When the Tower's Fell - a Poem

The Arts

"When the Towers Fell,"* by Galway Kinnell.


From our high window we saw the towers

with their bands and blocks of light

brighten against a fading sunset,

saw them at any hour glitter and live

as if the spirits inside them sat up all night

calculating profit and loss, saw them reach up

to steep their tops in the until then invisible

yellow of sunrise, grew so used to them

often we didn’t see them, and now,

not seeing them, we see them.


The banker is talking to London.

Humberto is delivering breakfast sandwiches.

The trader is already working the phone.

The mail sorter has started sorting the mail.

...povres et riches

...poor and rich

Sages et folz, prestres et laiz

Wise and foolish, priests and laymen

Nobles, villains, larges et chiches

Noblemen, serfs, generous and m

Petiz et grans et beaulx et laiz

Short and tall and handsome and homely


The plane screamed low down lower Fifth Avenue

lifted at the Arch, someone said, shaking the dog walkers

in Washington Square Park, drove for the north tower,

struck with a heavy thud, releasing a huge bright gush

of blackened fire, and vanished, leaving a hole

the size and shape a cartoon plane might make

if it had passed harmlessly through and were flying away now,

on the far side, back into the realm of the imaginary.


Some with torn clothing, some bloodied,

some limping at top speed like children

in a three-legged race, some half dragged,

some intact in neat suits and dresses,

they straggle out of step up the avenues,

each dusted to a ghostly whiteness,

their eyes rubbed red as the eyes of a Zahoris,

who can see the dead under the ground.


Some died while calling home to say they were O.K.

Some died after over an hour spent learning they would die.

Some died so abruptly they may have seen death from within it.

Some broke windows and leaned out and waited for rescue.

Some were asphyxiated.

Some burned, their very faces caught fire.

Some fell, letting gravity speed them through their long moment.

Some leapt hand in hand, the elasticity in last bits of love-time letting — I wish

I could say — their vertical streaks down the sky happen more lightly.


At the high window, where I’ve often stood

to escape a nightmare, I meet

the single, unblinking eye

lighting the all-night sniffing and lifting

and sifting for bodies, pieces of bodies, anything that is not nothing,

in a search that always goes on

somewhere, now in New York and Kabul.


She stands on a corner holding up a picture

of her husband. He is smiling. In today’s

wind shift few pass. Sorry sorry sorry.

She startles. Suppose, down the street, that headlong lope...

or, over there, that hair so black it’s purple...

And yet, suppose some evening I forgot

The fare and transfer, yet got by that way

Without recall — lost yet poised in traffic.

Then I might find your eyes...

It could happen. Sorry sorry good luck thank you.

On this side it is “amnesia,” or forgetting the way home,

on the other, “invisibleness,” or never in body returning.

Hard to see clearly in the metallic mist,

or through the sheet of mock reality

cast over our world, bourne that no creature ever born

pokes its way back through, and no love can tear.


The towers burn and fall, burn and fall —

in a distant, shot, smokestacks spewing oily earth remnants out of the past.

Schwarze Milch der Fruhe wir trinken sie abends

Black milk of daybreak we drink it at nightfall

wir trinken sie mittags und morgens wir trinken sie nachts

we drink it at midday at morning we drink it at night

wir trinken und trinken

We drink it and drink it

This is not a comparison but a corollary,

not a likeness but a lineage

in the twentieth-century history of violent death —

black men in the South castrated and strung up from trees,

soldiers advancing through mud at ninety thousand dead per mile,

train upon train headed eastward made up of boxcars shoved full to the

corners with Jews and Gypsies to be enslaved or gassed,

state murder of twenty, thirty, forty million of its own,

atomic blasts wiping cities off the earth, firebombings the same,

death marches, starvations, assassinations, disappearances,

entire countries turned into rubble, minefields, mass graves.

Seeing the towers vomit these black omens, that the last century dumped into

this one, for us to dispose of, we know

they are our futures, that is our own black milk crossing the sky: wir shaufeln

ein Grab in den Luften da liegt man nicht eng

we’re digging a grave in the sky there’ll be plenty of room to lie down there


Burst jet fuel, incinerated aluminum, steel fume, crushed marble, exploded

granite, pulverized drywall, mashed concrete, berserked plastic,

gasified mercury, cracked chemicals, scoria, vapor

of the vaporized — wafted here

from the burnings of the past, draped over

our island up to streets regimented

into numbers and letters, breathed across

the great bridges to Brooklyn and the waiting sea:

astringent, miasmic, empyreumatic, slick,

freighted air too foul to take in but we take it in,

too gruesome for seekers of the amnesiac beloved

to breathe but they breathe it and you breathe it.


A photograph of a woman hangs from a string

at his neck. He doesn’t look up.

He stares down at the sidewalk of flagstone

slabs laid down in Whitman’s century, gutter edges

rasped by iron wheels to a melted roundedness:

a conscious intelligence envying the stones.

Nie staja sie, sa.

They do not become, they are.

Nie nad to, myslalem.

Nothing but that, I thought,

zbrzydziwszy sobie

now loathing within myself

wszystko co staje sie

everything that becomes.


And I sat down by the waters of the Hudson,

by the North Cove Yacht Harbor, and thought

how those on the high floors must have suffered: knowing

they would burn alive, and then, burning alive.

and I wondered, Is there a mechanism of death

that so mutilates existence no one

gets over it not even the dead?

Before me I saw, in steel letters welded

to the steel railing posts, Whitman’s words

written as America plunged into war with itself: City of the world!...

Proud and passionate city — mettlesome, mad, extravagant city!

words of a time of illusions. Then I remembered

what he wrote after the war was over and Lincoln dead:

I saw the debris and debris of all the dead soldiers of the war,

But I saw they were not as was thought.

They themselves were fully at rest — they suffer’d not,

The living remain’d and suffer’d, the mother suffer’d

And the wife and the child and the musing comrade suffer’d...


In our minds the glassy blocks

succumb over and over into themselves,

slam down floor by floor into themselves.


They blow up as if in reverse, exploding

downward and outward, billowing

through the streets, engulfing the fleeing.


As each tower goes down, it concentrates

into itself, transforms itself

infinitely slowly into a black hole


infinitesimally small: mass

without space, where each light,

each life, put out, lies down within us.



*First appeared in The New Yorker (Sept. 16, 2002).



9/11, New York City, Poetry, United States