Swift Entanglement: Creative Non-Fiction by Nicholas Regiacorte

Nicholas Regiacorte, author and associate professor of English at Knox College. Photo: knox.edu

Nicholas Regiacorte, author and associate professor of English at Knox College. Photo: knox.edu

Published in 2010, this essay by Nicholas Regiacorte, associate professor of English at Knox College since 2002, reflects on the final days of Muhammad Atta, which were spent here in Portland, Maine. On September 11, 2001, Atta flew from Portland to Boston to connect with fated American Airlines flight 11 which he hijacked and piloted into the World Trade Center.

Regiacorte, in his essay Swift Entanglement (reprinted here in its entirety with kind permission from both the author and the publisher, Michigan State University Press), embarks upon a dream-journey tracing Atta in and around Portland during the weeks leading up to the September 11th attacks. Mention is made of Munjoy Hill and Micucci's Grocery, where the author holds cherished memories. Throughout the prose, Atta surfaces in unexpected places, corresponding to reported sightings, including the Lobster Shack at Two Lights State Park and the Portland Public Library.

Not merely a passive reflection on Atta's comings and goings, Swift Entanglement is also a meditation on the humanity of a terrorist, the role of events in recasting memories, and the revelation of common ground.

First published in Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction Vol. 12, No. 2 (fall 2010), pp. 53-60, © Michigan State University – All rights reserved, Used by permission.


Swift Entanglement

Renovations of Memory in the
Realization of “You”

By Nicholas Regiacorte

Day and night, at every instant, on all the Mount Moriahs of this world, I am doing that, raising my knife over what I love and must love, over those to whom I owe absolute fidelity, incommensurably.
—Jacques Derrida, “Whom to Give to,” in The Gift of Death

In late August of 2001, Muhammad Atta was seen buying bread in Micucci’s Grocery on East India Street in Portland, Maine. Prior to the attacks a few weeks later, “there were sightings all over,” according to Chief of Police Mike Chitwood. Micucci’s is only a few blocks inland from Songo Shoe, the old factory where my father got his first job in this country. It’s only two blocks and a half east of St. Peter’s Church, where my sister, my brother, and I were all baptized by Fr. Romani—and I was imprinted with the mysteries of my faith. Micucci’s was a church of another sort. When I was eight or nine (before extensive renovations in the ’90s), it was one large and musty room, nearly windowless except for the two that were high up and never cracked. There was a table with the old register, to the left of the deli case full of cheeses and antipasti, and up behind this, a loft with sliding window, where Leo Micucci did the accounts. This may never have happened, but I remember the old man sliding that glass open to shout orders and jokes down at his wife and nearly grown children, or to reach a long arm down to point at a cheese. “Give him that one,” he said to my father or whoever was next in our imagined line (as this was before they discovered the ticket dispenser).

Twenty years later, say Atta is next in line. It never happens, but I imagine the old man, from his loft, noticing the quiet Egyptian and befriending him.

Because I’ve become entangled with Atta in this essay does not mean I forgive, or even understand him.

This may be true. I am recently back in the country from a year in Italy. I get all of my stuff out of storage in Iowa City, cram it into my truck, deposit most of it in Galesburg, Illinois (where I’ll begin teaching in the fall), and start out on a road trip to reacclimate to “ordinary life” and see all of my people along the East Coast, from Maine to Florida. I drive up to Maine first, to see my sister and nieces in Waterboro. Inevitably, after a few days of hide-and-seek and little chores around the house, I go spend an afternoon in the Old Port, browsing the music and bookshops. Maybe I take the ferry out into Casco Bay. I could make an afternoon of it, out on the bay, riding as far as Cranberry Island and back. But before this, I decide to get lunch at Micucci’s, to carry along with me. The old store now exists within a new one. At least I can summon it up, darkening the clean aisles, replacing the barrel of vacuum-packed salamis with dried cod by the door, remembering the sliding window, of course. A quiet man, around my height, gets a ticket right after mine, no. 25. Hair like my father, I think, from his passport photo in 1960. I have a panino that I want made into a sandwich with mortadella and scamorza. No. 25 has a bag of pita bread, which I didn’t know they sold. He sees me looking and doesn’t smile to excuse it. We watch other people make their orders. Both irked by the widow just ahead of me who buys a whole five minutes’ worth of thinly sliced capocollo.

