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September 11, 2001

One from the Reader poetry editor

Manhattan

On a bad day you can’t see anything

Beyond the Hudson and Jersey side of things:

The grey arroyos of steel, concrete, and glass

Seem brittle as paper houses in Japan.

On a good day you can see the outline

Of rebar emerging, rib-like, in sunlight,

A tensile flex of tendons steeled against

The streets below. These, dissected neat and square,

(The Big Apple as a Euclidean sheet cake)

Feed into the grid’s one blemish, a green

Mistake, an ink blotch of oaks and paths

That spill peace into hidden picnic spots

In Central Park — not nearly far enough

From the baffled wash of the Atlantic

Caressing this fragile fortress island,

Its towered tips serving sentry duty

Over the sleepy waves sloshing at piers

And abandoned pilings where garbage and foam

Congregate like idle prayers to Neptune.

Ignoring news of the day, tidal currents

Comb through a stranded forest of pilings —

A salt bath that soothes an old lady’s sore legs

As she does commerce with the eternal sea.

Today, the skyline was especially free

And majestic (perhaps some noticed this).

Today, the air had a clean crisp in-betweenness

(Perhaps no one would forget at least just this),

A September day, like the bubble

In a level, waiting to nudge either way,

To become an incomparable day — for good

Or bad.

One might oversleep only to wake,

Like an angel an hour late for Creation,

To the explosion of mid-morning traffic.

Or one might crawl to a stop, and sniff the air

On the drive to work, hesitate a minute,

And cock one’s head, unaware, as sirens

Encompass the passage of roaring shadows,

Like knowing beasts with instinct’s machinery...

Today, the gods of war sang with jet-black hair;

One flew east, one flew west, one fell down and

One slammed into our national interests,

Extracting suum cuique’s random plan

From a populous which, until now,

(Friends and enemies both say) escaped history,

Unable to nail itself to a moment.

So, today was a good day, and yet,

The Manhattan rising in everyone’s mind

Is all that remains.

Pelée, Krakatoa,

Vesuvius, all momentous.

Carthage,

Nineveh, Jerusalem, all righteous.

And now,

Lower Manhattan, lower and lower still,

Like ash that adds itself to endless ash —

Inevitable zero’s strict calculus —

Forever falling, stretching, touching ground.

Joseph O'Brien

Joseph O’Brien is the poetry editor of The San Diego Reader.

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Manhattan

On a bad day you can’t see anything

Beyond the Hudson and Jersey side of things:

The grey arroyos of steel, concrete, and glass

Seem brittle as paper houses in Japan.

On a good day you can see the outline

Of rebar emerging, rib-like, in sunlight,

A tensile flex of tendons steeled against

The streets below. These, dissected neat and square,

(The Big Apple as a Euclidean sheet cake)

Feed into the grid’s one blemish, a green

Mistake, an ink blotch of oaks and paths

That spill peace into hidden picnic spots

In Central Park — not nearly far enough

From the baffled wash of the Atlantic

Caressing this fragile fortress island,

Its towered tips serving sentry duty

Over the sleepy waves sloshing at piers

And abandoned pilings where garbage and foam

Congregate like idle prayers to Neptune.

Ignoring news of the day, tidal currents

Comb through a stranded forest of pilings —

A salt bath that soothes an old lady’s sore legs

As she does commerce with the eternal sea.

Today, the skyline was especially free

And majestic (perhaps some noticed this).

Today, the air had a clean crisp in-betweenness

(Perhaps no one would forget at least just this),

A September day, like the bubble

In a level, waiting to nudge either way,

To become an incomparable day — for good

Or bad.

One might oversleep only to wake,

Like an angel an hour late for Creation,

To the explosion of mid-morning traffic.

Or one might crawl to a stop, and sniff the air

On the drive to work, hesitate a minute,

And cock one’s head, unaware, as sirens

Encompass the passage of roaring shadows,

Like knowing beasts with instinct’s machinery...

Today, the gods of war sang with jet-black hair;

One flew east, one flew west, one fell down and

One slammed into our national interests,

Extracting suum cuique’s random plan

From a populous which, until now,

(Friends and enemies both say) escaped history,

Unable to nail itself to a moment.

So, today was a good day, and yet,

The Manhattan rising in everyone’s mind

Is all that remains.

Pelée, Krakatoa,

Vesuvius, all momentous.

Carthage,

Nineveh, Jerusalem, all righteous.

And now,

Lower Manhattan, lower and lower still,

Like ash that adds itself to endless ash —

Inevitable zero’s strict calculus —

Forever falling, stretching, touching ground.

Joseph O'Brien

Joseph O’Brien is the poetry editor of The San Diego Reader.

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