The descent into the underworld is easy.
But to retrace our steps - get back up here
where we can breathe clean air again - that's work.
That's a project in itself.
Virgil's Aeneid, Book VI
Facilis Descensus 9/11
Body bags on gurneys … I stumble on the pronouns.
by George McCauley SJ
First, heartburn - like God is ripping out
your rib again. Then flames, melting the
synapses to your brain. Memories cascade
like a sprung Rolodex. A thin screech, as steely
assurances start to dissolve. You're sliding
now. Your bowels move faster than you do.
A panicky distraction - will you go down
unstoried? Halfway there mocks you with
its math. Headlong doesn't apply. You manage
one joke: please don't think less of me. Oh
God!, you'd be on your knees if you had any,
but somehow - vertical has lost all meaning.
Body bags on gurneys in the tented morgue,
different sizes I'm supposed to bless. I
stumble on the pronouns. No one tells me.
'Just say them,' the first bag stares. 'Say him
and me,' the second sits there sulking. ‘I'm
alone ... I think,' a third bag hesitates, 'or maybe
I'm a they'. The EMS stand stiffly at salute
while I'm trying to get the words straight!
I walk outside the tent - a boarded-up hotel.
A frozen movie marquee: Jeepers Creepers
. Soul Survivors . American Pie 2 . Ghost
World . The Others . Happy Accidents .
Disfigured icons of our better selves projected
on a screen. On a sullen world. Self-pity
as the price of admission. Popcorn extra.
A soundtrack, so no one will hear.
Later, uptown, at debriefing. 'How'd it go?’
I try to help the guy and offer platitudes,
but all the time I'm thinking I'll be late for
pasta with some friends. The mind can't
take in death-as-such. We grieve for victims
one by one. But then I thought, it works
both ways: homogenise the killers and you
play death's game; you just keep killing back.
Or haven't you noticed?
George McCauley SJ, from Fordham University, New York, has had several volumes of poetry published. As indicated in the poem, he was involved at Ground Zero with trying to identify remains of the victims and to anoint them sacramentally. Used with permission.