September 11: A View from London

Frances Presley

In this short discussion I want to examine some of the wider issues raised by How2 contributors and others, in response to the terrorist attacks of September 11.  I’ve also embarked on a new piece of writing which is a response to the aftermath of September 11, but in terms of London’s particular history.  The impact of the IRA bombing in the last twenty years is clearly essential to it.   I’m approaching the text through collaboration with a musician, and it is driven by experiments in sound and form as much as by recent events.

The symbol as trump?

The initial focus of London’s reaction to the assault on the twin towers was fear in the City.  On the news we were shown pictures of workers in the City watching the images on television in bars, workers who had been told to leave their buildings.  As I wrote in my postcard, the City was evacuated.  The City in London means above all the stock exchange, and an undemocratically governed area of London which has jurisdiction and powers far beyond its boundaries.     

The financial towers of the City were targets for the IRA long before Islamic fundamentalists set out for the twin towers.  Scenes of destruction at the Stock Exchange in the early 90s were compared to the Blitz, with their falling glass and twisted metal.  These towers were a potent symbol for the terrorists. As Lorraine Daston wrote in the London Review of Books: “If the symbolic had not been trump, the pilots of the hijacked planes would have aimed straight for a nuclear power plant, with which they could have wreaked still more horror.” [1]   Although you could argue that a nuclear power plant would have entailed too much mass destruction even for the hijackers.  I’m not sure either if I entirely agree with her conclusion, but it is interesting: “If there really is to be something like a war on terrorism, then the new challenge seems to be addressed to anthropologists and historians, sociologists and theologians, students of the symbolic rather than the technical.”   It’s also interesting that she doesn’t mention poets!  As a consequence of September 11 the towers also became unavoidable symbols for us, even appearing in our dreams.  It is a symbol that we need to reclaim from the financiers and the killers.  We will probably also need to reclaim it from some of the professionals listed by Daston.  I have already seen an example of crude psychoanalytic interpretation. 

I found myself turning to the language of fairytale and legend.  It seemed as though we were all captives of the tower, locked up by wicked stepmothers or fathers.  As Marina Warner says: “fairytale... reveals how human behaviour is embedded in material circumstance.” [2] My own new/ old fairytale was also a saint’s tale.  The image of the tower brought to my mind one of the mediaeval rood paintings which survived the reformation (those Puritan fundamentalists) at Ranworth church in Norfolk.  This was a defaced depiction of Saint Barbara, locked in a tower by her wicked father for refusing to renounce Christianity or marry the man of his choice. Disobedience is her most attractive characteristic as a saint.  She features in Christine de Pizan’s City of Ladies, and she also became the patron saint (no longer recognised by the Catholic church) of, amongst others, “architects, bomb technicians, construction workers, dying people, firefighters...”  It seemed to be the connection with architects that was selected at Ranworth church, and it was through an understanding of architecture that I felt she was most likely to make her escape. For me, this would be the open architecture of the poem, with Barbara as its initial, unstable metaphor. 

This architecture exists both in the form and meaning of the poem.  For example, there are different ‘floors’ or sections, divided by suspension points, chevrons or arrows.  At times I use the layout of the poem to convey the empty spaces left by the IRA bomb craters, or the ambiguous extension of new scaffolding.  The most intense and difficult sections of the poem, and those which are closest to the events of September 11, were also the most improvised.  I tried to empty my mind, and allow the words and their space to take shape, sometimes through a simultaneous collaboration with musical improvisation.

I also want to consider the kind of official counter symbols I was aware of in the shadow of American flag waving.   Obviously things are very different here—we haven’t had to suffer the same call to patriotism, and the flag has had little significance in this country for some time, except for football fans, fashion designers and Northern Irish Unionists.  I say the flag, rather than the Union Jack, because increasingly, with devolution, the main flag wavers—football fans, have adopted the flag of Saint George.  There are all kinds of ugly nationalisms that can and occasionally do rear their head here, but people are wary of calls to patriotism.

