Written during the National Cathedral Service
September 14, 2001
Give us a voice
whose song can rise
with hope above the groans.
Give us an organ
whose pipes can send its chords
loud above the din.
Give us fresh flowers
to cover too fresh dirt
on too many graves.
Give us the tears
to wash our blinded eyes
and soothe the searing pain.
Give us the sight
to look beyond debris
and see a better world.
Give us some words
to speak from deep within
and reach the gods.
Give us the ears
and open them wide
to hear the response.
Then give us the sense
and minds open enough
to learn what we must know.
Give us the feet
to stand firm
when the earth quakes.
Give us the legs
to climb out of the dark valley
to a higher place.
And give us the heart
with strong and steady beats
to pump the blood of love.
I intervened in a dog fight
to save my beloved dachshund's life
and felt like I'd plunged into World War III.
The noise was deafening,
it seemed to last an eternity,
and although I prevailed,
I got bit.
Well-anesthetized in the emergency ward,
getting my minor wounds stitched up,
I comment to the doctor on
the far worse plight of Afghani civilians
being maimed and killed by mines and bombs.
"Three a day, by the mines," I remark.
"Not ours," he replies.
Ah yes—the former Evil Empire's.
Let's compute how many quarts or liters of blood
have been spilled by whom,
and explain to God or the Martians,
or maybe the dead,
that we only spilled some of it,
and always for a good cause.
Will I then feel free
to ignore Afghanistan again
and rededicate myself
to what really counts,
to protecting a pampered pet?
Published in Aftermath, a book of poems about the
I was on United Airlines Flight 93
and did nothing.
When Todd Beamer said "Are you ready?"
I was not, and when he said
and they charged down the aisle
at the terrorists
I could hardly bear to look.
Gripping my newsmagazine
I sat glued to my seat.
When the crazed plane spun toward the ground
I just closed my eyes.
The explosion was immense, consuming.
It blew me out of my torpor,
and in my final moment,
free of my fears at last,
I wished I had done something.
Then everything went dark.
Published in Aftermath, a book of poems about the
Tim McVeigh has been upstaged,
his rented truck, handmade fertilizer bomb
and modest mid-west target
no match for the pros.
But still, when he meets bin Laden's lads,
scorched souls just arrived down there,
they become buddies.
Even John Wilkes Booth,
James Earl Ray,
Sirhan Bashir Sirhan,
and Lee Harvey Oswald
pay their respects
to hell's new heroes.
Now it's up to the rest of us
to forge a human bond
stronger than theirs.
Find them! They are in there somewhere
mixed with their victims.
Lurking in that rubble
is the terrorists' DNA.
Retrieve it, put it under the microscope
and tell us the origin of evil.
Call in the medical examiners,
odontologists, molecular biologists,
Use gas chromatography
to interrogate every last fragment.
If the nucleus escapes,
look at the mitochondria
until at last we discover
the chemical code of hate.
And then what? Make a vaccine
and spread it with crop dusters
over the whole aching earth?
Nietzsche was wrong—
God is not dead,
but, kidnapped by Satan,
he's developed the Stockholm syndrome.
He's been drugged, brain-washed,
and, tutored by Goebbels,
he's turned into a droning propagandist
and will not write a sequel.
There is a virus in the sky
blowing around the world in dark clouds
filling our mouths, ears, eyes, lungs,
our already damaged brains.
Our species coughs and wheezes,
and we can barely help each other.
The immunization shots
provided by religions
didn't work, or made us sicker.
Faith healers abound, and nostrums.
Mars looks down at us
Did evolution fail,
or is this just the bad start
of a new century,
merely a readjustment,
a fever that will break,
from which we will emerge
and perhaps even
Rejoicing at having survived two years
since being diagnosed
with stage four ovarian cancer,
she welcomed her garden's gifts
of succulent tomatoes and squash,
and made further peace
with, what seemed like a century ago
in that same garden,
her son's suicide.
Then, driving to church,
on the radio she heard
that we'd begun bombing Afghanistan.
Sobbing, unable to see through her tears,
she pulled over and surrendered to new grief
at now losing
her love of the world
and the peace she hoped to die in.
How are icicles made?
In particular, what created
the huge one hanging way up there
from the roof of my elementary school,
looming over us awed children in 1939
as Hitler prepared to invade Poland?
Our teachers kept us out from under it
while we stared at its glistening pointed presence,
its ominous dripping, its silent threat
to crash and destroy itself
and the vulnerable creatures below.
All over the world every spring,
every season, every year,
forces silently build up and loom over us.
We can hear ominous dripping if we pay attention,
but the sudden crash,
the plane hitting the tower,
still shocks us,
as if we didn't know all along
what had to happen.
Emergency room nursing had not prepared her
for this. When she arrived
at Ground Zero on September 12
what stunned her even more than the rubble
was the smell.
