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As seen from the Midwest
Nine Eleven As seen from the Midwest In the middle of a cornfield, another Tuesday begins. Eight hundred miles away from the Big Apple, the heartland pastures are sprinkled with dew drops and the students are still sleepy when the first bell rings. The news crawling enters a rural Indiana school by 8:51 a.m., before the first period ends. By 9:03 a.m., we are still paralyzed by Dan Rather's report. His somber voice bounces off the two-story tall, dingy steel garage doors. They haven't had the chance to welcome the morning sun into the dusty shop. A stomach-churning, bewildering silence echoes in the empty cobalt locker-lined halls. "POP QUIZ" — it means nothing. The words have been hastily erased from the mossy green chalkboard. Students stack behind the Bondi blue iMacs clogging the invisible network lines, making it impossible to search for reason. We wouldn't find the reason anyway. Not yet. The cafeteria sits empty — the turkey Manhattan goes untouched. Football practice, canceled. Callers are greeted with rapid, rhythmic pulses keeping them from connecting with loved ones who live states away. Lines form behind the pumps at Casey's. The Dairy Store closes early. Wonder Bread disappears from IGA's shelves. The religious gather at Sacred Heart, seeking solace in prayers. Time stands still.
From time to time, you know I like to explain how I crafted a poem. Since this one doesn’t need an explanation on the inspiration, I’ll focus on the revision process for this poem. All said and done, it has taken years to get it to this final form — but now, it finally feels complete.
I first wrote this poem in 2012 while taking a graduate-level poetry course, taught by Indiana’s Poet Laureate — who, at the time, was Karen Kovacik. There aren’t enough words or praise I can give Karen for helping me better hone my craft as a poet. Through the duration of our semester together, she led us through an exercise she called “X-Treme Revision.” She challenged us to revise and refine our words — it was hard, but so satisfying. I still use my notes, handouts, and books we reviewed in that class as a guide while working on my poetry today.
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The first iteration of this poem was so bland — I can’t even find a copy of the example right now and it’s probably for the best. The iteration that I turned in as “final” in that class was so much better, and it was the version I ran with for nearly a decade. I would repost it once a year, in memory of an event that I witness nearly first hand via television, live, when I was barely eighteen years old.
Timed truly seemed to stand still that day, amidst the confusion and horror of the events we witnessed on live television that morning.
The entire day is still crystal clear in my memory: I was in first period (Horticulture), at the computer because work in the greenhouse was complete. My teacher came out of his office after receiving a phone call and told the seniors to “find anything they could online about a plane hitting the World Trade Center.” We slammed the network before we pulled out the old television from the back room (it had “rabbit ears” to access local stations — we often watched The Price is Right during lunch) and switched to Channel 18 (the local CBS affiliate) just in time to hear Dan Rather’s report. We sat together in a stunned silence long past the bell ringing, officially late for second period, but it didn’t matter. Nothing mattered.
The halls were empty, the classrooms were lightly buzzing with chatter. We were taking turns on computers and landlines, trying to get more information from eight hundred miles away.
On this twenty-second anniversary of the September 11 attacks, I decided to sit down and refresh this poem by recalling the memories of that morning, that day, in my small school and small town. I incorporated the tiny, vivid details that stand out still to this day — the color of the lockers (and iMacs in the library), practices being canceled and watching lines form at the gas stations in the area. Hearing Dan Rather tell us what happened as the Pentagon was attacked. Being confused. Seeing the shelves in our local IGA become barren from panic buyers, unsure of what the rest of the week (or month) would have in store. We didn’t know if flights would continue to stay grounded or if another attack could happen. Chicago was only ninety miles away — what if it happened in our backyard?
I don’t want to end this so abruptly, so I’ll go back to how important it is to incorporate those vivid details into your work. I remember an example from one day in class, on how much our work can be elevated by showing the reader proof of being in the room. The power of imagery! The example: lace doilies on a dining room table in someone’s home. How the once-white lace, yellowed by time, or the morning sun that streams in through the dining room window, stands out during a dinner party. How the texture feels against your fingertips, lightly brushing against it during the host’s toast.
Using this exercise within my own poem, I tried to focus on sharing the color of the iMac or the freshly painted lockers for the new school year. The dirty, tall steel garage doors in the industrial shop part of the school where we watched the news. These tiny little details, sprinkled into the recollection of the event, in hopes of ushering the reader into the room with me.
I hope you can picture it as vividly as I can.