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A poem for 9/11 by NC State's Poet in Residence

9/09/2011 10:44:00 AM Posted by CHASS Communications

A Finger
by John Balaban
NC State University Poet in Residence

After most of the bodies were hauled away
and while the FBI and Fire Department and NYPD
were still haggling about who was in charge, as smoke cleared,
the figures in Tyvek suits came, gloved, gowned, masked,
ghostly figures searching rubble for pieces of people,
bagging, then sending the separate and commingled remains
to the temporary morgue set up on site.
This is where the snip of forefinger began its journey.

Not alone, of course, but with thousands of other bits not lost
or barged off with the tonnage for sorting at the city landfill.
A delicate tip, burnt and marked “finger, distal” and sent over
to the Medical Examiner’s, where forensic anthropologists
sorted human from animal bones from Trade Center restaurants,
all buried together in the Pompeian effect of incinerated dust.

The bit of finger (that might have once tapped text messages,
potted a geranium, held a glass, stroked a cat, a lover’s face,
tugged a kite string along a beach) went to the Bio Lab
where it was profiled, bar-coded, and shelved in a Falcon tube.
Memorial Park, that is to say: the parking lot behind the ME,
droned with generators for the dozens of refrigerated trucks
filling with human debris, while over on the Hudson at Pier 94
families brought toothbrushes or lined up for DNA swabbing.

As the year passed, the unidentified remains were dried out
in a desiccation room--humidity pumped out, heat raised high--
shriveled, then vacuumed sealed. But the finger tip had
a DNA match in a swab from her brother. She was English.
30 years old. She worked on the 105th floor of the North Tower.
The Times ran a bio. Her friends posted blogs. Her father
will not speak about it. Her mother planted a garden in Manhattan.
In that garden is a tree. Some look on it and feel restored.
Others, when the wind lifts its leaves, want to scream.


  1. Anonymous said...

    What I like about this poem is that it creates, for me, a salutary discomfort. Its subject is one that when addressed in public, speakers are often required to make gestures toward compensatory wholeness--whether it be found in sketches of lost lives, the promise of religion, or a nation defiant and proud. The poem's recounting of scientific and bureaucratic processes, and the use of their right names, leaves the reader with language that often feels like concrete rubble. Even the efforts of a family to heal are resolutely ambiguous. I appreciate that the poem's memorializing gesture does not veer away from the devastation in search of consolation.

    John Charles

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