1. On Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, either because I was out of the house or I was taking a mid-afternoon nap, I missed three Billy Collins Poetry Broadcasts in a row. This morning, I listened to them all. I'm finding that I'm mentally at my best in the morning and so I had plenty of mental stamina to take in three broadcasts in a row.
I tuned into Friday's broadcast live - he comes on around 2:31 or 2:32 or 2:33 PST, Monday through Friday (and takes every other Wednesday off).
As I tuned in, I wasn't thinking about it being the 19th anniversary of the blowing up of the World Trade Center buildings, the destruction caused by a jet plane flying into the Pentagon, or the crash of United Flight 93. I knew today was the anniversary, but my mind was much more occupied by learning more news about the Holiday Farm and other fires in Oregon and about family matters. Gibbs just got groomed. I'd been enjoying pictures Debbie sent me of his new look and thinking about how happy I am that Gibbs and Ellie get along so well.
But the events of Sept. 11, 2001 were on Billy Collins' mind today. He took us back to September 6, 2002. On that day, a Special Joint Session of the United States Congress took place at Federal Hall in New York City as an act of support for New York and as a way of remembering the victims of the catastrophe. Billy Collins was the United States Poet Laureate from 2001-03. The Librarian of Congress asked Billy Collins to write a poem for this Congressional meeting. At first, he didn't think he could do it -- he wanted to write an authentic poem in his own voice, employing his own style, and it didn't seem to him that his way of writing poetry was in keeping with the predominant ways the catastrophe had been commemorated since it happened. When the request was made, he talked to three government people and they told him what the poem should include -- a tribute to the first responders, hope for the future of the USA, and other similar means of tribute the country was accustomed to.
It moved me that Billy Collins could not write the poem he was asked to write. In the aftermath of the catastrophe, I experienced much of the national response as bellicose and vengeful. Personally, these demonstrations left me cold. I felt the country sporting for a fight, eager to get revenge. I kept hearing that the people of our country had been drawn together by this catastrophe, but I was experiencing a lot of division, especially as individuals' and institutions' patriotism was being called into question if they questioned the national security measures the government imposed and the different rationales for going to war. I experienced the violence, both physical and verbal, imposed upon Muslims (and other non-Muslim brown-skinned people) and mosques especially ugly and divisive. (I still do.)
To his credit, Billy Collins rose to the occasion and wrote a poem for the Sept. 6, 2002 joint session. He didn't write a poem employing the images or descriptions we all had become accustomed to seeing and hearing in the days, weeks, and months following the catastrophe. He didn't write about first responders. He didn't invoke our country's flag. He didn't write about fear, freedom, remembering, not forgetting, heroism, or destruction.
His poem is entitled The "Names". In the course of the poem he names, alphabetically, the last names of twenty-five people killed, letter by letter, leaving out only the letter X. I won't give away what he does with the letter X.
For me, the poem explores how these deaths get into our consciousness and we see the deaths all around us: in rain droplets, the sky, in photographs, willows, everywhere. They are the names of mothers, fathers, citizens, sons, daughters.
Today, listening to Billy Collins read "The Names" made the catastrophe intimate. The poem touched me in a way I've longed for, very similar to how I felt in 2012 when I visited St. Paul's Chapel in Lower Manhattan. St. Paul's was miraculously undamaged by the nearby explosions at the World Trade Center. Soon it became a place of sanctuary where rescuers, firefighters, and police came to rest, clean up, eat, pray, worship.
I don't know much about the equipment these workers had attached to them when they came into the chapel. But, I do know that the equipment left scratch marks on the pews at St. Paul's and that those scratch marks, a lasting memorial to the fatigue, longing for refreshment, and the need for spiritual sustenance made a more lasting impression on me than anything else I saw in the vicinity of Ground Zero.
Like the images and names in Billy Collins' poem, those scratch marks conveyed something intimate to me, something close to the insides of the tired bodies and weary souls of these workers, a particular, indelible sign of the catastrophe's toll that I'll never forget.
(If you want to hear Billy Collins read "The Names", just put the words Billy Collins The Names into your favorite search engine and you'll have results in no time.)
2. In this broadcast, Billy Collins took us more deeply into the catastrophe with his reading of the poem, "Photograph from September 11" by Wislawa Szymborska, an intimate freezing of those who jumped from the World Trade Center's burning heights. He then read three poems by Mary Oliver, all of which deepened the emotion of this broadcast. I thought each, in its own indirect way, took us back to the catastrophe and helped us delve further into its emotional and spiritual impact, even though not one of these poems focused directly on those terrible events. The Mary Oliver poems: "Wild Geese", "Praying", and "The Summer Day".
Billy Collins ended the broadcast by deftly moving our attention and feelings to something lighter. In his poem, "Down on the Farm", Billy Collins muses about the puzzling phenomenon of Tennessee fainting goats.
One more thing: Billy Collins plays and comments on different jazz artists and tunes to begin and end his broadcasts, and today, for the first time, I heard the sublime tune, "Chelsea Bridge", played by pianist Tommy Flanagan.
My world keeps growing.
3. After so much poetry, I needed some physical activity and turned my attention to the kitchen. I had a surplus of yellow onions and I didn't want them to go bad, so I chopped them in the food processor and froze them.
I also put a clove of minced garlic in hot olive oil. When it started to turn golden, I add a chopped onion and chopped gold potato. These cooked up for a while and then I added some leftover brown rice and a can of black beans seasoned with garlic salt and cumin. After all these ingredients cooked for a while, I served myself a bowlful, topped it with Yellowbird Serrano Hot Sauce, enjoyed my meal, and took an acrostic puzzle into my bedroom and worked it out on the bed, in the prone position.
Here's a limerick by Stu: