September 11, 2001

by Thomas Davis


On the road home, Jack Briggs in the back seat ill,
The first phenomenon we noticed was empty skies:
No silver airplanes glinting light, no white cloud trails,
An emptiness that had existed before the Wright brothers and Kitty Hawk
Stretching back to beginning birds, dragonflies, butterflies.

In Ohio we began to see people with flags on overpasses,
Sometimes just standing, other times waving at passing traffic.
Once or twice small clumps of people looked like they were singing.
We were driving fast and could not hear them.


I had been in the offices of Internet Two, where futures are building,
When the first plane hit the first of the Twin Towers in New York City.
A young technician, voice puzzled, went from office to office
Telling us we had better come into where big monitors were turned to CNN.
The first images of the first plane were exploding dread into consciousness
When the rumors started: The White House had been bombed;
The Pentagon had been hit; something awful was happening on the Mall;
A car bomb had exploded at the State Department.

Then, as two women started sobbing—they had friends working at the World
Trade Center—
After we had leaned back against walls, or wandered away in disbelief,
Or sat down numb before the large television screens,
The second plane exploded into the second tower,
A blossoming flare of flame slicing through steel and concrete
And human lives living high above New York City streets.

More people sat on chairs or on the floor; crying intensified.
You could feel the room’s fear and a cold, stomach queasy dread
That seemed like it could never end—not if the world was sane.
People had been sitting in the seats of those planes.
I had landed at Washington National Airport the day before.
I would fly in an airplane back to Duluth, Minnesota in four days.
People had been working in the offices when two planes had slammed fire
Into the innocence of a beautiful September sky.
I was sitting in an office watching as people died.

Then one rumor was confirmed. The Pentagon had just been hit.
Black smoke and fire were pouring into Washington sky.
I was in Washington. More attacks were expected.
Internet Two was to offload its responsibilities.
The federal government was to close its Washington offices.
The President was in Florida and was coming home.

A man visiting the offices came into the crowded monitor room looking
“I went out for a smoke,” he said. “I decided to call home.
A Secret Service agent came out of nowhere and made me give him my cell.”

On the monitor a sober announcer said another plane was down
In a rural Pennsylvania field. Words swirled into rumors
Those still monitoring the Internet kept bringing into offices
Like sentry ravens blackly bent on telling the world
A pack of wolves had come hungry into the woods.


Later that night my young soldier-nephew met me at my hotel
After struggling against the flow of downtown Washington leaving.
Walking from Internet Two to the hotel I had passed a half dozen military
On street corners, carrying rifles, looking nervous.
When Grant and I left the hotel into glorious evening
After discovering that cabdrivers, along with the other workers,
Had abandoned downtown and that most restaurants were closed,
We started walking toward Georgetown where you could still get a meal.
The great city was quieter than I would have believed possible.
The only people on the streets were nervous soldier holding loaded guns.
They looked straight at you as you walked past.
We had only walked a block when we saw the first Humvee,
Two soldiers standing in back holding guns to chests
As they kept scanning and scanning empty, darkening streets and sidewalks.


That night we rented a cot for Grant. The Metro was closed. There were no
He could not make it back to base. He had to stay in my room.


In Chicago, driving past O’Hare , we saw the first plane we had seen in days.
Huge, military, black, loud, bristling with communication equipment,
It roared right over our heads. Startled, I jerked the steering wheel.


Then, after Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, we
were in Wisconsin.
In Indiana, at a gas station, a clerk had told me he had never seen so many
rental cars on the road.
We left cities behind and drove into greenness. The sun shined.
Once over the Minnesota border we opened car windows
And breathed Minnesota air and kept saying how good it was to be almost home.
People with flags were on every overpass and sometimes in an empty field.
You could see their flags, and them, coming
And then in the rearview mirror after you had passed.


Back home in Carlton, after dropping Jack Briggs, feeling better, in
And Dave Wise, my other traveling companion, at home,
My wife and I walked down Munger Trail in the morning, beside Otter Creek.
Birds flitted from branch to branch in the trees.
A raven hopped onto the trail and looked quizzically at a rabbit two feet
The creek sang, frothed, and tumbled toward the St. Louis River and Lake
We breathed in the country that we were.
We sang the creek into our lungs and hearts.
We flitted in the pine, spruce, and poplar with sparrows, ravens, bluejays and
yellow finch.


We are American.
Bodies fell from the two towers in New York City
Before steel, glass, wood, bricks, and mortar collapsed into billowing black
Spreading the environmental poisons of mankind
Into the lungs and hearts
Of streams of frightened people running from the clouds.
Black clouds rolled and cut us off from light and breath.


Beside Otter Creek my wife smiled,
And the water, birds, rabbit, wildflowers, brush, trees, grass, rocks,
And the earth surrounded us
And entered us
And knitted us connections
That flowed outward in concentric circles from where we were
Down the long road to DC into oceans, past islands, to distant continents
Where a dark-eyed, dark haired, dark skinned man and woman
Walked together by a creek or river or ocean shore
And felt the earth as I felt the earth,
As my wife felt the earth, that morning.


So I sing this song,
An American song,
That sings into the melody of a morning beside Otter Creek,
That sings into the swelling symphony earth
And all that is
Or yet may be.

The towers fell.
I saw them fall.
I saw black smoke billowing from a burning Pentagon.

This poem has been performed in Washington DC at the National Museum of the American Indian and in Carlton, Minnesota.

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Filed under Poetry, Thomas Davis

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