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Terror and the imagination

INDRAN AMRITHANAYAGAM looks at how `9/11' has become a slogan, a rallying cry and, more specifically, a catalyst for a poet.

I WRITE these words from West Palm Beach in Florida where I have to come to spend a few days with my family, tranquil hours reviewing the homework of my son, going into the ocean while holding his hands before the rough waves, berating him gently for his carefree deposit of wet trunks and sundry beach toys on the floor. Just last week, human beings everywhere noted a date on which the barometers went slightly ajar. "9/11" has become a slogan, "let's roll" a rallying cry, and the wags, naysayers, parlour critics and observers of the memorial services have offered their pronouncements. I have not visited New York since September 9, 2001. I had gone then to read poems and visit friends. I will go back now to visit the ruins, acknowledge the dead, pray and set off afterwards to complete the remains of the day. Yet, I will make music and metaphors from the cataclysm, join the millions of singers already in chorus. I will also recall the hundreds and thousands of other memorial sites that stir ancient lusts and hates and loves. I have my own set of shrines in the New York that gave me a home during the 1980s and early 1990s. I can go back to the East Village restaurant where I found a cigarette lighter on a table that carried the slogan "don't let the bastards grind you down," go to Riverside Park on the Upper West Side and stroll with the beloved in memory past rose bushes and try to identify pansies, rhododendrons, buttercups.

I want to say mariposas now, butterflies, go back to the same gardens with my recently acquired Spanish tongue. Nostalgia is a strong emotion. And it possesses me as I leaf through the workbooks of my son, ponder a return to New York where I will read poems, and reflect on the origins of metaphors. Terrere in Latin is to tremble. The bomb trembles the earth, shakes and turns it over as if struck by an earthquake.

The committed poet in his youth believes his metaphors are like fuses which he lights to create a conflagration. The young man struts, prances, like a kind of teenage prankster, with stink bombs and remote control detonators. He then grows up and spends his life being reminded of the vigour of his early screams, his "Howl" that led the best minds of a generation to pack their bags and wander beatnik across America into Mexico. I am not sure whether 9/11 insisted that poets had to pull out their charts and interpret the event, like astrologers, or whether the traditional and modern healers, priests and psychologists, were sufficiently equipped, or whether political analysts and sociologists could contribute to the rebuilding of spirits as well as systems. The terror that day had the dizzying rush of murder tinged by the supernatural. We have outlived mass murderers before: Charles Manson, Atilla the Hun, Adolf Hitler. Yet, they pop out of the gene pool in every generation. So shall we stopper the pool, live out the generations that currently walk about the planet, then disappear? The romance of the nihilist has infected all of us. Yet, we walk away from the bridge, belt ourselves snugly in the automobile, listen with attention to the instructions on how to open the emergency exit door of the 777. And we try to find meaning, make sense, create buildings with solid foundations, consecrate seminars to resolve some dilemmas of our time, including terrorism, nihilism, jealousy and hate. And in various corners of our great blue planet, where poets have set up their cottage industries, in picturesque villages painted in primary colours, I look for verses that I can put up on my wall, guidelines for the 21st Century, perhaps a citation from the 16th, when Will Shakespeare compared his love to a summer's day, or a bit further on, in the early 1800s when Will Blake prayed for release from racism in "A Little Black Boy" "that when he from black, and I from white cloud free/and round the tent of God like lambs we joy." I know the verses console but what consolation after the bomb? What consolation after the funeral car has passed and we look at ourselves and say we are yet among the living and must attend to the business of the living? And if we are poets or painters, whether we live in protected villages with supplies of tints and brushes, pens and paper, provided by unseen, yet generous, benefactors, or if we find ourselves wandering desert lands, or trapped in offices in suits that do not suit us, we are directed to transform our fears and anxieties and terrors, our trembling, into metaphors, word pictures, riddles and resolutions.

With what results "— ink stains on a page, sweat, perhaps blood, metaphors that swirl mellow and sweet on the tongue like a cognac". A cognac sipped before high windows in a restaurant inscribed in memory on top of the tallest tower.

Indran Amrithanayagam is a poet who writes in English and Spanish. His latest book, Ceylon R.I.P., was recently published in Sri Lanka.

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