Nineteen Rooms for September 11 is a work created for the ten-year anniversary of 9/11 by writer, poet, and visual artist Jill Magi. The essay draws, in part, on Magi’s experience working in Lower Manhattan and as a writer-in-residence with LMCC, and continues her exploration of body, meaning, memorialization and narrative.

1. Nineteen Rooms for September 11
Though I could not see anything on the sidewalk, each step forward made a crunching sound. I felt this layer of debris while walking to work from the subway ten years ago in October. All day, dump trucks took pieces of the ruin to the pier, to ship away. By mid afternoon, sanitation trucks came through to wash down the streets. I noted this from my seventh floor office window, nine blocks north of the site, imagining how other events of history are pushed toward the spectral. Years later, I learn of mothers who walk the surface of a landfill miles away, surveying, bending down to pick up a body never again whole. They travel to the Middle East to discuss this with mothers there.

Other points on the coordinates of event, proximity, bodies:
My boss sat with his eyes closed. Her hands hovered above his head. I watched, entered the room, and sat down. The college ordered us to continue as soon as possible, so a colleague invited her friend to give us free Reiki treatments. The official emphasis was to go on as normal. My sinuses cleared for those ten minutes, I thanked her, and she responded, “It is amazing how our bodies can heal themselves.” I did not believe her.
We divided up the names and called each student, speaking with them or leaving a message to call back and check in. An electronic mailbox contains recordings of a roll call of survivors. I still say, “Two of our students died.” Even though I can remember the name of only one, the doubling feels true.


A blade ran across the surface of my belief in everyone’s right to empathy:
During a train ride away from the city—I wanted to get several states away that November—I ran a fever. The next day, during a hot shower, something fleshy dislodged from the back of my throat. At the Thanksgiving table, a friend chastised me for thinking that the violence was terror and unique and mine. He yelled, “Rosewood was an act of terror!” and though I felt the floor drop away, I did not disagree. He is my elder. He was right; he was wrong. It was my city; it is not.
I took this anecdote into the folds of my mind as if placing it inside an archive box entitled, “To want to be held by everyone this fall and not that happening.” I researched Rosewood, others. A steady silence began: an investigation: a different body: a new book.

I think that I will not live as long.


While it was the worst day that never I we have ever experienced, it is was is the day that birthed provided still provides information about violence and continuance
[disgust at above sentence]
[to wish it never happened]
[I changed]


We gasped as we watched, leaving our mouths open for dangerous air. First instinct, to open. Second, cover. This is well documented and we watched others watching, creating a shared body.
I reach out and carefully pull fingers away, translating, during this ten years. Impossible because there is not any one thing to say, yet I need to think together and apart, at a dinner table, over a notebook, a sketchpad, inside a frame, this screen.
Do your own. Draw a floor plan. Each thing learned equals a room. Walk in and around.
Or walk the perimeter of the site. Circle it seven times and as you go, touch all sharp edges without sanding them down. Declare, as you leave, “I remain, yours,”


When I visualize my body before that day, I walk quickly, pitched slightly forward to get there on time, I am of above average height, and I am going to work. I see my skin, then through to my bones, then red organs, connective tissues slightly transparent, off-white. There is uninhibited pulsation, circulation, and what seem like simple and direct signals sent from top to bottom, and reverse.
When I see my body now, I begin inside with the image of an internal prosthesis: a peculiar instrument inserted low, around my belly, at the base of me. This prosthesis—less a replacement and more like the origins of the word: to add, to put—is lightweight and hinged, made of something between wood and bone. It is star-like, bent at various angles, almost a compass, almost a ruler, collapsible and with moveable arms, a sculpture that looks functional.
But its purpose is questionable. Does it hold my organs in place, boosting the work of my bones, my frame? Or is it more outwardly focused: does it receive signal, instantly triangulating this information with others around me, in my city, in the world, in history? Is a signal it detects called “violent loss”? Because that seems like a horrible magnet to carry, because then I would be doomed to constant tension, I want to ask: Does this instrument facilitate regenerative growth?
But it is not a question of “being the better for it.” It is impossible to excise this instrument. It is incorporated.
This is what it measures: sound of a low-flying plane, a breeze coming in from the south, a war, two wars, an angle of light, losses sudden or prolonged. It is the engine behind my decisive exits: “Leave this space” comes to me as a signal and I unapologetically follow its directive, even if exiting seems rude.

