The Cascade Effect
(in memory of september 11)
Nuns, I saw nuns
floating up Third Avenue,
veils long down their backs, their faces framed
though hard to distinguish as they
drifted on the far side of the street
and became, suddenly, the schoolgirls
they really were, not nuns at all
and it was long black hair I’d seen, not veils.
But this was better than last week
when on a particular afternoon I left the
clean and cool and ordinary marble lobby
for the muggy sea of a 98 degree pavement,
and in my disorientation in the heat and glare
everyone approaching me was, in some manner,
maimed or limbless.
I could dispel them for moments at a time
but little by little that blonde woman
in the green skirt and the man sweating in Adidas
and the college girls in jeans all blurred into
an armless, footless mass
limping, pulling themselves along in
arcs of weird and frightening movement.
This is not the first time it has been hard to be here
in this city where life has gone
Yesterday, a blue cloudless sky that mimicked
another beautiful day last fall, when a super on Varyck Street
found a clavicle on his roof.
What kind of detritus is this?
My midtown haunts are an edificial romance
in glass and granite with plazas & fountains & sculpture
and it’s all banks – huge monumental paeans
to what we really admire.
But I am delusional and striving like everyone else.
I have seen a petrified, smoke enshrouded city
and I am still doing this.
Overhead, over my shoulder, fluttering pigeons
shadow the sidewalk – shadow phoenix, I think,
watching the white pavement that has become a moving picture
show of black wings and small heads
If it were not so bright, so blindingly bright
I could look up and see the iridescence
I know is hovering just above me.
Instead I’m driven indoors on a side street
where all they have conjured takes a seat
in a small formica booth with a chorus of black shoed waiters.
They have stuck tiny American flags everywhere,
“We are not Muslims, Syrians, Them! We are Greek!”
It was not till the end of September that
the street vendors returned to sell fruit and kabobs
“They are all Afghani’s,” said Raj, from Rawalpindi,
who sells soft drinks, cakes and aspirin.
“I thought the lamb guys were Egyptians,” I said.
“They are all afraid,” came the intonement.
It’s summer and we are still afraid
or if not afraid, then grave and chastened
each vulnerability constantly assessed.
Slowly the buildings have been fortifying themselves.
The old temple on 55th is barricaded at the street,
Citibank installed giant earth filled urns with trees,
the porters and concierges conscripted into security
as entrances are transformed into checkpoints.
Workers and executives chained
to photo ID’s around their necks.
Everything is a barrier and an obstacle
How we admire helmets and military hardware and
uniforms roaming the streets.
Passing through an armed and vested phalanx we are cool
and expressionless, our leaders painting a bloody path to
the East, glittering with words of right and retribution
Their pockets so weighted with gold, they’d
drown in the seas of our Gods.
Yes I am despairing. I am despairing that I have
lost the will or capacity to become angry enough to be a
I dream with my beloved of small oases of peace and calm
that no one could want – that could never
be part of anyone’s master plan.
Some time ago, in the aftermath of a different
kind of disaster, I stepped into a life of God,
which I took up gratefully, if not tearfully, and with great
and continuing difficulty. I languished in a self-confining
grief that reminds me of these days catapulting us into deeper misery.
In the confessional I was mired in my own weeping
that I did not love God enough, love anyone enough.
“That is not even a sin,” said my confessor
sometimes gently, sometimes not
“Who loves enough? Not even the Saints.
Who do you think you are?”
It could have been a day, last September,
when the apples and chestnuts ripened heavy and lush in the trees
and the cicadas laid down a dense blanket of sound in the afternoon
It could have been that we passed through the day as our ordinary selves,
our quarrels and loves and routines in tact
our finite time barely recognized
our clothes laundered, our bellies full.
I, for one, clung like a child.
Bellowed like a lost goat.
Wept and wept as if all those taken were kin to me.
Not a hero or a heroine, just part of a numbed & silent city
of grievers, hollowed out
we mark the lingering misery here –
the dread underneath all the New York braggadocio
under all the spectacle celebrations and declarations.
September is on everyone’s mind.
And as that day of days comes upon us
the day that marks our before, and our after,
I pray there will be sweetness in the air.
I would ask for silence and circumspection and rational
the irrational hearts of good men and good women.
I would ask for the saber rattlers to fold their tents
and go home, for the fanatics to mind their babies
and their land.
And for the street vendors to sell their fruit and kabobs,
the bones of the day buried in our bones, for good.
August 2002 PBSweeney