There have been attempts to commemorate the victims in some way or other, and I became interested in the symbol of the commemorative plaque, as an official counter symbol to mass destruction, and a way of expressing communal grief.  Not long after September 11, I caught a local news item in which it was suggested that there should be a plaque for those who had died in New York in the proposed new Centre for Peace and Reconciliation.  This centre is on the site of St Ethelburga’s church, near the Baltic Exchange, which was bombed by the IRA in 1993.  They asked people in the street what they thought of the idea, and got a mixed reaction.

Plaques are a discreet way of establishing a public memorial, and it’s interesting that public memorials are increasingly minimalist.  I have my doubts even about plaques, including those I have given support to, indeed about any excess of symbolism, and when I took part in the unveiling of a plaque for H.D. at 44 Mecklenburgh Square, I wrote afterwards:

She is not the plaque.  It is not her name.  They will not find her wherever they look, nor can she be invented.  /deep in the sea, broken at bulkhead 35.  No one can breathe here, in the smog of Bloomsbury, in these dark narrow spaces.  We know that they will be separated and write letters.  She will even try to write a conventional narrative.  The house is dying into its history and its damp patches. We will always see the plaque as we cycle through the Square, looking up at the nothing, the thing (rem), on the last wall of the house.  We will move more slowly, until its blue light returns us to our usual time, and we spin out. Hard disk, she said, I thought it was.

Andrea Brady’s talk at Birkbeck College, “100 Days, poetic pathos and political apathy” is also relevant here. [3]   She has researched 17th century grief, elegies and commemoration as well as the manufacture of public mourning.  She looks at how the mortuary rituals, which were traditionally communal and smoothed the transition of power, have become in our individualistic society an abyss of incalculable loss, in which we celebrate private individuals.

An exception to this is the deaths of the New York fire officers, which represents “a tribute to the absolute of the service economy”.  This tribute is in a society which largely ignores the ideal of public service.  I remember how I cried for the courage of the firemen as they rescued the Thatcher government after the IRA had bombed the Grand Hotel in Brighton: “They are lowering him down, they are lowering down Mr Tebbit on a stretcher.”  Norman Tebbit was the minister once described as a semi-domesticated polecat.  I also remember attending support meetings for the firemen’s union in the last days before Thatcher came to power, and famously declared that there was no such thing as society.

Brady also accepts the funerals of President Kennedy and Princess Diana, in our present day society, as being emblematic rather than privatised.  I’m not sure that I would wish for a return to emblematic funerals of that kind.  Certainly the death of Diana invoked a mass hysteria of misplaced grief, manufactured by the media.  She was Media or Medea, if it had not been a soap opera.  It was so difficult that I remember going into work and having to be very careful what I said and to whom.  No doubt a similar kind of censorship currently exists in the States.

A language of feelings?

It seems to me that we do need a language for feelings, including bereavement, and that we cannot just leave that sort of thing to religious texts and greetings card verse.   Andrea Brady convincingly writes about how the politicians pervert the language of bereavement, and use their supposed commitment to the sanctity of individual life as an excuse for waging imperialist war.  She actually uses the phrase “imperialist trump,” and I’m interested by this repetition of the word “trump,” as it suggests both triumphalism and our fear of it.  Is this perversion of individual mourning trump, as Brady suggests, or are there alternatives?  This is an issue that I touched on earlier in a Postcard about the recent Laurie Anderson concert, in response to an unexpected rendition of her ‘greatest hit’, “O Superman.”  In particular it contains the messages on the answer phone from mom: “Is anybody there?  Are you coming home?”  I saw the news reports in which people played back the last answer phone messages from those they loved.  And I was suddenly in tears because my own mother had died since I first heard “O Superman”, and she used to leave messages on my answer phone, which she would often end “Love, mum.”  There is, of course, a deep irony in Anderson’s song and especially in the dying cadence of “When justice has gone there’s always mom.”  Anderson implies and this quotation from Catherine Lutz and Lila Abu-Lughod asks: “whether the proliferation of emotion discourse in American life... provide(s) an idiom for asserting the existence of bonds between people in the face of the actual attenuation of such bonds.” [4] And yet we still need to write about these bonds of love.

