“How are they down, how have they fallen down – Those great strong towers of ice and steel…”

In the late 1940′s Thomas Merton published his complicated poem Figures For An Apocalypse.  One of the sections of the poem is entitled “In the Ruins of New York“.

While the whole section concerns a great downfall, a city and way of life overturned in materialism, there are some striking lines which – when isolated – call to mind the horror of 11 September 2001.

Oh how quiet it is after the black night
When flames out of the clouds burned down your cariated teeth,
And when those lightnings,
Lancing the black boils of Harlem and the Bronx,
Spilled the remaining prisoners,
(The tens and twenties of the living)
Into the trees of Jersey,
To the green farms, to find their liberty.

How are they down, how have they fallen down
Those great strong towers of ice and steel,
And melted by what terror and what miracle?
What fires and lights tore down,
With the white anger of their sudden accusation,
Those towers of silver and of steel?

From Figures For An Apocalypse, VI – In the Ruins of New York (1947) by Thomas Merton

I have posted this excerpt on 9/11 over the past few years, since about 2005 when I first inserted it into a column for The Wanderer.  Inevitably someone protests that Merton wasn’t saying this or that, blah blah blah.  Yes, critics, we all know that.  Take your meds and breathe calmly.  Merton was not a “prophet”, anticipating an act of terror. 9/11 was not an apocalypse except perhaps for those who went to their Judge that day.  Islamist terrorists were not executing the just judgments of God on the United States.  They were agents of Satan.  The content of poem does not line up perfectly with the events ten years ago today.  But the imagery of the poem is, for me, evocative.

When I pass through the words of this poem, I cannot help but recall watching the collapse of “those great strong towers of ice and steel”.  And vice versa.  When I see the video of the WTC collapsing, this poem comes to my mind.

The whole poem, even just the section of “In the Ruins of New York” is worth your time.  Merton paints the ugly with beautiful images.  Other moments of his poem are now striking, given the global economic downturn and hard days we will be facing because of imprudence and greed.  Consider this:

“This was a city
That dressed herself in paper money.
She lived four hundred years
With nickels running in her veins.
She loved the waters of the seven purple seas,
And burned on her own green harbor
Higher and whiter than ever any Tyre.
She was as callous as a taxi;
Her high-heeled eyes were sometimes blue as gin,
And she nailed them, all the days of her life,
Through the hearts of her six million poor.
Now she has died in the terrors of a sudden contemplation
- Drowned in the waters of her own, her poisoned well.”

But now the moon is paler than a statue.
She reaches out and hangs her lamp
In the iron trees of this destroyed Hesperides.
And by that light, under the caves that once were banks and theaters,
The hairy ones come out to play….

The hairy ones come out to play…

Sts. Nunilo and Alodia, pray for us.

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19 Responses to “How are they down, how have they fallen down – Those great strong towers of ice and steel…”

  1. Supertradmum says:

    Thomas Merton was a talented writer and poet. This is an excellent poem by any standards, and like all poems peers into the past and extends through the imagination into the future. There has always been a prophetic nature to poetry. The Anglo-Saxons here a long time ago honoured their poets, but they also had to fight for the king and were right there on the front lines in battle. The bards were not soft men, but men of stature and vision.

    Thank you for sharing this on such a day. As an American in a foreign land, I shall not have the luxury of being able to talk about this day as I would like. But, I was in Canada when 9-11 happened, a painful experience.

    God bless us all, all Americans especially, and all those who lost family and friends. If and when there is another war, the hairy ones will come out. I highly recommend The Road, either read it or see it. It is not for children. It is sobering.

  2. NoraLee9 says:

    Thank you for posting the beautiful poem Father. I saw the towers fall, one from Northern Boulevard in Queens, and the other from our offices in Long Island City. Then I had the unforgettable experience of walking across the 59th Street Bridge in to Manhattan. I had to pick up my 4-year old from her second day at school, and then walk 50 blocks south with her on my shoulders, to where we were living in Stuyvesant Town- a mere mile and change from Ground Zero. I used to be able to see the folks setting Windows on the World up for breakfast from my kitchen window. My daughter Catherine and I both developed what the doctor called “Industrial Asthma” by Saturday evening, and we had to take a course of prednisone. I can’t believe it’s been eleven years. And today is a Tuesday. Ack.

