9/11 Poems Remember Time Before The Attacks

It's easy to forget that when New York's World Trade Center opened in 1971, it was one of the brand-new marvels of the world. Host Scott Simon speaks with Peter Balakian about Ziggurat, a new book of his poetry about Sept. 11.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

It's easy to forget that when New York's World Trade Center opened in 1971, it was one of the brand new marvels of the world: a standing, breathing, marble and steel expression of New York's, and America's, boldness and ambition.

Peter Balakian was a mail runner then, in and around the Twin Towers. Over the years, he's also written bestsellers - an award-winning memoir, "Black Dog of Fate" - and five books of poems.�His latest book of poetry, published today, September 11th, is "Ziggurat."

Peter Balakian joins us from New York. Peter, thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. PETER BALAKIAN (Author, Poet): Thank you, Scott. Great to be here.

SIMON: Can I get you to begin by reading a section from one of your poems as you saw the Towers going up? And set this up a bit, if you can.

Mr. BALAKIAN: Well, I was a mail-runner, which is to say I ran mail around lower Manhattan in the late '60s and early '70s. And so I got to know lower Manhattan very well, running alleyways and elevators and lobbies of weird buildings. And during this time I was watching almost every day the Twin Towers being built.

And when they came down on September 11, 2001, the vividness of having been around the towers as they were going up came back to me like a great, beautiful and haunted memory.

And so this - I'm going to read a section of a longer poem called "A-Train/Ziggurat/Elegy." And in this section I am watching parts of the towers being built, and in particular I'm noticing the Native American workers who were known for being able to work at great heights with absolute poise and grace. This is Section 22 from that long poem.

On the street I heard that the Indians were like cold-blooded dancers at high altitudes, Mohawks who had come down from Canada. I watched them glide with hot rivets and cold steel into the azure of near oblivion.

Some days they disappeared in light, as if the narrow beams of air came undone and they floated between steel and blue like lost angels of the Karachi.

My head spiraled from the fumes of coffee and yellow bulls, red cranes, green trucks, pale blue drilling rigs. Bulls liver, gooseneck, clamshell, orange peels, 192,000 tons of steel.

SIMON: What did those towers represent before they became a symbol for us today?

Mr. BALAKIAN: Well, I think that they were complex structures as they protruded up from Lower Manhattan. They were certainly emblems of beauty in their sleek late modernist minimalism, with their narrow windows. And I think they were, of course, emblems of world capitalism. They did embody this hub of commerce. After all, a quarter of a million people worked in the towers daily. It's sort of mindboggling to think about that. And for me, as a young poet the towers also came to embody places of exploration for sound and vision, perspective. They became mental spaces as well, and that came to have an animating effect on my own, on my own imagination.

SIMON: How do you think New York changed both from the time the towers went up and from the time until today when they went down nine years ago?

Mr. BALAKIAN: Well, I think the September 11 attacks are a profound historical event in American history - in the broad sweep of American history. I think they have ushered in a new age of anxiety and uncertainty. They have certainly have made new challenges for Americans and New Yorkers, of course, in grappling with, you know, our fundamental beliefs and values as a democracy. Certainly the recent controversy over the Islamic cultural center suggests how big a wound the attacks are and how important it is, I believe, for us as a people, and New Yorkers as the extraordinary cosmopolitan citizens that they are, to push forward with the broadest democratic vision that America has always embodied at its best.

SIMON: Peter Balakian, he's a professor of English at Colgate and bestselling author. His new collection of poetry, published today, September 11th, is "Ziggurat."

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: Peter, thanks so much.

Mr. BALAKIAN: Thanks so much for having me.

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