There is a device called the umbrella swift, an expandable wooden framework used to hold a skein of yarn not yet organized into a ball. The weaver or the knitter cranks the handle to sort the tangled thread. Translation: threads of information wrap around this structure inside my body in order to work out knots.


My ten-year task has been to familiarize myself with this prosthesis, and accept it by shedding ideas of the natural body-citizen who is allowed to fixate only on the need to purchase a good coffee before work, or simple ideas of self improvement, or knowledge that can be credentialed, or the goal of a long life. To abandon the idea of the purity of desire, purity of soft tissue, and the purity of my singular right to arrive wherever and whenever I choose, safely. For example, before the event I recorded the total hours I spent writing during the week, nervously monitoring my desire. After the event, this journal of progress is blank.
Instead, I run my hand over my body on occasion and feel small irregularities: as if a rib has moved slightly out of place, or my pelvic cradle has spawned a new bone, a new route, some misplaced horn. I take care of this spot, noticing. A week later, it disappears, and I wonder if it was ever there. None of this is provable.
Running my hand over the façade of the old bank building on Wall Street, I note shrapnel marks: from another earlier attack on networks of economic power and not the nation-state. Nothing is new to the city, but to the nerves just below the skin of my hand, everything is. A security guard approaches the site, the scar. I drop my hand, eyes, and walk away.


Four sentences to begin an autobiography abandoned:
The desire to touch the outside walls of office buildings was latent, suppressed.
Tuned not to commerce, and not only to the political, I am now a body tuned to a third space of possibly unproductive relation: art.
I am drenched in skepsis.
I have not rejoined a church, but I pray and no longer campaign.


In a few days, a document disposal company will come to pick up my old notebooks. Anticipating this, I stamped each with a number, photographed its cover, and tried to ignore most of the contents of this collection totaling ninety-nine.
Midway through my project came a bright yellow book and I paused to look inside. Notebook 000036 contains an entry marked “7:30 a.m.” on the upper left corner of a page, and “9/11/01” on the right. I note this anomaly: no other pages contain such a conscientious date and time stamp.
Next entry: a list of names and phone numbers and comments such as “she is OK” and “left message.”
In the notebooks from the years after, my handwriting is loose, I am not troubled by love, I am trying to leave a full-time job, and poetry takes hold. I decide to keep all notebooks from that fall onward, keeping a box of evidence for this conclusion:
Without the event, I do not think that I know art as well, if at all. If, previously, art was an experience to collect, it is now a way to live.
I cup my hands around these words, making a frame: poetry city.

Revision to room eighteen:
To decide to ignore the ten-year mark. Frame suppression as possible radical act, survival. Hands not as cup: the event sifts through until another generation and geological layer, another fall.
Or, memory un-landscaped. For example, a Holocaust survivor who makes trips to Germany to speak to school children and to tell public officials, “Please, no more memorials.” I remember documentary images of him sitting in small chairs, next to children, around a table, listening. He spoke, gently correcting, nearly crying as attitudes surfaced, possibly adjusted, and receded. A classroom is alive and enacts the book, the memorial, the museum, the artwork that evaporates as it remains.
As in that morning: before work, before I heard reports of what was happening, I sat eight miles away in bright stillness and wrote, “Who will find me intact and emerging?” Ten years later, I imagine the concrete of the slurry wall at the site, holes in its surface allow moisture to escape, writing, “Intact is impossible and emerging is always,” and my notebook is open.

Copyright Jill Magi 2011

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4 Responses to ESSAY

  1. Mary van Valkenburg says:

    Oh, Jill, this is magnificent. It really got to me. Thank you.

  2. matthew stang says:

    Thanks for that, Jill. It’s interesting to see your process of contextualizing such a disruptive event. Where you place meaning and emphasis, throughout the Nineteen rooms, creates many mental images. That’s what I like about how you write. You put down just enough of a framework then delicately lay over your input. The rest is up to us to take our own unique journey through your words. -Matt

  3. Shana Turner says:

    Jill, this piece touches my nerve endings. The last few lines of your essay leave me gasping for a breath, both because it is incredibly lonely (and beautiful) to be one person with so many emotions in a sea of millions, all seeping with the same intensity. And because being “Intact is impossible and emerging is always,” is equally filled with hope. Thank you for sharing this….it is gorgeous.

  4. Jocelyn Cullity says:

    Jill’s sharp imagining touches me deeply. The writing is like a breath that keeps catching. Thank you for such beauty.

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