Later in the week, when I take the girls to Two Lights, I spot No. 25 sitting on the rocks, with a friend. They are sharing a large fried clams and looking out at the Atlantic. I stop and nod at them. I can still see the girls, inspecting a tidal pool a few feet a way. “Ah, yes,” he says. “From the store.” I smile, “Those are the best.” “Very different from clams in Abu Dhabi,” he replies. “You’re from the Middle East?” “United Arab Emirates,” he says slowly with a smile, as though I would never have heard of it. “So you’re taking in all of the sights of Maine?” “I just got my degree of chemistry, so I am pleasing myself to tour America.” “Your English is very good.” “So is yours. You are a Mainer?” I am surprised by his joke and tell him we used to have family barbecues here (pointing to an inlet at the base of Portland Headlight). “We’d keep watermelon cool by leaving them in tidal pools—somewhere over there” (I can’t remember). This is when I think to check on my nieces who have now ventured down nearer the surf.

Hindsight is altering these interactions and I name him Muhammad, born September 1, 1968, in Cairo, with degrees in architecture from Cairo University, and urban planning from the Technical University of Hamburg. This is where I think of changing his mind. I think of his small lies and suffer no injury from them, our acquaintance such as it is. I realize that he is not “the muscle,” that he was described as a reclusive and pensive boy, like I was. Instead of “You’re from the Middle East?” I could have tested him by asking, “You’re an Egyptian or Saudi?” But I think to reintroduce myself instead and talk about my nieces, to show that I love them, and invite him to talk about someone he loves. Maybe he speaks of his mother, Bouthayna, and growing up by the Nile. Maybe I talk about the creek in the woods by my childhood home, a clearing hemmed with sumac, or a little orchard. Maybe my father reminds him of his.

“There [are] sightings all over,” says Chitwood. So maybe Muhammad and I see each other two or three more times, as he is rumored to have been seen all over Portland—getting drunk downtown and harassing women, at the Weathervane in South Portland, in Deering Park—by the fountain my grandfather built, crossing Tukey’s Bridge, buying jeans at Levinsky’s, talking with a childhood friend of mine on Munjoy Hill, and browsing the aisles in the Portland Public Library—where one librarian says it is “either him or his twin brother.” That’s where I see him for the last time.

I’ve come to test out the library by looking for a few obscure or otherwise essential volumes. Jean Toomer’s Cane; Soap by Francis Ponge; Lyn Hejinian’s most recent book, or Zbigniew Herbert’s Report from the Besieged City; Frank Stanford’s Battlefield. I go to check on my last entry, which is a first edition of Kora in Hell, and this is where I find Atta. He is not reading any manual, but sitting on the step stool with Leaves of Grass, only a dozen books away from my Williams. I decide he’s reading the exact passage that Gavrilo Princip read when he found final inspiration for carrying out his errand to shoot the Archduke of Austria. I decide that this is the precise moment for the full expression of whatever power I have as a poet, teacher, or stranger. I’ve already seen what he will do. But right now, I can sit with him. I can ask him about the poem. I could sway him with “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” I think. But the book is open to a little poem I know less well, “A Paumanok Picture.” Whitman? “Yes,” he says. “Surprised?”

