Poetry Sunday: “When the World as We Knew It Ended,” by Joy Harjo

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

This poem was written in response to the events of September 11, 2001, whose anniversary our nation will commemorate and mourn tomorrow. In today’s political climate, we hear a lot of talk about being “woke,” but for many of us, the first flutter of the eyelids occurred on that dark day 16 years ago. I remember it as a time when the most ordinary events became portentous and freighted with dread. A small lump I’d otherwise have ignored menaced cancer, a bundle of rags passed on the roadside looked for a moment as if it might be an abandoned child. I was on Cape Cod when the first plane hit, planning to return to San Francisco on an American Airlines flight scheduled to take off a few hours after the one that was hijacked. En route to the airport, I’d stopped at the post office to mail back beach plum jelly put up the day before, and until I joined them, I could not understand why everyone was sitting on the curb crying and looking blank. My husband was in Manhattan for a business meeting and saw the plume from the back of a cab. Phone lines jammed immediately, and for a few hours, neither of us knew whether the other was safe.

Today’s poem captures what it felt like on that day for many and perhaps, briefly, all Americans on and especially after September 11, 2001. The poem is written at a sort of remove so that the “we” in it feels inclusive not just of actual observers of the disaster but also the greater community of everyone forever affected by it. We sense a waking up to harsh reality (or end to “dreaming”) about existence as we experienced it before, the “world we had grown to love” for its natural beauty, “for the many-colored horses / and fishes, for the shimmering possibilities.” Also lost was a future that once seemed a given, dissolved in a sense of a prophecy fulfilled in the disintegration of the pilings propping up our concept of civilization.

“When the World as We Knew it Ended” opens with the speaker and other Americans still “dreaming” and living on an “occupied island,” which could designate New York, or the entire North American continent. “At the furthest edge” suggests a narrower meaning of “we” limited just to New Yorkers or east coasters, or could also refer to the speaker’s being part of a minority and marginalized community. “Trembling nation” tells us that the trouble that finally “brought it down” began long even before the first plane ever came into view. The next few lines describe our country in its glory days, albeit with undisguised irony:

Two towers rose up from the east island of commerce and touched
the sky. Men walked on the moon. Oil was sucked dry

But all this was before the planes, before our world and ideation about the future was wholly “swallowed / by a fire dragon, by oil and fear.” This last phrase reminds us that the instruments of destruction on September 11 were of our own making; literally in the sense that we built the planes, and figuratively in the sense that we engineered the oil demand that fueled the tensions leading up to that day.

“It was coming” is given extra weight by being the only line in its stanza, and that increases its drama and intensity. I read it as meaning “it was a long time coming” or “it was coming all along,” shifting the blame from the easy target of the terrorists to the subtler workings of power, politics, and economics that arguably produced those terrorists. One example of those dark forces is colonialism, alluded to in “[w]e had been watching since the eve of the missionaries.”

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  • Meryl Natchez September 13, 2017 at 11:31 am

    I love this poem, the combination of the daily, the terrible sense of impending doom, and especially the ending! Thank you for posting.

  • Marian Cannon Dornell September 10, 2017 at 8:04 am

    I have not taken a deep breath in days. This shallow breathing sets in in early September, as I begin to fall into the annual dread that has come to me this time of year since that day. Thank you. Thank you for posting this poem that makes the reader face the day. Face the day as an American who, perhaps unknowingly perpetuates that American thing that brought on the attacks. Owning that responsibility is only the start to working toward peace. Thank you for reminding us of our responsibility.

    • Rebecca Foust September 10, 2017 at 2:48 pm

      Thanks for reading, Marion. Steady it goes, I guess. I brace for every day.