11 September 2019

A moment of silence, a poem by Emmanuel Ortiz

The 11th of September, dubbed nine-eleven by many, was a horrendous day that I think I will remember for the rest of my days. Here are the reasons why. (1) Many innocent people lost their lives, quite unnecessarily and in quite a cruel manner; and it was filmed, I saw folks jumping out of skyscraper windows. Horrendous things happen everywhere, but this was "unignorable" for the way it was on every TV screen. And what's more, the way it was talked about by pundits enlarged it and made it bigger than other tragedies; (2) Most of those who flew the planes or helped hijack them had a future, family, prospects, and they chucked it out the window. I don't understand. Soldiers who go to war could be said to be in the same situation. But we're used to that; (3) The tragedy was spectacular, and I keep seeing the second plane slamming into a tower; (4) The amount of hate that goes into planning and executing something like this is beyond my comprehension; Mind you, I still don't understand the hatred that went into creating and executing Apartheid, except, that kind of hatred, or the kind of dehumanising and decimating the native American peoples, is fomented for a reason: theft, or cheap labour. I want your land, or your resources, or your muscle, so I'm gonna label you non-human or inferior human. (5) I've already seen a few films and documentaries on the subject, and I'm sure there's more to come. More attacks. And if it doesn't come, be sure that someone somewhere is planning it.

How can we forget, and why should we? How can we forget tragedy? Loss of life? Cruelty? La bêtise humaine? How can we forget 11 September 2001? How can we forget the Shoah? How can we forget slavery? How can we forget the dying populations of Iraq? How can we forget Rwanda? How can we forget New Orleans and Katrina? How can we forget Darfur? And more important, why should we? How can we forget Apartheid?

My point?

This is a long way of saying, I'm glad we aren't forgetting this, but also that we must never forget those, either. No tragedy should be forgotten, and the perpetrator(s) need to be punished. I needed to go this long way to assure my reader that I do refer to all human tragedies, respectfully.

Some time ago I read a poem that may perhaps illustrate my feeling more clearly. Poems always do, don't they? Here it is:

Before I start this poem, I’d like to ask you to join me
In a moment of silence
In honor of those who died in the World Trade Center and the
Pentagon last September 11th.
I would also like to ask you
To offer up a moment of silence
For all of those who have been harassed, imprisoned,
disappeared, tortured, raped, or killed in retaliation for those strikes,
For the victims in both Afghanistan and the U.S.

And if I could just add one more thing…
A full day of silence
For the tens of thousands of Palestinians who have died at the
hands of U.S.-backed Israeli
forces over decades of occupation.
Six months of silence for the million and-a-half Iraqi people,
mostly children, who have died of
malnourishment or starvation as a result of an 11-year U.S. embargo against the country.

Before I begin this poem,
Two months of silence for the Blacks under Apartheid in South Africa,
Where homeland security made them aliens in their own country.
Nine months of silence for the dead in Hiroshima and Nagasaki,
Where death rained down and peeled back every layer of
concrete, steel, earth and skin
And the survivors went on as if alive.
A year of silence for the millions of dead in Vietnam—a people,
not a war—for those who
know a thing or two about the scent of burning fuel, their
relatives’ bones buried in it, their babies born of it.
A year of silence for the dead in Cambodia and Laos, victims of
a secret war … ssssshhhhh….
Say nothing … we don’t want them to learn that they are dead.
Two months of silence for the decades of dead in Colombia,
Whose names, like the corpses they once represented, have
piled up and slipped off our tongues.

Before I begin this poem.
An hour of silence for El Salvador …
An afternoon of silence for Nicaragua …
Two days of silence for the Guatemaltecos …
None of whom ever knew a moment of peace in their living years.
45 seconds of silence for the 45 dead at Acteal, Chiapas
25 years of silence for the hundred million Africans who found
their graves far deeper in the ocean than any building could
poke into the sky.
There will be no DNA testing or dental records to identify their remains.
And for those who were strung and swung from the heights of
sycamore trees in the south, the north, the east, and the west…

100 years of silence…
For the hundreds of millions of indigenous peoples from this half
of right here,
Whose land and lives were stolen,
In postcard-perfect plots like Pine Ridge, Wounded Knee, Sand
Fallen Timbers, or the Trail of Tears.
Names now reduced to innocuous magnetic poetry on the
refrigerator of our consciousness …

So you want a moment of silence?
And we are all left speechless
Our tongues snatched from our mouths
Our eyes stapled shut
A moment of silence
And the poets have all been laid to rest
The drums disintegrating into dust.

Before I begin this poem,
You want a moment of silence
You mourn now as if the world will never be the same
And the rest of us hope to hell it won’t be. Not like it always has

Because this is not a 9/11 poem.
This is a 9/10 poem,
It is a 9/9 poem,
A 9/8 poem,
A 9/7 poem
This is a 1492 poem.

This is a poem about what causes poems like this to be written.
And if this is a 9/11 poem, then:
This is a September 11th poem for Chile, 1971.
This is a September 12th poem for Steven Biko in South Africa, 1977.
This is a September 13th poem for the brothers at Attica Prison,
New York, 1971.
This is a September 14th poem for Somalia, 1992.
This is a poem for every date that falls to the ground in ashes
This is a poem for the 110 stories that were never told
The 110 stories that history chose not to write in textbooks
The 110 stories that CNN, BBC, The New York Times, and
Newsweek ignored.
This is a poem for interrupting this program.

And still you want a moment of silence for your dead?
We could give you lifetimes of empty:
The unmarked graves
The lost languages
The uprooted trees and histories
The dead stares on the faces of nameless children
Before I start this poem we could be silent forever
Or just long enough to hunger,
For the dust to bury us
And you would still ask us
For more of our silence.

If you want a moment of silence
Then stop the oil pumps
Turn off the engines and the televisions
Sink the cruise ships
Crash the stock markets
Unplug the marquee lights,
Delete the instant messages,
Derail the trains, the light rail transit.

If you want a moment of silence, put a brick through the window
of Taco Bell,
And pay the workers for wages lost.
Tear down the liquor stores,
The townhouses, the White Houses, the jailhouses, the
Penthouses and the Playboys.

If you want a moment of silence,
Then take it
On Super Bowl Sunday,
The Fourth of July
During Dayton’s 13 hour sale
Or the next time your white guilt fills the room where my beautiful
people have gathered.

You want a moment of silence
Then take it NOW,
Before this poem begins.
Here, in the echo of my voice,
In the pause between goosesteps of the second hand,
In the space between bodies in embrace,
Here is your silence.
Take it.
But take it all…Don’t cut in line.
Let your silence begin at the beginning of crime. But we,
Tonight we will keep right on singing…For our dead.

© Emmanuel Ortiz (published on 11 September 2002)
* Listen to the poem (1)

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