An epic poem
Thomas F. Flynn
Andrews MacMeel Publishing
August 2008 $12.99
On Sept. 11, 2001 , Thomas Flynn worked for CBS News. When the second plane hit the World Trade Center, Flynn rode his bicycle to the site as a journalist, following his muse of curiosity. “If this coming event were a mythical beast/…my muse would not counsel caution/…but push me closer to the flame,” he writes in the third canto.
Flynn uses Dante’s Inferno as inspiration for style and form in translating the unspeakable experiences of that day into free verse that allow the reader to believe he knows what it was like in lower Manhattan on what Flynn calls “this forever September morning.” We can’t, unless we were there. And even if we were there, the interpretation of sights, sounds and smells is unique to each person experiencing them.
What Flynn does is take the reader inside his experience and memory of September 11th. He takes us along on his transformation from journalist to participant. It is a first-hand account like none other that should be shared with as many people as possible.
We walk next to Flynn and his bicycle as he watches the first tower collapse and during his panicked flight from the scene. We wait with him in a parking garage buried in the rubble and take every dust-laden step that carries him away the inferno. Some would likely call Flynn a survivor of the attack. He agrees, but uses a different definition.
Survival is not a rapturous
rebirth, not a glorious
cloud-bursting return to life.
Survival is the absence of death.
It’s a middle place…
But it does have an advantage
over death. I live to talk about it
to relate the tale as it happens,
not only its extremities and cruelty,
but also the goodness that flourishes too.
Although some may believe that poetry isn’t for everyone, that it eludes a common dominator that popular culture does not, that it is best kept for academia in its ivory towers or elitists secure in the supposition that their reading habits elevate them above the mythical common man, I don’t agree.
At its best, and Flynn meets these challenges ably, poetry makes the intangible tangible. Metaphors and imagery translate the indescribable. When done well, poetry pulls you in, wrapping you in its arms of rhythm, letting meter carry you from one image to the next. It allows the words to take root in your mind and transform back into the indescribable that is now a part of you.
Take for example, the cantos dealing with Flynn’s observations between the planes’ strike and the towers’ collapse. We’ve all seen the news footage and heard the reports of people who jumped from the towers. Flynn saw them as more than a segment on the news.
That one, who finally gives up,
who leaps from the fiery window,
is at peace with her life
as she contemplates its entirety.
Her desk mate, now death mate,
recently reconciled with a long lost friend,
but still fights with her mother.
How will that mother live the rest of her life?
In the days and weeks to come, Flynn passes the pictures of the missing, all labeled “Have you seen ….” “Yes, I believe I have seen . . . ./I’ve seen him soaring/I’ve seen her dropping.”
Flynn devotes a significant part of the poem to his initial shelter in nearby parking garage as he flees the “boiling/brimstone avalanche cascading from the tower.” There is no light as the dust clouds force a small group further into the garage. Rubble from the tower piles up at the entrance. “It is/becoming clear my sanctuary/is to become my tomb,” he writes.
As the group explores the garage by touch alone, one manages to break a window and the others follow his voice into cool air. “I roll through from the hell I did not expect/to escape into a purgatory of lost souls,/I among them,” Flynn recounts, adding that his eyes have no need to adjust after leaving the dark garage. No sunlight pierces the dust. Streetlights that turn on too early for the hour are of no use.
…Here, out of the tomb,
it is still less than night and less than day.
I take in the morning air,
a dense and mourning air.
The descriptions of sights and sound stay with you after the poem ends. On Flynn’s tip uptown, still pushing his bicycle:
The walkways are a counterpane of ash,
each footfall muted in the soft, dry coverlet,
the commingled dust of sinner and saint
blanketing the ground,
lending it a leaden hue….
And later, after Flynn’s reached the river:
None of the usual clicking
of Wall Street wingtips do we hear,
none of the clacking of women’s heels
We walk on a blanket of death
in mortal silence.