Photograph from September 11

One of the great things about teaching is that you’re constantly learning new things in the quest to teaching other things.

I wasn’t expecting to find this poem though.

“Photograph from September 11” by Wisława Szymborska is a brief but deeply moving poem capturing an onlooker’s horror of seeing dozens of men and women jump out of the World Towers on the eleventh of September.

I remember being still in elementary at that time and not understanding why my parents were staring at the TV in horror as I ate my breakfast. When I went to school there were minutes (or seconds?) of silence but the sort of stomach-dropping shock that should have hit is really only impacting me now, when I’m preparing to teach this poem to my year 9s.

Photograph from September 11

By Wisława Szymborska

They jumped from the burning floors—
one, two, a few more,
higher, lower.

The photograph halted them in life,
and now keeps them
above the earth toward the earth.

Each is still complete,
with a particular face
and blood well hidden.

There’s enough time
for hair to come loose,
for keys and coins
to fall from pockets.

They’re still within the air’s reach,
within the compass of places
that have just now opened.

I can do only two things for them—
describe this flight
and not add a last line.

Seeing as their in-class assignment is to write a two-stanza poem in response to the poem and photograph, I have decided to write one as a model and publish it here. When I read Szymborska’s poem I was struck by the feeling of frozen time, with floating hair and not yet loosed keys and coins. In my mind all were frozen in a sort of morbid animation, surreal and unreal. If I were there, I think I might have thought “this is just a movie,” perhaps to explain away my shock. From this I came up with the words “animated,” “cartoons” and “dramatic.” Of course, the last line is cut off because, unlike Szymborska, the looming end that rushes up to meet the unfortunates is too much for my imagination and so the poem ends abruptly. With the actual death implied because the visual is enough for the reader, you could say too that the poem ends just as a scene in a movie might.

Response to “A Photograph from September 11”

In an animated sort of way
His eyes are watering against the wind
Cheeks flapping like cartoons
Teeth bared and clenched in fright

In a dramatic sort of way
Her hair reaching back up from where she leapt
Eyes following blue sky
Hands free, waving goodb –

© Andrea Lai 2014



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