NICOLE COOLEY, STAFF, QUEENS College
Like the magic porridge that takes
over the town, pours through the village,
fills, then empties, the streets –
It swallows everything in September and it happens twice
First, in New York the burning
seeped under our apartment door, into the window seams.
The sharp smell threaded through
my daughter’s hair for days.
my lips to her head.
Four years later in New Orleans
water surges over, under,
wrenches houses off stone foundations.
The floodwall cracks,
an explosion of gunfire.
Water surges around my parents’ house.
I read that story to my daughter because
once upon a time there were two Septembers in two cities:
the one of the towers on fire
and the one of floodwaters rising
once upon a time my mother read it to me
when we leaned together in my canopy bed
when outside the window over the levee
the river was all flat green and quiet.
Now someone else is reading me the story. I crawl up
on her lap but she pushes me off and says:
Don’t shut your eyes just because you can’t watch
TV: the jumping couples from windows of Tower One,
the families, attics split open, in the Lower Nine, waiting for rescue.
Once upon a time it was the end of August and I
was on the phone with my parents, begging them to leave the city.
Fast forward to my parents’ repeated answer:
this is our home.
I was telling my parents to go to the superdome.
My mother saying: you are sending us to a watery grave.
Today’s American History Lesson, the voice says:
Once upon a time in 1927 white men blew up the Industrial canal.
With a loud crack, they breached the levees.
They wanted to drive the black families out.
So when my daughter’s class gathers at the flagpole for
a “patriotic song”“in commemoration” of “the event”--
the sky is a pure blue bowl
capable of holding nothing.
Here is the weather, the voice says, New York’s bright sky in both Septembers.
Ever since, a clear early fall day is 9/11 weather.
I sit beside my mother on my bed.
I hold my daughter on my lap.
When the peasants run and the porridge blankets the streets
who will save them?
My mother says, This is our home.
Today’s History Lesson: It swallows and swallows and swallows
I’d like to sit with her, Our Lady of the Breach.
Our Lady of the Burning City.
Our Lady of the Uncomforted.
I’d like to hold her hands down and whisper the lesson.
I’d like to force the floodwaters down her throat.
Couplets Toward the Future
Now each day is a gasp. Above, a helicopter stutters
across the blank blue sky, then disappears
into Manhattan’s empty horizon, air clear
of the smoke that sometimes rises, sometimes disappears,
jaundiced yellow smell filling our bedroom with fear
of the future. That day won’t disappear.
Because it’s always replayed. “America’s New War” --
it’s this century’s lesson: how bodies disappear --
war started in the city where our family began, here,
where now the best moment is waking, all dark disappeared,
where the baby lies between us and the two of us breathe her
in, and I pray for the world outside our bed to disappear.
It won’t. It shouldn’t. And you know this. On my shoulders
your hands hold me as this moment disappears.
How can one body turn into another? That’s last year’s
question. Now, I ask you, how can a body disappear?
Your hands hold me. In the unmapped future,
you won’t let me refuse life. You won’t let the three of us disappear.
—Nicole Cooley, Queens College