Two boats with nets lying off the sea-beach, quite still,
Ten fishermen waiting—they discover a thick school of mossbonkers—
they drop the join’d seine-ends in the water,
The boats separate and row off, each on its rounding course to the beach,
enclosing the mossbonkers,
The net is drawn in by a windlass by those who stop ashore,
Some of the fishermen lounge in their boats, others stand ankle-deep
in the water, pois’d on strong legs,
The boats partly drawn up, the water slapping against them,
Strew’d on the sand in heaps and windrows, well out from the water,
the green-back’d spotted mossbonkers.

Fisherman are corralling “mossbunkers” with their nets, hemming the school in on all sides and driving it. It’s clear that their ingenuity awaited chance—or God, he may say—to be fully expressed. Then their vigil is rewarded. You’re either fish or fisherman, he may say. More than that, one approach does not suffice, I say; one boat couldn’t seine the entire school. We move horizontally with more than one end to gather. We aren’t praying at this point, but I don’t say that. We’re working horizontally toward the revelation of the smallest possible world in common, two readers in the aisles of a public library, to gather a mass and winnow it down into particulars, first heaps, then windrows containing a single few. We see the green backs and spotted bellies. We remove them from their element, and it will cost us these particulars, naturally. All particulars decay in (are sacrificed to) the universal. But I don’t say this either. And we don’t have to like it.

You must make your knife sharp and you must not discomfort your animal during the slaughter

I wonder aloud who’s more real in the poem. Among its characters, which seems most potent and which seems most real? Is it the fishermen, practiced in the arts of netting and boatmanship, fishing and waiting? Is it the boats themselves, which show some agency in the poem, with no mention of how the men navigate them—other than when they draw them onto the shore? Is it the thick school, which appears suddenly in calm water—interrupting the fishermen’s wait? The mossbunkers bear at least as many features to individuate them (or mark them as part of a group) as the men. The fish are green-backed and spotted, and they travel in dense schools. The anonymous “ten” are classified by simple divisions (two boats, those lounging and those standing). Some are shown to have strong legs. But never does the poet lift our attention to any one face or any specific action carried out by his human subjects. The fishermen are always “those”—familiar insofar as we see them as human, but strange to the extent that no one man has an identity of his own. For lack of any associate, following the poem’s events alone, my identity is wrapped up with the poet’s, until it is won over by the fish.

The fact that our gaze is never lifted far above sea level seems intended to emphasize our matter—as it is subject to the elements. This is nowhere more dramatically illustrated than when the mossbunkers, finally removed from their element, must suffer the very weight of their bodies. Whitman does not need to embellish this fact, to say “they gasped.” Without ever seeing a face, we never have any reason to dwell on the mind. We may consider the seining of fish to constitute a function of the mind. Indeed, this is the most deliberate human action in the entire poem. But everything then drifts into place, with little guidance, until a few able men and a school of caught fish enter the influence of gravity most fully. What does it say, then, that upon each species’ arrival on dry land, fisher and fish, the mossbunkers seem the more real, perhaps the more living?

Without yet seeing each other, we move toward a single point.

YOU MUST NOT DISCOMFORT YOUR ANIMAL

Atta’s flight from Portland to Boston was delayed. His bags didn’t make it onto Flight 11 and were not destroyed. Contained inside were flight uniforms, manuals, and a four-page document in Arabic. Contained in the four pages was a list of instructions.¹ Here are two:

12. Bless your body with some verses of the Quran [done by reading verses into one’s hands and then rubbing the hands over things over whatever is to be blessed], the luggage, clothes, the knife, your personal effects, your ID, your passport, and all of your papers.

13. Check your weapon before you leave and long before you leave. (You must make your knife sharp and you must not discomfort your animal during the slaughter).

I walk back in time, back into Micucci’s and confront this document, along with “A Paumanok Picture.” It is not a dramatic event, to buy a pint of olives. I recognize Leo Micucci’s grandchildren now, stocking shelves. The old grocery and the new are one in the same. I walk in to buy olives. I am forced to address the unplanned-for act of a terrorist walking into and slightly, however slightly, renovating a place that is dear to me as any Tradition. It is now a meeting place, a kind of shore upon which we may meet. As my curiosity in Atta has grown, fed by bits of information like the instructions above, I reenter Micucci’s to “see it for the first time” or as someone different. Am I the “discomforted animal”? I want to go meet him armed with a knife of my own. I want to bless my own hands and deeds, and go to meet Atta in Leo’s store.

