Crossing the Rift

Is it too late to post a 9/11 20th Anniversary thought? This weekend there were specials and remembrances and the question – Do you remember where you were, what you were doing the morning of? In some cases there was the underlying fear that we and the world will forget.  

What of the next day?

I remember waking up on the 12th still in shock. And what I did was go to our paper recycling tub and pull out the Charlotte Observer from the morning before – the last day we’d have a ‘normal’ headline – Michael Jordan returns to the NBA

I’m a writer and a poet. I was compelled to capture and keep those images and words in order to make some kind of sense. Each day following I’d save the newspaper – still have some – thinking at some point we’d get back to the news of big sports’ trades, and wondered how long it would take. I’d lived through Hurricane Hugo and was always intrigued by how quickly disasters left the front page while the people most affected by them were still numb, still barely putting one foot in front of the other.

I don’t think I was naïve. I don’t think anyone then anticipated what was to follow. The headlines shifted, morphed from Towers to Terror, eventually moved from front page to page 2. But even as New York City rebuilt, the aftermath echoed. Last month our troops finally came home from Afghanistan. How could I have possibly saved 20 years of newspapers to finally get the end of the story?

But the story hasn’t ended, and it’s not meant to. In January I was invited to submit a poem for Crossing the Rift: North Carolina Poets on 9/11 & its Aftermath, an anthology commemorating the 20th Anniversary of 9/11, and dedicated to those who died that day and those who continue to die as an outcome of September 11. The book was edited by Joseph Bathanti, whose niece Katy made it out of the North Tower, and by David Potorti, whose older brother Jim, did not.

Typically when poets gather there is wine. Yesterday was different. The official book launch of Crossing the Rift was a reflective, subdued, but still uplifting event as 125 or so poets and guests gathered for the first time in two years. (All of us were masked and no doubt vaccinated.) The launch took place in the Bookmarks Bookstore courtyard, in downtown Winston-Salem, NC. The courtyard is an empty space where a building once stood, with exposed steel girders still in place. I thought, how appropriate for the reading of these poems.

We opened with a long moment of silence, followed by a solo, “Part of the Human Heart” sung by Chandra Branch. And then a selected few poems, read by former poets laureates.

The poems in the anthology are arranged in alphabetical order by the poets’ last names, so there’s a continual back and forth between remembrance poems of the actual day and events, to reflections on how the world has changed because of those flights.

In Sally Buckner’s poem, Cataclysm, she writes of her poetry group meeting the morning of the 11th to share words and create poetry, only to be at a loss for them as they watch the news unfold. There is the disconnect and the disbelief of looking out the window at a Carolina blue sky and the image on the television where New Yorkers can’t even see theirs.

Current North Carolina Poet Laureate, Jackie Shelton Green writes in lifting veils of the connection between herself and a woman across the sands and water, wearing their hijabs, weaving them together over shared grief.

Michael McFee’s epigraph for his poem, STOP, reads March 21, 2003, the second day of the War on Iraq. By the end of the poem the reader senses helplessness as we go into war again.

My own poem, The Cyclist, is about a loved one, a commercial airplane pilot, who was in the air that morning, and the aftermath of his life twenty years later. But it’s not just about him. The poem honors all those who still carry the weight and guilt of it could have been . . .

We closed the book launch with a group singing of “Amazing Grace”, led by former NC Poet Laureate and gracious literary elder-statesman, Shelby Stephenson. Shelby’s voice is old-time gospel tremble and deep rich bass. The hymn was a somber heartfelt rendition that filled and echoed down the brick breezeway, causing people on the street to stop and listen.

As we all milled around saying our good-byes, Shelby and I met up to each other. He took my hand and I thanked him for his poetry and song. He said poetry and art saved him in those days and weeks following. I said poetry and art hold the world together. He patted my hand and nodded his head in agreement. And in that, there is hope for crossing the rift, the assurance we will always remember.

Crossing the Rift: North Carolina Poets on 9/11 & its Aftermath is available through Press 53

Interview with Joseph Bathanti in the Watauga Democrat, a newspaper serving the NC Highlands since 1888.

David Potorti is a founding member of Peaceful Tomorrows. “Peaceful Tomorrows is an organization founded by family members of those killed on September 11th who have united to turn our grief into action for peace.” – from the organization’s Mission Statement.

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