Book of Poetry Links Trauma of 9/11 and Mount St. Helens Eruption
By BETH HARPAZ
Disaster, loss, survival, trauma: These themes bind together two disparate events — Sept. 11 and the Mount St. Helens eruption — in a new book of poetry, Crater & Tower, by Professor Cheryl J. Fish (Borough of Manhattan Community College).
“And in the black stumps, standing dead Douglas firs I spied/ my city’s crumbling towers,” Fish writes in the poem “The Mountain Called.” “The mountain grows back/ in geological time./ Towers rise again bang-em and build-em rhyme.”
Fish conceived of many of the poems during a weeklong gathering of scientists, artists, and writers at Mount St. Helens Volcanic National Monument held 30 years after the 1980 eruption. The disaster, considered the worst volcanic explosion in U.S. history, killed 57 people and thousands of animals, destroyed hundreds of square miles of land, blew 1,000 feet of rock off the mountaintop, and sent a pillar of gas and debris 15 miles into the sky.
The poet’s connection to Sept. 11 is more visceral. As a BMCC professor and resident of Lower Manhattan, Fish “witnessed both planes hit and tried to ignore/ desperate workers dropping from the towers that afternoon/ evacuating students/ from my campus,” she recalls in the poem “Simon Says.” In “Metallic Thud,” she watches with students “as captives plummet from the towers, missiles of grief. This is not television. Yes, it is. ‘Go home,’ I shout. ‘Look away.’”
Fish ran to fetch her 2-year-old from a daycare center that day, but 15 years later, accompanying him to the Sept. 11 museum, where “he’s anxious to review the main events … I cannot enter the recap room.”
Both the eruption and Sept. 11, she writes, show “Trauma’s influence: movement inside and through dismay. The charred and beautiful post-eruption landscapes, the idea of ‘succession’ from scientists, geological events like toxic particles lodged in our bodies. Only later would I consider smoke and ash at both places, fragments of bone and rock, shock and death, the interplay between ‘natural’ and ‘manmade’ disasters, the forces of commerce and politics commodifying loss. … What are our priorities? Who speaks? Who has power? What choices do we make? How are we living in place? These poems attempt to conjure many perspectives and voices.”
Fish says it feels “ironic and strange” to publish a book about trauma after large-scale disaster in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. “It’s hard to write anything now as the unfolding news overwhelms us,” she said. But she hopes that readers might identify with and find solace in her poems.
“These days, 9-11 is often used as a reference to the aftermath of an unprecedented crisis, and to illustrate the resilience of New Yorkers,” she said.