Rooted as I am in my own filial, cultural, aesthetic origins, I am forced to address the unplanned-for fact of a terrorist walking into and slightly renovating one of those sources. One reality finds a fresh context in another, the familiar renovated by the introduction of the strange—not unlike (if we imagine many like incidents) Eliot’s “Tradition.” This is not to ennoble the terrorist, but to say he—Atta—is an agent of change, modifying my perception.

I do go back, before the library, to the line behind our window. I am armed with nothing but “A Paumanok Picture.” Also “Starting from Paumanok.” Atta is armed with his own texts. I recognize this projection, now, or near “flight”² of myself: working horizontally to meet him, nearly face to face.

No place here, nor in any poem, is ever safely removed from the transformative chance entrances of an Other, which at any minute threatens to become a You. My Cumberland could no sooner close its woods to Atta than Micucci’s could prevent his entrance. Not if I am to write any poem. These places, innocent as they are, see both of us and willingly open their borders. Both of us live with bread, “feel want, taste grief, need friends.”³ It isn’t in the world’s nature or the poem’s to reject us, yet.

No Cumberland is mine alone, nor any house since, but they may also belong to the terrorist—as was surely the case. His Nile is mine, now that he’s entered fully into our imagination along with his life story, all of the documents and footage; so too are his mother and father.

Since the renovation of my childhood grocery, as much as September 11th, my motives to make poems begin to resemble Whitman’s in “Starting from Paumanok”:

I will not make poems with reference to parts,
But I will make poems, songs, thoughts, with reference to ensemble,
And I will not sing with reference to a day, but with reference to all days,
And I will not make a poem nor the least part of a poem but has reference
to the soul,
Because having look’d at the objects of the universe, I find there is no one
nor any particle
of one but has reference to the soul.

He could not make poems without reference to you. But to say “I see you now, face to face” neither indicts nor absolves you. “I see you” lends no credence to your cause. “I see you” sets aside no heaven for you. Nor does it, however, injure the dead. Because I’ve become entangled with Atta in this essay does not mean I forgive, or even understand him. I recognize him as a shopper at the same market, a constituent of the same school. In this way, any poem I may write must allow that he is implicated in it. Writing a poem, through its particulars, aspires to a terrifying, entire world. I share it with the likes of George Doty.⁴

I will lose Atta, rejoining his story from several removes, in the security footage from the Portland International Jetport, where a host of imaginary scenes must bottleneck through this one unalterable image. He will be there in the frame, having just retrieved his handbag from the scanner. In that image he will be fast approaching other unimpeachable, immutable documents: volumes of receipts from throughout the U.S., including a flight school in Venice, Florida, and hotels in Las Vegas; records of calls from two flight attendants; his last will and testament written in 1998, MP3s of his last statements to air traffic control.

For now, however, he has no. 25 because I have decided it. In the grocery, or marketplace, of the self, these are the conditions. We are constantly approaching one another, armed with texts, preparing for their inevitable entanglement. We are waiting for the widow to get her pound. Leo slides open the window and shouts down the specials. If this is also a poem, here is my craft: In late August, Muhammad Atta bought a sandwich in the grocery on India Street where as a kid I remember Micucci himself from the sliding window handing down samples like communion. Take a sandwich with you, he might have said to Atta,

when you’re away from home

no food in sight—there is

nothing like it.

Notes:

1.    See http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/binladdendispatch.htm.

2.    From Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness.

3.    From William Shakespeare, Richard III, act 2.

4.    Referring to James Wright’s poem “At the Executed Murderer’s Grave.”