Brady also implies that all expression of feeling is liable to be exploited by right wing media and government: “the reduction of political motivation to feelings, like maternal care, and political thinking to intuition, effectively restricts the political imaginary to local amelioration.”  Evidently this is true, if political motivation is really reduced to the feelings of clichéd sentiment. However, it seems to me that feelings do play an important role both in our local communities, and also in the wider political struggles. I certainly detect passion in Brady’s writing.  I’m thinking also of some of the anti-racist struggles in this country I have been involved in, which could only be sustained through strength of feeling, “fire in the belly,” as well as cool understanding. 

The avant-garde poetic

Linda Russo’s point that “to be human and male is to write Poetry; to be female is talk and to grieve” holds true in England as in America.  We even have a male poet laureate for such occasions.  It seemed hardly less true of the avant-garde when at a large benefit performance held in London there were very few women performers. 

The avant-garde of its nature suggests a male militaristic activity, and historically has tended to exclude women even more than its conservative counterparts.

The architecture of the poetic sequence I am writing is by no means a traditional narrative or even a reworking of the fairytale or legend.  Although in the immediate aftermath of the attack I felt reduced to linear prose, and the kind of journalistic account I was reading everyday in the papers, this was replaced by the beginning of the new collaboration in early November.  Moreover, my initial account in How2 postcards was intended as a way of describing not just my own situation, but more importantly addressing the situation of the communities I care about.  Arielle Greenberg asked how it was possible to be “a non-narrative poet in the face of such REAL, linear surreality”.  It is possible, in fact it is necessary, as I discovered when my mother died unexpectedly, but it does not happen immediately, and we continue to write other kinds of discourse such as this one.  Let us not forget also, speaking of surrealism, that André Breton’s fame was established more by his, very accessible, prose works than his poetry.  Earlier, when I tried to unravel the legend of Saint Barbara I came much closer to story telling than I do in the poem.  Sometimes I use the words of those who have witnessed; though the role of the listener is always significant.  The issue is not whether we do or do not write non-linear poetry all the time, but how best to realise, in all aspects of our lives, our desire for justice and love.

Andrea Brady, critical of sentimentality, finds little alternative, however, in formalist “language-centred” texts, which in her view alienate any certainty of shared meaning.  She writes of “the endless deferral of meaning (which) replicates our inability—or unwillingness—to encounter death”.  I can’t speak for the Language poets she criticises, though I can imagine the kind of defence they might make.  I suspect that many would question the notion of an endless deferral of meaning.  It is true that we struggle to share meaning which is not prey to nationalism or easy sentimentality, but that does not mean that it is endlessly deferred.  It is the struggle which defines both the form and the meaning of our texts.

[1] Lorraine Daston , “11 September: some LRB writers reflect on the reasons and consequences,” London Review of Books (4 October 2001) 21.

[2] Marina Warner, From the beast to the blonde: on fairy tales and their tellers (London: Vintage, 1995) xviii-xix.

[3] Andrea Brady, “100 days, poetic pathos and political apathy” was given as a talk at Birkbeck College, University of London, in October 2001. 

[4] Catherine A Lutz and Lila Abu-Lughod, eds. Language and the Politics of Emotion (Cambridge: CUP, 1990) 12

Bio: Frances Presley’s publications include: Linocut (London: Oasis, 1997); Private writings (Maquette: Sheepwash, 1998); Neither the one nor the other, with Elizabeth James (London; Form Books, 1999); Automatic cross stitch, with images by Irma Irsara (London: The Other Press, 2000); and Somerset letters, forthcoming from Oasis.  She has written about innovative British women poets in various conference papers, reviews and articles.  She lives in London.  Her own occasional press is The Other Press.

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