A dear former teacher at my graduate school had ten or so of us in a room this past spring, chatting and waiting for a visiting poet to show up and talk shop with us. She introduced the strangers to each other, and when it came time for my introduction, she raised her arm and gestured to me with an open hand.
“This smiling poet is Rachel,” she said. “She writes about the Holocaust.”
I’ve been studying—and starting to write, through interviews and some family digging—the literature of trauma ever since college. I read Holocaust narratives in particular, as those intersect with my own family history, but the libraries are full of true and imagined traumas. This week, we marked the tenth anniversary of September 11th, a national trauma which we’re still struggling to write about in creative prose (some say we’re on our way; others feel we have a ways to go).
I find myself writing the trauma of my grandparents’ generation, not without emotional toll, but with the thick mess of curiosity and fear that comes with inheriting this trauma. While I was a half-century from birth in the 1930s and 40s, I was a tenth grader on 9/11, and while my stories and memories of that day are of a girl watching from a relatively near, but inarguable distance (I grew up in a western suburb of Philadelphia), I still feel too close, too close when I read 9/11 fiction and poetry—that is, poetry and fiction ostensibly or explicitly about 9/11. Something inside of me is still fissured, isn’t yet ready to have that day re-imagined, placed on the tongue and spun into prose or verse. I cannot, cannot write it. The very few poems I’ve written that gesture towards 9/11 are barbed with immediate pain, made a mess with cliché. I can only just see inside the dark room of this trauma; I cannot enter it.
Instead, on its tenth anniversary, I talked about ‘old’—pre-9/11—poetry on Facebook. I shared a portion of a treasured poem about grief, Louise Glück’s “Wild Iris,” that had been bouncing around in my brain ever since we’d turned on the television and observed, at 8:46AM, that first moment when, a decade past, the first plane struck the first tower.
At the end of my suffering
there was a door.
Hear me out: that which you call death
Overhead, noises, branches of the pine shifting.
Then nothing. The weak sun
flickered over the dry surface.
It is terrible to survive
buried in the dark earth.
Then it was over: that which you fear, being
a soul and unable
to speak, ending abruptly, the stiff earth
bending a little. And what I took to be
birds darting in low shrubs.
You who do not remember
passage from the other world
I tell you I could speak again: whatever
returns from oblivion returns
to find a voice:
from the center of my life came
a great fountain, deep blue
shadows on azure seawater.
Published in 1993, this poem mines the speaker’s grief in imagery that nevertheless echoes, for me, those fallen towers, the shift from mundane noise to struck silence to (somehow) noise returning us back into the world: the shift that many of us felt happening, perhaps even despite ourselves, our deep and rich grief, in the years after the attacks.
And Facebook was dense, that morning, with remembering. Many friends posted brief “where I was when” narratives; others delivered short missives or directives: “Never Forget.” “We Remember.” “God Bless America.” At Facebook, for better or worse, we collected and remembered, and it was in that shared space that I first explored “Wild Iris” in this context, and, as I read this poem and the ensuing conversation, this poem and the poems shared by friends helped us sharers through the day.
Sometimes, my friends ask me about poetry’s actualized purpose. Many of these non-poetry-loving friends were forced into symbol-driven, coded poetry educations in high school — “but what does the ‘thing with feathers’ mean?” — and feel an intellectual or educational distance from poetry, even if they’re avid readers of other genres. When people who feel this distance ask me about poetry’s purpose, I think of communal instances like this one. “Wild Iris,” because it is a profound and masterfully crafted poem about grief, speaks to the grief of others, speaks to your grief and to my grief, the grief of the past and that of the present. The poem looks outward; it uses particulars to capture the universal. Trying to guess at the poet’s singular intended meaning for an image or line—using the broken decoder ring of poor poetry teaching—instead of taking in the poem whole and feeling its power forces us to a place where we don’t resonate with the poem; we instead pick it to pieces.
And writing about trauma demands from us resonance and searching. It helps us to recover; it helps our grandchildren to understand the very centers of us, as we were on that day or ten years later or always, forever. To know both that which ruined us and that which let us build ourselves whole. It leaves us, maybe someday, smiling, as we share these dark experiences and their burdens with each other and try to edify them in writing—to enter, through its door, the black room of trauma, and finally settle in and explore.