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Before the Fall



Published September 8, 2004 at 4:00 p.m.

How do you express the experience of September 11, 2001 --a single morning that changed the way many of us see the world forever? With poetry, in which a few words can carry incredible weight. In the months after the terrorist attacks, fragments of Yeats' "The Second Coming" -- "Things fall apart, the center will not hold" -- regularly showed up on Internet message boards. Poems written or adopted for the occasion -- elegiac, angry, despairing, comforting -- passed from person to person.

In Manhattan subway cars, a young filmmaker from Russia named Serguei Bassine began standing up to recite a poem that depicts the last moments of an office worker trapped in one of the Twin Towers in a handful of short, matter-of-fact lines. "I always thought that life was full of choices. It always has been," says the narrator of Leda Rodis' poem "From the 104th Floor." It's an easy statement from a young American in the 21st century, almost banal. But the fictional speaker goes on:

Now my choices have been taken away from me.

The men in the planes have narrowed them




Death by fire, or death by fall.

The response to the poem was so positive that Bassine, director of the award-winning film Because of Mama, decided to turn Rodis' work into an animated short. But the story behind the poem was unusual, because Rodis wasn't a professional writer. She was a Vermont freshman at Hartford High School who, like so many other students across the country, had been assigned to pen a few lines about the events of 9/11 for her English class.

"The teacher wanted us to deal with what we were feeling -- it was a therapy sort of thing," says Rodis, a Sharon resident who's now 17. It didn't take her long to produce the paragraph that became "From the 104th Floor" -- about 20 minutes, in fact. "It was right there, so close to my mind," says Rodis. "The images that impacted me the most were the people jumping out of the towers. It's a terrible thing to see when you're sitting in class, watching the second plane hit."

Rodis invented a narrator who responds to the unthinkable the way most of us would -- by relating it to the things she already knows. When the first plane hits, rocking the building, she thinks of a story she heard about a plane crashing on top of the Empire State Building. "Just/ an accident. And accidents/ happen every day." When she has to decide between jumping or staying in the burning tower, she looks to a photo of herself on a Coney Island roller coaster for comfort. "The wind tugging at my hair/ How good it felt to scream."

After Rodis had finished her assignment and read it in class, "it sat on the kitchen table for a while," she recalls. Her mother, Dartmouth College English professor Karen Gocsik, helped her to break the piece -- which was originally a prose fragment -- into uneven, expressive, free-verse lines. Then Gocsik showed "From the 104th Floor" to her friend Bassine, a New York University-trained filmmaker who had been an undergraduate at Dartmouth. Bassine was impressed.

"He wanted to do something with it, but he didn't know what," says Rodis. "He wanted to see people's reactions." That led to the subway-car readings.

When the Showtime network contacted Bassine about the possibility of making a short film about 9/11, he came up with the idea of animating Rodis' poem. The resulting film, narrated by actress Rosie Perez and illustrated with poignant pencil-drawing simplicity by a team of Russian artists, aired on Showtime and was screened at Sundance and other film festivals around the country. Early this month, Hanover, New Hampshire-based Steerforth Press published a book-version of "From the 104th Floor" that includes the text of the poem, stills from the film, and the film itself on a mini-DVD.

Steerforth publisher Chip Fleischer says he's never put out a packet like this before and isn't sure how it will sell. But, watching the film at Dartmouth College, he realized the only way to make a short film widely available to the public was through a book. "Seeing the reactions, I thought something this powerful should be distributed," he says.

What makes the poem so moving? "I obviously wasn't there," says Rodis. "No one can really imagine what was going on, so I had to focus on details. Little things. I wanted to make it real." She used the image of the roller coaster ride at Coney Island -- the narrator's happy memory of freefalling by her boyfriend's side -- to make the poem's ending more subtle. "I did want to soften the blow," she says. "You can't really say, 'And then she jumped out the window.' I wanted it to be about the love."

Like the handmade MISSING fliers that peppered the streets of lower Manhattan after 9/11, "From the 104th Floor" wrenches the reader's gut not because it's about a national tragedy, but because it evokes the individuals who happened to be caught in it. "It inverts the usual perspective," says Fleischer. "Instead of being among the millions on the outside watching thousands perish, we're on the inside, thinking, 'It could have been me going to work that day.'" A message from the dead to the living -- the poem's addressee is the speaker's significant other -- the poem allows us to imagine what one of those smudgy Xeroxed photos might say if it could talk.

Found magazine is a compilation of strangers' discarded notes, misdirected e-mails and other stuff rescued from the recycling bin. Its editor, Davy Rothbart, followed a paper trail to Ground Zero, and the result shows up on two pages of his new book, Found: The Best Lost, Tossed, and Forgotten Items from Around the World. Shortly after September 11, in a pile of paper debris from the Towers, Rothbart found "office memos and stock quotes, page after page filled with numbers... a torn half of a handwritten note that said, '--is the way if you ask me!'" It's a serious note in a book that's consistently entertaining, and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny. Rothbart will be hosting a "Found party" this Sunday at 8 at Radio Bean in Burlington, and he'll be checking out finds from the audience. Voyeurs and pack rats, come on down with "literature" someone else let go.

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