I waited a long time before writing about 9/11, not because I didn’t want to but because I could not find the right words. I had composed a short, oblique poem called “The Cut” that delved into the way Nature tends to heal itself when it can, the way tree bark will close up over a lost limb. There was nothing specific about 9/11 there, however, I was trying to get at the idea of loss and recovery, wound and scar. A few years later, after reading my friend Jack Neary’s tribute to his high-school friend John Ogonowski, I found a way forward. It was the Dracut connection. I didn’t know John, but I had gone to school with members of his extended family. I knew the landscape, the culture of the town we shared. We had graduated from the same college. For those of us who live in eastern Massachusetts, the brutal attack on the planes that day was searingly real. Many of us knew somebody who was killed. These were our people. Of all the projects I worked on during my time on the UMass Lowell staff, the 9/11 memorial on campus may be the one that means the most to me. The original idea and specific design came from students, and with people on campus working together we got it built in a timely way. I was glad the university yesterday re-dedicated the sculptural tribute called Unity on the East Campus along the River Walk. Here’s a link to the Sun story about the ceremony. After several attempts, a few years ago I completed a prose poem or sketch that is an elegy for John Ogonowski, not the conventional elegy form but one where form followed content.—PM
On a rise on the southern bank just below the rocky grill of the riverbed, students at his college that became a university carved into stone his name and those of six others to remember John, the big-hearted, big-spirited guy from the Polish side of Lowell, whose family later migrated from the city to the green fields of the town across the river—and he grew up to be a pilot and a farmer, who shared his land with Asian refugees who had resettled in the inner precincts of Lowell and who wanted to grow vegetables as they did in Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos, a region from which John had flown home hurt soldiers in the closing years of the war in Vietnam—John the preservationist, who protected open space in Dracut, the town whose original Indian name Agumtoocook means “A Place in the Woods”—John, who took his passengers up on September 11, 2001, up into a “severe blue” sky, as the controllers call it, nothing but blue on the route west, John, who guided American Airlines Flight 11 out of Boston’s Logan Airport, where so many of us have flown away with faith in the promise of technology, management, and civilized behavior, John, who carried his travelers into a boundless sky on a day when he had as usual driven in early from Marsh Hill in Dracut to captain his plane across country, that day like any other in the late summer, not officially fall even though schools were in session, that day like no other by the end of the morning, by the end of the paper rain and ash-cloud, by the end of the twisted steel and burnt ground, by the end of John’s life—on that day from which we have not recovered the bounce that had always made people elsewhere admire our sure belief that Americans could figure out a problem and invent the next dazzle—a day that moved John’s neighbors and even strangers who had never heard of him to drive slowly up the winding hill road that leads to his farm, where they heaped flowers, hand-made signs, candles, and sympathy cards in front of the wide white gate leading to the farm, piled the cut flowers the way my family and I had seen people doing in England outside the gate of Princess Diana’s royal residence long after she died—and past the white gate up the driveway was a giant crane holding up an American flag that looked as big as the flag that covers the left field wall at Fenway Park on opening day—and past the crane and flag was the farmhouse of John’s family, his wife and daughters, who needed him to come back so he would sit next to them at the table in the house one more time.