By Joan Murray
Last week, I got a call from a stranger. She was an elder at a church planning a remembrance ceremony for the twentieth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks and asked if I’d read a poem. It was a poem I wrote on an Amtrak train four days after the attacks, and when I read it on NPR four days later, it became something of an anthem. Thousands of people from all over the world wanted copies: A factory owner in the Midwest wanted to read it to his workers; a Maryland police sergeant wanted to read it to her officers before they went on duty; a Canadian physician wanted to read it at a conference. People said they needed the poem.
The poem shot out of me after I ran into a group of young men in the train’s café car. They were wearing shorts and jeans but were standing in a way that made it seem they were on a mission. When I asked them, they said they were firemen on their way to New York “to dig at the Pile.” I said, “I hope you find some survivors,” and went back to my seat, and out came “Survivors—Found.” I believe its power lay in its empathy and compassion, the way it paid tribute to the goodness of everyday people, the way it shone a light on our better natures and gave us something to weigh against the horrors of that day. Those horrors were unspeakable, but, as people said, the poem spoke to their souls. It didn’t mention burning buildings. It mentioned window washers, waitresses, and firemen.
My grandfather was a New York fireman, yet it was the firemen on the train who reminded me of my parents’ generation, the so-called “greatest generation,” who did difficult and selfless things, often because they had to. My own generation was the movement-politics generation that questioned authority and created positive social change. With our casual anti-American posture and intellectual-class privilege, we dominated the media. But in the four days following the attacks, there were other people on our screens: Latina women ladling soup to rescue workers; iron workers cutting tangled beams; people in small cities donating blood. Everyday Americans. And we found ourselves among them.
That vision was widely embraced. I was invited to read the poem at the official New York State 9/11 Memorial Observance, at a stadium unveiling of the 9/11 stamp, and at a Fallen Brothers Foundation fundraiser. NECN TV in Boston used my reading as the voiceover for a 9/11 video, and three publishers asked me to put together an anthology in response to the attacks.
I agreed to do an anthology with Beacon since they’d published me before and I knew they’d do something meaningful and respectful. (No burning buildings on the cover!) I called the book Poems to Live By in Uncertain Times, and, for its contents, I chose poems from my home library that I’d turned to before in difficult times: poems about loss by Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Jane Kenyon, Daniel Berrigan, and others; poems of wisdom by Lucille Clifton, Seamus Heaney, and Primo Levi, and more; poems that spoke directly to the soul about fear, courage, war, and the elusive need to pray. And, at my editor’s insistence, I included “Survivors—Found.”
For two months, I worked day and night, as did everyone at Beacon, to ensure we’d have Poems to Live by in Uncertain Times in hand on November 11 (two months after the attacks) when I read at the firefighters’ fundraiser. The book quickly became a Beacon Bestseller, and five years later, in response to the unconscionable wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, I put together another anthology, Poems to Live By in Troubling Times. The books remain popular because they’re not about 9/11 or the post-9/11 wars, but about the struggles in the human heart and conscience. As a stranger said by phone, “My wife died a year ago, and the only thing that’s helped me is your book.”
So how do I feel about “Survivors—Found” now? I’m proud and grateful to have written it, and I’m enormously gratified that it helped so many who were wounded or traumatized by 9/11, or who needed words to express their grief and sympathy. But after all the horrifying deaths of the past twenty years—the COVID deaths of more than 640,000 people in the US alone; the opioid deaths of 500,000; the deaths of 7,000 US troops and untold Middle Easterners in the post-9/11 wars; as well as the numerous people killed by fires or floods or at the hands of civilian racists or police—is it still appropriate to remember those lost on 9/11?
I don’t believe tragedies vie for exclusivity or for a high notch on a sliding scale of grief. If I grieve for the mass-shooting victims at Sandy Hook Elementary, Pulse Nightclub, the El Paso Walmart, or Mother Emanuel Church, can’t I also grieve for those murdered on 9/11? If I mourn for Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Ahmaud Arbery, Stephon Clark, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Daunte Wright, and Elijah McClain, can’t I also mourn for Father Mycah Judge, the openly gay NYC firefighter chaplain; and Bernard Brown, the eleven-year-old Black boy on the plane that hit the Pentagon; and Walter Hynes, the brother-in-law of one of my oldest friends, who was one of the 343 firefighters among the nearly three thousand people murdered that day?
The 9/11 attacks came before all those other tragedies. I believe it hit us so hard because it was so unimaginable, because it was so instantaneous and enormous, because its images were so searing, and because we felt so innocent. But I also believe that the acute sense of loss we felt on 9/11 opened our hearts, and I hope that on this significant anniversary, our hearts will open even wider.
We thought that they were gone—
we rarely saw them on our screens—
those everyday Americans
with workaday routines,
and the heroes standing ready—
not glamorous enough—
on days without a tragedy,
we clicked—and turned them off.
We only say the cynics—
The dropouts, show-offs, snobs—
The right- and left-wing critics:
We thought that they were us.
But with the wounds of Tuesday
When the smoke began to clear,
We rubbed away our stony gaze—
And watched them reappear:
the waitress in the tower,
the broker reading mail,
the pair of window washers,
filling up a final pail,
the husband’s last “I love you”
from the last seat of a plane,
the tourist taking in a view
no one would see again,
the fireman, his eyes ablaze
as he climbed the swaying stairs—
he knew someone might still be saved.
We wondered who it was.
We glimpsed them through the rubble:
the ones who lost their lives,
the heroes’ double burials,
the ones now “left behind,”
the ones who rolled a sleeve up,
the ones in scrubs and masks,
the ones who lifted buckets
filled with stone and grief and ash:
some spoke a different language—
still no one missed a phrase;
the soot had softened every face
of every shade and age—
“the greatest generation”?—
we wondered where they’d gone—
they hadn’t left directions
how to find our nation-home:
for thirty years we saw few signs,
but now in swirls of dust,
they were alive—they had survived—
we saw that they were us.
About the Author
Joan Murray is a National Poetry Series winner, a two-time National Endowment for the Arts Poetry Fellowship winner, and winner of Poetry Society of America’s Gordon Barber Award. Her five full-length collections include Swimming for the Ark: New & Selected Poems 1990-2015, Dancing on the Edge, Queen of the Mist, Looking for the Parade, and The Same Water. She is editor of The Pushcart Book of Poetry and the Poems to Live By anthologies from Beacon Press.