Raw at Creation

Bird in Space, 1923 Constantin Brancusi

Bird in Space, 1923 Constantin Brancusi

If poetry is news which stays news, as Ezra Pound said, then September 11 is poetry at creation, too raw to be crafted into words. On the anniversary of 9/11, we sit around the table celebrating a birthday, a relative describing how she sipped coffee from the 109th floor — just two days before. Kismet. Windows on the World, the dizzying flight of birds, a portent of things to come. In the space of time it took God to make the world, the towers returned to primordial dust and stone, taking with them the slender thread of hope from the new millennium.

She came to visit at summer’s end, evoking a gentler time when there was time enough to vacation with families, when summer meant a change of residence. Or of mind. That ritual of return from Long Island to the workaday world. A book out of childhood, or a Frank Capra movie in black and white, starring James Stewart, where another idea of America existed in literature and culture. Tir na nóg! my grandmother called it, the land of youth, or was it the land of death? More like Elysian fields.

We stood silent on the Fields of Mars in Leningrad before the Fall, the purity of snow hid and nourished the imagination. My translator Oleg told me stories of the 900-day siege, how starving Soviets stripped canvasses from frames to save paintings from Hitler’s advance. Da Vinci’s Madonna and Carravagio’s food rolled up like holy scrolls stored in empty cupboards awaiting liberation. A piece of art was saved for each death. Sacrifice for three million. Enough art to feed the eye.

At the Hermitage, a madman confronted Picasso’s blue period every day at closing time. For seven days I watched him as Matisse’s dancers dizzied me into their arms. I was drawn to that pure flame of Impressionist light because I was haunted by all the dead underfoot, the fluttering wing and crunch of snow hiding a multitude of sins. Oleg led me across the square snow-blind, during the Thaw, we were blue spots dancing between line and vision. Later, ash and dust chased him through the canyons of Manhattan. He ran and ran and ran from a horror more grisly and real than anything he imagined in the USSR — even Siberia. There’s nothing to ease his burden. The guilt of surviving haunts this man I held in my arms as the myth of communism unwound — just as he held me when the myth of America began to unravel.

We change partners with the seasons. Another man sits beside me. When the world fell apart he didn’t hold me, his arms were filled with his own darkness. But in the mirror, I heard words like whispering metal hangers in a closet violently opened into unexpected light. He brushed them aside as if they were the strings of an Aeolian harp. I am trapped by a need to translate urgent closet whispering into prose. I weep unexpectedly at found art: the image of shoes, a twisted fire engine door, a contorted girder of steel becoming a companion piece to image of Brancusi’s birds bursting into flight.

As we celebrate another anniversary, time greets us with our mother’s eyes, our grandfather’s chin, a hint of dewlaps to soften the resolve and clean sweep of jawline, the tiny advance of crow’s feet. As I approach my own half-life mark, I am mute. What is the point of examining the soul in a time of fire? The only thing I know how to do well has abandoned me at the altar. I am both jilted bride and groom, priest and witness. Scrivener of raw news, not poetry. I am raw at creation.

At Ground Zero, we are of two minds, envisioning both monument and building rising from sacred ground, because the land is too valuable for sentiment alone. Traditionalists and modernists argue over what kind of art to choose. A melted steel girder evokes support for abstract images of Brancusi’s birds alighting towards that moment of flight. Between wars, his mythic Maiastrae deconstructed into golden phoenixes and steel birds in space — essence of flight without benefit of wings or feathers. Ascension of flight. Ezra Pound worshipped Brancusi’s flight of perfection, insisting it could only be understood in aesthetic absolutes divorced from the mediocrity of daily life.

Dali said while we are asleep in this world we are awake in another. Dreaming he was a bird, da Vinci drew a diagram of flight. But it took ages before the Wright boys would awaken it. The two brothers plotted against gravity to conquer the wind from the seat of a bicycle. They never dreamed of weapons such as these as they ran across meadows of Kitty Hawk with wings made from sails attached to their arms — modern day Icaruses seeking the eye of the sun while Dedalus hugged the coastline of tradition. In that 12-second flight that changed the world, they flew the distance of half a wingspan of a Boeing 747. Faced with the ability to sail beyond the sunset, the idea of distant worlds shrank to a pinhead.

On the anniversary of September 11, the sky was strangely silent. A pause of flight. A dite of sky angels passing. Old myths resurrect themselves to sustain our passage across the metaphor of time. We filled glass jars with mementos, cantos, and thousands of origami birds like at Nagasaki, to send to the World Trade Center, the personal experience transcending pain, becoming universal poetry. Images of planes and fiery towers burned on the retina transformed into thousands of paper birds fluttering like snow to the streets below. On their wings they carry messages and stories toward the next world in a chrysalis of light.

Maureen Hurley is a poet and artist who lives near San Francisco.