  3. Fr.WTC says:

    I recall those first days after 9/11. I believed that the attacks would not just stop with the World Trade Center Towers, I expected that the whole of the City would be destroyed in some kind of dirty bomb attack. I remember walking about the city with my friends that first Sunday, after Mass at St. Agnes, and saying good bye within me to the City that I had always called home. I seemed to be especially attune to the sights, and sounds about me, attempting to collect them in memories for the day New York would be no more. I hope never to feel that way again, I lack the vocabulary to express the strange and abysmal grief that swept over me and so many other New Yorkers those first days after the 9/11 attack.

  4. irishgirl says:

    Interesting poem by Thomas Merton, Father Z.
    Yes, it is rather spooky that 9/11 falls on Tuesday, just as it did in 2001.
    I was working at a temp job in a local office of Met Life in Upstate NY when the attacks happened. Nearly everyone in the department I was in watched everything ‘as it happened’ on their computers. I was a neophyte computer-wise then, so even though I had a computer at my desk, I didn’t know that there was access to the Internet. So I only heard everything either by word of mouth from coworkers or by radio.
    We were allowed to go home early (before noon) because of the lockdown in NYC-no work was coming up to us. On my way home, I stopped at our Adoration Chapel to pray the Chaplet of Mercy for those who had died. After another stop for lunch, I came home, and it wasn’t until I watched the TV news reports with my mother and my dog ‘Tia’ that I found out the extent of the destruction and death.
    Today, for the 11th anniversary, I prayed my daily Rosary in honor of Our Lady Immaculate (our country’s patroness and whose National Shrine is in Washington, DC), and ‘the Saints, Blesseds and Venerables of New York and Pennsylvania’. Each decade following the first one (which is always for Our Lady under the particular title) was in honor of: 2) Sts. Isaac Jogues, Rene Goupil, Jean Lalande and the soon-to-be -Saint (but still Blessed for now) Kateri Tekakwitha; 3) Sts. Elizabeth Ann Seton, Frances Xavier Cabrini, and soon-to-be-Saint (but still Blessed) Mother Marianne Cope; 4) Venerables Fulton J. Sheen, Angeline Teresa McCrory and Pierre Toussaint; and 5) Sts. John Neumann and Katherine Drexel, and Venerable Demterius Gallatzin.
    Never forget this day! Never forget those who died!

  5. Maltese says:

    And by that light, under the caves that once were banks and theaters,
    The hairy ones come out to play….

    Freaky stuff, but let us not forget that the “end of the world” comes for all; whether by cannibals or by cancer. Pray your rosaries.

  6. PostCatholic says:

    It would be worth your time to read “Alabanza: In Praise of Local 100,” by Martin Espada, a homage to the workers at Windows on the World restaurant. I think it’s the best literary tribute written so far to the terrorist victims, and it sounds a note of hope at the end.

    My personal 9/11 story is that I was home safe in my backyard in suburban Washington, having a cup of coffee on the patio and making plans for a day off, when the radio broke in with the news. The day before I’d had a Monday morning meeting in WTC2 and two more in lower Manhattan before I took Amtrak home.

  7. The mark of great literature is its timeless evocation of all the grandeur, the sadness, the beauty, and the terror of being human. On September 11, 2001, I was still a junior in high school, two thousand miles away from New York. In most of our classes (after first period physics, which passed blissfully unaware of the nightmare), we sat transfixed and silent, watching the images of falling glass on metal on screens of glass in boxes of metal. But one of my teachers insisted that we were not going to watch television; instead, we were going to continue our work. It was my Latin class, and we were reading Book II of Vergil’s Aeneid:

                                  … per tela, per hostis
    vadimus haud dubiam in mortem, mediaeque tenemus
    urbis iter; nox atra cava circumvolat umbra.
    Quis cladem illius noctis, quis funera fando
    explicet, aut possit lacrimis aequare labores?
    Urbs antiqua ruit, multos dominata per annos;
    plurima perque vias sternuntur inertia passim
    corpora, perque domos et religiosa deorum
    limina.

    (Aeneid, II. 358-66)

  8. Sissy says:

    My class had just been dismissed for a quick break; a young woman I didn’t know came up to me with a strange look on her face and whispered in my ear. She said “My boyfriend works at the Pentagon. He just called me to say that the United States is under attack”. I thought she was mentally ill and kept walking to the break room. There, the TV was on, and a huge crowd was gathered around, so I knew something had happened. As I walked up, the second plane flew into the South Tower as I watched in disbelief. For the rest of the morning, my closest friend (a Catholic woman) and I stood holding each other and crying as we watched the situation unfold. When the first tower fell, she and I simultaneously sank to our knees in keening grief. I heard someone say “We’re at war”. We prayed together for a long time for the souls lost. Later, an announcement came over the school system advising parents to go collect their children from daycare or school immediately. I went home, barely able to drive. We lived in a condo in Miami at the time, and the strangest thing of all was the eerie silence as the planes had stopped flying. When they started flying again that following Sunday, it was the greatest sound in the world. I was depressed that entire fall and winter, and I’ve never gotten over it. I don’t think I ever will.

