In Defense of Poetry

"From the Corner of West and Liberty" by Luann Jacobs

And, as I realized these drawbacks, by degrees fear and bitterness modified themselves into pity and toleration; and then in a year or two, pity and toleration went, and the greatest release of all came, which is freedom to think of things in themselves.
- Virginia Woolf

My brother-in-law, Greg Burnham, was standing at the intersection of West and Liberty, wondering where the Port Authority had relocated its operations center, when the south trade tower collapsed. He thought how cruel it was he had given his wife, Lee, false hope. I'd called her five minutes earlier and told her I was alive, and now I was dead. I was sure I would be crushed by falling debris. He crouched behind a cyclone fence that caught the debris flying his way and saved his life. Just before the fence gave way he moved down West Street, eventually stumbling into the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel. Because of the dust cloud he walked almost a block before he realized he was in a tunnel and turned around and retraced his steps.

Soon after that day my husband's enormous family gathered together around Greg. We brought his favorite dishes, sat close to him, marveled when he breathed and ate and smiled. Greg's about six-two. He has a big head, thick closely cropped salt and pepper hair and a solid body. The impression one gets sitting near him is of strength, vitality, even power. He's a mathematician and works for the Port Authority.

He told us when the plane hit the building he assumed it was a bomb. Through the whole ordeal, all the long dark way down the stairs from the seventy-first floor, he was preoccupied with one question: Why would you detonate a bomb so far up in the building? To him it made much more sense to detonate it low: more damage, more lives lost, you don't have to transport the bomb so far up into the building, less opportunity for detection. When he learned a plane had caused the damage to the building, part of what he felt was relief: there had been an explanation for the height of the impact after all. The coordinates of his life had been permanently altered but his mind was still sound. Reason was, even now, available to him.

Greg, a mild man, seemed devoid of anger as he spoke. It was early still. None of us had gone to a single memorial service. People were lining up to give blood for the survivors. We didn't use these words regularly yet: pile, ground zero, box cutters, flight school. He said, there in the living room, that the attacks were ironic because the Persians, that's what he called the men our President was referring to as terrorists, had actually invented, no, discovered, the positional numbering system. You know, place value, he said, his voice becoming animated. Positional numbering makes it possible to have algorithms for multiplication and division-the stuff we learned in grammar school. These discoveries took place around the year one thousand but Greg's voice contained fresh admiration, respect and gratitude. Clearly the universe was richer for the positional numbering system.

It was a great relief to listen to Greg that afternoon. Not only was he alive, he was intact. The experience had not mutilated him. I found it simultaneously incredible and entirely plausible that a mathematician in a tall building who believed a bomb had just been detonated and was making his way out of the building could be both frightened and curious, that he could concentrate on a question and find it, his question, his own mind working, a comforting escort out of dire danger. Here was a mind accustomed, even in extremity, to thinking of things in themselves. And here he was, still whole and complete, able to express not only sorrow, anger and fear but also gratitude, respect, a degree of balance, and the large-hearted perspective of humor.

There is irony in our present day situation: modernity engaged in a bitter battle with the traditional culture whose minds and work made modernity possible. Not inevitable or even probable, but just barely possible, and now, here we were, a millennium later, listening to Greg, still coughing up dust from his lungs, gently noting this irony in the dining room.

The week I sat next to Greg, I heard love defined as essentially the power in the mind which makes it possible for us to move out of the rigidity (the paralysis) induced by fear, shame, guilt and might (force). That definition of love, coming into my life when it did, braided itself together with the memory of Greg's equanimity as he recounted his September experience and helped me to balance just this side of despair as we buried, or at least memorialized, a friend and several neighbors. It seemed that an essential oil had been distilled and given to me, enough to light a small but durable flame by which I could make my way intact.

When Greg told me where he was standing when the towers fell, I thought he was teasing me. How could there be such a poignant, sentimental address? West and Liberty? I repeated and he smiled. The immensity of what was at stake in this conflict began to grow clear. To avoid tears I stood up, kissed the top of Greg's big head and carried some dishes into the kitchen. It wasn't until I was scraping them to put them into the dishwasher that I thought of the men who flew those planes into the buildings, thought, actually, of their heads and realized that, unlike Greg, none of them had lived long enough to have much gray hair. Which is to say my mind began to reassert its natural desire to think of things in themselves: omnipotent terrorists began to melt into furious young men with heads and hair, experiences and history, numbered days and limited, albeit deadly, power here on this earth.

Both fear and equanimity are contagious. Had Greg presented himself as irrevocably harmed and permanently incensed, the caricature of a terrorist within my mind would have waxed, not waned, in strength and vitality.

In the aftermath of the September attacks we have witnessed, both domestically and internationally, the mental paralysis induced by fear: blinded by the dust of the trade towers' collapse we've stumbled into the tunnel of highly polarized, incendiary, inflexible, inarticulate responses on all sides. In our agitation we have forgotten that no matter how frightened and angry we are, our minds are capable of sustaining the tremendous tensions inherent in moderation and ambiguity. We have, momentarily, forgotten our own history: for many centuries now, not inexorably, but occasionally, here and there, intermittently, imperfectly, when we have grown calm enough to entertain it, reason has been escorting us out of harm's way toward, well, liberty.