Editor’s Note: The essay below was written in 2001 and appears in the self-published book, Through Our Eyes: A Tapestry of Words and Images in Response to September 11. Printed and distributed in 2002, the book was the result of an independent, volunteer documentary project organized by a journalist and several friends. The author’s bio was written in 2002 and has not been updated.
J.L. Conrad is a gentle woman who writes with her heart and soul. The 26-year-old poet was born in Ohio and now lives in Boston, where she works as a linguistics assistant at Harvard University. This fall, her first collection of poems, “A Cartography of Birds,” will be published by Louisiana State University Press.
J.L.’s interests include reading, painting, good movies, Indian food, running, bicycling, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, traveling and taking care of Churchhead, the tailless cat she and her roommates recently adopted. Places J.L. has lived in or traveled to include Indiana, Washington D.C., California, Pennsylvania, Greece, Italy, France and Mexico.
On the morning of Sept. 11, “I was in Harvard Square, going to my first day of work. At the subway station, a woman was handing out newspapers and repeating, ‘A plane just hit the World Trade Center.’ I stood outside an open library window listening to the news until 10:00 when I was due in. Everyone was sent home early, at noon.” J.L. crafted her words between Sept. 11 and 22, jotting down notes on the bus, in coffee shops and wherever else she happened to be. Her final poem – “In this Light, Nothing Bad Can Happen” – was submitted at the end of November.
Fragments: flowers for sale at the train station and a woman’s voice, “It just gives me shivers down my spine.” Standing outside an open window, I listened as events unfolded on the television inside. It was my first day on the job, and I was sent home at noon. My hands shook each time a plane flew overhead, part of the “umbrella of protection” over Boston.
In the days following September 11, I rode the bus and read Philip Guston’s biography and a book of poems by Louise Glück. In my notebook, I jotted words and phrases as they occurred. Compiled between September 11 and September 22, 2001, these make up the body of the poem I’ve included with these paragraphs (still in progress).
I’ve noticed poems surfacing in articles and speeches these past weeks. A.E. Housman, Robinson Jeffers, Seamus Heaney, T.S. Eliot, and others have put in an appearance. Billy Collins, Poet Laureate of the U.S., spoke on NPR (National Public Radio) about the recent atrocities and how they occurred in a place “beyond language” – where metaphor fails to capture the magnitude of the violence and tragedy involved.
What does this mean for me? That I will keep writing, that I feel it matters now more than ever – this creative act that provides a connection with others. In the aftermath, people are searching for meaning, for sustenance. While we cannot entirely provide this for each other, we can each do our part to add to the healing and not exacerbate the wound.
In this Light, Nothing Bad Can Happen
To live means much more
than we’d thought, wearing
down the years, the days,
even the minutes ringing
our fingers. Low cloud cover
creeps past our foreheads,
our noses, until we drown
in the sea of our own unfolding,
a bare bulb dangerous
above the waters. Sorrow, or
what’s left of it grows
sullen as evening stills.
And the rain doesn’t start –
reason no clearer than the sky
with its patterns inexplicably
breaking our features, familiar
as if all living were mutable
enough to encompass
tragedy, the way it is played out
on television, over and over
or not at all, for some:
the voiceless who flee the cities;
the whole world is afraid.
For how else to explain
this flowering of grief, like waking
to nightmare, the lines of objects
holding, spilling a brilliance
from within: harsh magnificence
that seeks nothing –
Or filaments converging:
seeds of light washed by evening
that undulate and join…
gold and brown, fingers chilled
because we are born
alone, from end to end –
red bliss greeting the immeasurable
blooms of the dogwood, the mouths
of irises like sleep, its promise.
Once lost, the past trickles
through topsoil, is brought back
through roots, loosing
the best within, bark casing
what’s better left untold, lest we learn
to inhabit the night
with something caught
in its glances, its many wings,
or heat: the city leaking at the seams.
On edge as if breaking –
messages traced in paint: a blue
cast, huddled figures, arms wrapped
for comfort, head to chest and face
looking out from the painting’s window
clearer even than –
the ark of suffering: shadow and
solace, tautness reaching between
minutes and seconds, dividing
time that is best left to love.