  9. Manhattan Trid says:

    In the 1990s I worked a block away from the Twin Towers. In the basement of the Towers where you would catch the New Jersey PATH trains was a bar called “Commuters’ Cafe”. The owners were devout Catholic Austrians with strong ties to the Salesians of St. John Bosco.

  10. Andy Lucy says:

    The moment that I remember most vividly was when a CNN newscrew made it onto The Pile. And what my wife thought were crickets (I never asked why), well, this old firefighter knew what they really were. It was the sound of 343 PASS alarms going off… brothers lost in the collapses.

    Firefighting, as a whole, is a brotherhood. Every one of those guys was my brother. It hurt to see those guys die… I cannot imagine how those houses that lost entire shifts that day were able to cope. Well, that’s not entirely true… they did “The Job.” That’s what leatherlungs do. The Job.

    I found it especially poignant that according to the NYC coroner’s office, Casualty 0001 was FDNY Chaplain Fr Mychal Judge, OFM. He was killed by falling debris from the first tower collapse. He had been giving Last Rites to the fallen, and was killed in the line of duty… both of the FDNY and of God. The picture of his body being carried out of the lobby of the North Tower is one of the truly iconic photos of that day.

    Always remember…..

    New York City
    Vesey St. & Church St.
    Fire Alarm Box No. 8087

    Struck At
    8:42 A.M.
    9-11-01

    FDNY Signal 5 – 5 – 5 – 5

  11. Luvadoxi says:

    Scitoviasdomini–would you mind terribly translating? My high school Latin is pretty well gone–I get that there’s death, and ancient ruined city, so I’m really intrigued but don’t know how to get a good translation…

  12. Gail F says:

    WOW. I have never read any of his poetry at all much less that. I will remedy that!
    I do not live in or near New York City. That day is a day I got a wound that will never heal. Whoever wrote about the “strange abysmal grief” in the comments above said it very well. I still feel it sometimes, especially today. I could not turn off the television for days. When the planes finally started flying again, all that time later, it was a long time before I could hear one without flinching. Our house is under a flightpath and sometimes they seem so very very low.

  13. AnAmericanMother says:

    Luvadoxi,
    I am in the same boat – my Latin was a long time ago and my grasp of grammar was never very sound. Fortunately, Tufts has a great website with tons of resources, including translations of most of the classical Greek & Latin authors: http://www.perseus.tufts.edu

    . . . so through foemen’s steel
    we flew to surest death, and kept our way
    straight through the midmost town . The wings of night
    brooded above us in vast vault of shade.
    But who the bloodshed of that night can tell?
    What tongue its deaths shall number, or what eyes
    find meed of tears to equal all its woe?
    The ancient City fell, whose throne had stood
    age after age. Along her streets were strewn
    the unresisting dead; at household shrines
    and by the temples of the gods they lay.

    - translation T.C. Williams, 1910

  14. Desertfalcon says:

    Whatever Merton was saying or not saying…..it is both spooky and beautiful.

  15. Suburbanbanshee says:

    There’s a fair amount of literature, in the Western Christian tradition, talking about one’s own city as Babylon, and “Babylon on the Hudson” was one of New York’s quaint old nicknames. There’s even a classic old sf story by Stephen Vincent Benet called “By the Waters of Babylon” (aka “The Place of the Gods”) which pictures the life of a primitive man hundreds of years after New York’s civilization has fallen.

    Merton also seems to draw upon Wells’ Morlocks.

  16. Giuseppe says:

    Special prayers (and admiration) for the soul of Rev. Mychal Judge, OFM, who died ministering to the souls and bodies of the fallen. May all of those who died that day find eternal rest.

  17. Supertradmum says:

    for the souls of the embassy staff and ambassador killed in Libya

    for our president to uphold freedom of speech and condemn all violence

    for Americans to wake up to the power of the evil of all false religions

    Mary, on this day of the victory over the Siege of Vienna, have mercy on us and give us strong leaders who will defend Christianity and freedom

  18. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    Am I right in thinking “the hairy ones come out to play” is, among other things, an allusion to part of Isaias 13:21, “et pilosi saltabunt ibi” (and cf. 34:14, “et pilosus clamabit alter ad alterum”)?

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