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On Liberty and Church Streets in Lower Manhattan

by James Ragan, C'66, H'90 | September 10, 2021
A poem by James Ragan, C'66, H'90, in memory of those who lost their lives on Sept. 11, 2001.
On Liberty and Church Streets in Lower Manhattan                                                                                                                         
for the 3,025 dead, how I listen to their absence.
Long after nightfall crawls beyond the Park Street pier
where the rain drift of ash now tints the asphalt,
and where at dawn the long rope of sunlight
no longer swings from one tall wall to another,
a moon rides up the light’s twin beams
to where the shore has called the memory to harbor,
and while there are no lawns of campion, larch, or yarrow,
no flowerings to root, no words to borrow
back the long deep breath of a city’s soft wind whistle,
those who first heard the sun’s laughter in the skylight stutter
then stop to let the world go dark—all who wondered,
thinking of the goodness in themselves, and the godness,
will not remember how they stared shock-still,
at something heaved out of the sky, white
as the sun exploding or the lambent shears of lightning
that ripped the chaos of illusion from their eyes.
For months I could not walk to see the steel crane spooning forth
the bones’ debris against the moon’s translucence.
I could not hear the voices in the buried fire candle up
to be extinguished. I could not listen to their absence.
Once along the streets of Liberty and Church,
I saw the girder’s grid of steel leaning out
like a meshed screen sculpture,
to where the digging must have wanted union
with the souls’ debris in some communal citizenry of sky.
If I could join their flight, I would be a citizen of the leaves
and fall greening skyward, lean as the stems of stars.
I would be a citizen of water if I could bathe
each window’s reflection of the ground grave below
with the image of a thousand repeating spires.
I would be a citizen of air to watch the wind’s breath settle,
if I could spare the flights of souls
their pluraled fall onto the spears of metal.
But I have taken the lean bridge to darkness,
walked like a thigh-stilted spoonbill across the knuckle bones of faith
to cross a world of centuried indifference,
and I have searched the avenues of alphabets
to exorcise a concept, as if the word, zero,
nullifies the sanctity of souls and the ground they inhabit.
And while I have watched the floating crush of a tower’s will,
and seen, from Washington to Pennsylvania fields,
how with the future there comes a birthing
of remembrance so profound the voices rise
like crofts of swallows in a riot of flight.
If I could seed these words into the language of choirs,
I would be a citizen of the earth and crawl the moon’s lit path
to join a universe of hands in weeding out all boundaries.
I would roil the lamps on all the curbs of Manhattan,
to light the streets we cross, at Church and Liberty,
on whose ground I find my peace, a footing I could not learn or teach
until I listened to their absence, and feared the loss of each.
                                                                             James Ragan