dogging their tails.
But they were masters of locomotion
And at Kitty Hawk
Were the first to lift a powered device
Weighing more than air
Twenty feet off the ground for twenty seconds
A distance of 120 feet.
To the derision and abuse
Their claims elicited
Galileo’s defense was ready for use,
Eppure si muove,” nevertheless it flew.
The French with justice in their hearts
Were brought to admit and apologize
For discrediting this first adventure into space
That in more than a half -century’s time
Would send a human to stroll on the moon.
With obvious delight
He foresaw the dimensions of flight
And  invention’s need for competition,
Like discovery, a singular goal for many minds,
Hence the rival claimants in contention
But with creation, his favorite theme,
The third expression of human genius,
The matters change:
There are as many prizes as skills to attain.
“We don’t get much recent news
There where I am, so tell me about 9/11,
Some American character unfolded there.”
Little did we realize, I began,
Those pigeons of flight
Would grow to be missiles of war.
Or that our planes would be turned against us.
We had an enemy who did not fear scorn
Who bound their young men to suicide treks
Shouting “Allah is great,” while killing innocents.
And so we lost over 3000 by their blatant attacks.
With as much meaning as heroes can bear
Firemen of New York trudged the heavy stairs
Burdened with boots and bent with weighty wear.
So dense was the jet-fuel smoke
That they paused at every few landings
To recover their shortened breath
And to calm and reassure the gathered folk
Hurrying them down to safety
While they ignored such orders themselves
Engine and ladder companies
Our soldiers, our knights
They mounted ever higher through the gloom
Marching unknowing to their doom.
When the buildings collapsed,
Bringing everything down
Filling the air with pulverized stone
And organic matter
My friend saw straight as was his habit:
“They did not fall, they are still climbing
But now it’s Jacob’s ladder
And God’s soldiers are they.”
I could not help but weep
As he uttered that prayer
For those brave men
Who were by selflessness inspired,
By their desire to help
To do more than the job required,
And brought to the plunging darkness a new light
That raised them to their original height.
On this carefree September day
The gods themselves must have turned away,
Why not a storm, even a trickle
Just enough to stagger delays
Put a stick in the spoke?
But they allowed this day
To run its habitual way
Maybe it was to lift ordinariness
To some unaccustomed sway.
The Wright brothers were skilled in locomotion
The FDNY were an elite corps
Who knew when they came running
That their country was at war;
But those on United 93
Were a mixed assortment of common folk
With no greater purpose in mind.
How did they rise up to blunt the design
Of the fourth plane  smashing into  D.C.
With a payload of nasty combustion
And obliterate Congress then in session?
The fuel-loaded non-stop to San Francisco
Began a wide-sweeping turn before Cleveland
A veer that brought them southeast of Pittsburgh
Only then did the captives overcome
The last hope that restrains action.
While pestered by daily anxieties
There is in humans a reluctance to admit
The presence of the apocalypse
That they might be  sitting in its midst;
No one imagines being injured in a taxi-cab;
At the first rumblings of Vesuvius
Pompeians should have run for their lives;
And in Krakow they should have reached for their knives.
But we will linger, we will stay
Until the knock on the door
Wakens the terror  unacknowledged before.
Is it simply a fidelity to choice,
A failure to read the signals,
An ease of being in the quotidian rounds,
Which is usually shown to be right?
But it only takes one event, one mischance
Such  comfortings to disperse
Facing  us with horrors  we could not rehearse
That we are where we are and not elsewhere.
So how did this assorted group
Figure the odds were against them,
Piecing together bits of information
And meeting together conclude
That after the WTC, the Pentagon
They too were on a mission  that had one end,
A one-way flight to a bitter finale,
A red ball of fire
A dragon of wrath
Devouring every thing in its path?
They thought and accepted where their thought led.
Common people, some a bit more than ordinary
Came together and made their choice
One not of their choosing
But chose the death that others might live.
There is no courage commensurate with this.
And so they charged together
A wild roar from Hell’s gate
And fell only minutes, maybe seconds short
Of  wrenching the plane from its downward course
That tore its way
Through the lush countryside
Of south central Pennsylvania
By rural route 219
On that ordinary Fall morning
When all the elements were fresh and clean.
All perished knowingly
But their actions shall live
As models to unfold
Of the American character;
Circumstances will differ
But the basics remain
Calculation and bravery
Precision and moral courage
How can that abate?
Citizens of a republic,
Not subjects of a State.
Robert Frost mulled the account
Absorbed it to its full
Then smacked his thigh and stood up
Radiating pride at the way
His people responded
In the waging of peace and war
Thinking it through with mind and valor.
He departed at an opening in the cumulus
Still striding like Achilleus hearing Odysseus
Tell the exploits of his son Neoptolemus.
Dispute will always attend heroic actions
As the Wright brothers themselves can confirm,
Particularly in times when imaginative fervor
Lags, and understanding has a distorted lens.
We cannot place in physical form
The living images  that such actions adorn,
The consequences of a techno linear age.
Monuments are foundering apace
As well they should.
How dare they employ angels—by innocence graced—
To idealize what this story has to embrace?
Our people–the multitudes of the wise—
Benefited from centuries of schooling
In the arts of  life’s hidden measures
And thus were able to provide
What the unrepeatable moment required
Heroic rightness of thought
And valor in act, those living virtues
That not even martyrdom denied.

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