Ever sigh and say, “I wish I could teach poetry but I … a) can’t find anything good, or b) don’t have the time.”? This occasional series of posts will focus on specific poems that I like and have even used that I find to be both engaging and amazing.
After the Disaster
By Abigail Deutsch
New York City, 2001
One night, not long after the disaster,
as our train was passing Astor,
the car door opened with a shudder
and a girl came flying down the aisle,
hair that looked to be all feathers
and a half-moon smile
making open air of our small car.
The crowd ignored her or they muttered
“Hey, excuse me” as they passed her
when the train had paused at Rector.
The specter crowed “Excuse me,” swiftly
turned, and ran back up the corridor,
then stopped for me.
We dove under the river.
She took my head between her fingers,
squeezing till the birds began to stir.
And then from out my eyes and ears
a flock came forth — I couldn’t think or hear
or breathe or see within that feather-world
so silently I thanked her.
Such things were common after the disaster.
I discovered this poem last year during our Poetry Out Loud competition. I can’t exactly remember how I found it–more than likely, a student had chosen to recite it or it was in a list of poems that someone had been trying to choose from–but it was a poem that I took note of because of its subject matter. More specifically, what drew me to the poem was that it was about September 11, 2001 but not wrapped up in the jingoistic patriotism that tends to typify 9/11 “tributes” you’ll be seeing on social media today (I’m posting this on 9/11/16). Granted, it was only a poem that I remembered because of its 9/11 reference and a poem that I really didn’t “get” at first. in fact, I’m pretty sure that I read it, filed it away, and then moved on to other things.
I came across it in a filing cabinet and remembered its first lines because of the way they rhyme, but also because I was familiar with both the geographical and familial reference found within the word “Astor” (my part of Long Island was once a place where a number of Astors vacationed in the summertime). That was a hook enough to get me to want to read it again, and even then I didn’t completely get it and I had to read it a few more times to see what it was really about, or at least to come up with enough to give the poem a solid interpretation.
There’s something ethereal about the girl that the speaker encounters. I want to ask my students, “Who is she?” and try to see if they’ll work beyond trying to give me literal answers. Because there is an intangibility to poetry that teenagers often don’t get and any chance that I get to demonstrate that is a chance I’ll take.
Then, there’s the last stanza. It’s where the narrator’s grief finally comes to the front and it all finally hits her. Furthermore, with the last line, “Such things were common after the disaster,” she implies that she is not the only person who has had such things (i.e., breaking down on a subway train) happen to her, and I find this so honest in a way that so much other sentiment surrounding September 11 isn’t.
One of the things that always bothered me about the way many people remember the September 11 attacks is that there has always seemed to be an “acceptable” way to react. And not to sound provincial about it, but so much of it has always seemed to come from people who had a significant amount of distance from the events in New York, Arlington, and Pennsylvania. What Deutsch does here is give grief some reality and shows the humanity of the tragedy and the period after a tragedy. And while I’ve never had the opportunity to use this is an English class yet, it’s my hope that when I do, they’ll understand how powerful it is.