"Rotting food," she was told,
but she had grown up in war
and knew the reek of decomposing flesh.
She still coughs from the dust,
from the memory of helplessness,
and sees on every wall
the photos of the missing
now interred on Staten Island
along with concrete, steel, glass and dreams,
as tiny sacred shreds.
Published in Aftermath, a book of poems about the
Is this what it takes—
flaming, crumbling tombs on Wall Street,
a burning Pentagon?
Was it not enough to hear
of Vietnam's body counts,
of Chile's disappeared?
The South Bronx is not spectacular,
its rubble uninspiring. Hunger
does not burn bright orange on TV.
Are we now awake
to the pain of the world,
to our part in causing it?
Dante is busy revising "Inferno"
for Broadway, and its producers
are holding auditions for the big parts.
But we will all be on stage.
Look for me in the chorus
holding a spear, or a bucket of tears.
All the king's horses
and all the king's men
cannot put five thousand
Is there some whole
greater than the sum of these parts,
besides our grief?
The sniffing dogs' noses fill with dust
and they do not rescue our hopes.
Weary diggers in the rubble
with shovels, acetylene torches
and plastic bags
become like worshippers at a shrine,
and the miracle is that
they can go on.
But the galaxy hardly quivered
and angels still do their obscure work.
Somewhere in all this will be revealed
what human beings are made of,
and whether the race can be reassembled
out of so many small, broken pieces.
Seth came from a family of jumpers,
but never thought he'd follow their tradition
in quite this way.
In 1942 his father jumped off a train in Poland
on its way to Auschwitz
and kept scrambling until he landed in the Bronx.
His uncle Harold jumped into Normandy in 1944
and got a medal.
Today Seth was not going to tumble down a grassy embankment
or parachute with comrades into a soggy field.
This was a beautiful September morning in New York
but neither freedom nor victory were options.
The heat and smoke were getting bad
and the way to the stairwell was blocked.
He said goodbye to his wife
just as the phone went dead.
He took a last look at the carefully posed photograph
of her and their son by the Statue of Liberty
and at the stack of unread reports
from which he was now liberated,
then stood on his desk
and smashed open the window with a chair.
He could see Newark, where he grew up poor,
and wryly congratulated himself
for not blowing his bonus
on a new BMW.
His mind leapt to a quote
from one of the Flying Wallendas:
"Life is on the wire. Everything else is preparation."
"Well, no one prepares for this," he thought,
"but I can do it."
Christine clambered up on the desk
and he took her hand.
"Are you scared?" she asked.
"Not really," he replied, "just kind of awed,
and amazed that we're standing here like this."
The heat and smoke got worse,
and it became hard to breathe.
Without speaking, they knew
when it was time to go,
and they flew off together,
his $300 yellow and blue tie flapping over his shoulder
and her auburn hair streaming behind her,
bequeathing themselves to history
and to the humbled witnesses
who must go on living in the world
Repeat this each night
just before you go to sleep:
Fortress America can no more be penetrated
by box-cutters than the Maginot Line
could be defeated by Panzers.
Our righteousness can no more be displaced
by illegible backward scribbling
than our airport security can be breached
by nervous men with grandiose fantasies.
Our tall buildings are built to last,
as is our civilization.
Our patron saint, Ozymandias,
will guard us from all harm.
With enough shovels
we can survive any attack,
and once we get our missile shield in place
we will be impregnable.
Good night. Sweet dreams.
© 2001 Tom Greening
I'm depressed and hallucinating again,
and need my doctor's help.
I see things on TV
that aren't really there,
or at least I hope not—
Strange bursts of light on the dark screen
over some place they call Kabul,
which as far as I can tell
is not in Kansas.
I see bearded men in turbans
who seem angry with me.
I see grim workers in bulky clothing and odd hats
picking through mounds of dusty rubble
in what the announcer claims
is downtown New York.
At the commercial break
I'm told that depression
is a biological illness,
and I'm reassured by the hearty announcer
that Prozac will cure me.
Because I'm such a coward
I'm grateful to be living
in this brave new world
where doctors really care,
and I must say that
when my TV plays tricks on me
even the look of those pretty little pills
cheers me right up.
I wasn't there on 9/11
and didn't see the people jumping,
but I am reassured to hear
from Denise, age 5,
who was at school across the street,
that the jumpers floated down slowly, gently,
suspended from brightly colored parachutes.
Thus the world is not as horrible as I feared,
and soon the towers will be rebuilt
strong enough to last forever
so that when Denise grows up
planes will just bounce off them,
and the bad people will know we are all good
and will try to be just like us.
Give Us a Voice
Is This What It Takes?
"Charlie Parker made it to age 34 before the snow buried him and the ice got too thin beneath his feet."
Copyright © 2018 by Tom Greening. All rights reserved.
Writing and Poetry by Tom Greening
How Are Icicles Made?
Paradise Lost Again