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Michael Symmons Roberts, the Macclesfield poet, was moved by the messages that many doomed victims of the September 11 attacks left for their loved ones in their final minutes.   

 

"They could have expressed anger or fear, but almost all left messages of love and its continuance.  That says something hopeful about the human spirit."   

 

Roberts found himself musing on how he would feel if he had received such a message, preserved by the cold technology of machines.  

 

"Would I keep it in a silk bag?  Could I bear to listen to it?  Would I find it a comfort?"  

 

He wrote this poem.  

 

Anthony Sher will read it at 3.30pm GMT on Sept 11th 2002, on BBC Radio 4.

 

 

Last Words

by Michael Symmons Roberts

(i)

You have a new message:

Kiss the kids goodbye from me

Keep well, keep strong, you know
I'm sure, but here's to say I love you.
I lay these voice-prints

like a set of tracks, to stop

you getting lost among the tall trees
beneath the break-less canopy,
on the long slow walk you take
from here without me.

 

(ii)

You have a new message:

I do not want to leave you this
magnetic print, this digit trace,
my coded and decoded voice.

I do not want to leave you.

If I had a choice, my last words
would be carried to your window
on three slips of sugar paper in
the beaks of birds of paradise.
The words would say,

I'm sure you know,

I love you.

 

(iii)

You have a new message:

I throw my voice across the city,

but it meets such a cacophony

we overload the network.

Countless last words divert

on to backup spools and hard drives.
Systems analyst turns archaeologist:

his fingertips, as delicate as brushes,
sift through sediment of conferences,
helpline hints, arguments and cold calls,
searching for the ones that say

You know, I'm sure, I love you.

 

(iv)

You have a new message:

This is the voice you hear in dreams,
this is the tape you cannot

bear to play. This is the voice-mail
you keep in a sealed silk bag

in a tin box in the attic.

But the message is out - in

the sick-beds and the darkened rooms;
in the billowing curtains

and the hush so heavy

you can hear the pulse in your wrists.
The message is out, in the ether,

in the network of digits and wires.

I know, you're sure, I love you.

 

(v)

You have a new message:

Donít remember this, donít save

this message. Keep instead
the pictures of last Sunday

in the park when summer

leaves were turning, Rollerbladers

hand-in-hand, our boys

throwing fists of cut grass at each other.
Think of the extravagance of green,
and think especially of the sky,

its blinding cloudlessness.

You know, I'm sure, but here's

to say I love you.

 

(vi)

You have a new message:

This is the still, small voice

you longed to hear among the ruins.
This is the voice you fished

with microphones on long lines,
lowered into cracks between

the rocks of this new mountain.

And your ears ache with the effort,
the sheer will to listen, to conjure
my words, your name on my lips,
out of nowhere. Here's to say.

 

(vii)

You have a new message:

When a city is wounded,

before it moans, before it kneels,

it draws a breath, and keeps it,

as though all phones are on hold,
all radios de-tuned, cathedrals locked
and all parks vacant.

It becomes a windless forest.

But remember, silence is not absence.
Learn to weigh them,

one against the other.

Each room of our house contains

a different emptiness. Listen.

Then break it. Say

you know, I'm sure, I love you.

 

(viii)

You have a new message:

Do not forget the beauty of aeroplanes,
those long, slow pulses from the sun
which passed above our garden as

we lay out in the heat. Do not forget
their gentle night-time growl,

and how we used to picture people in them
- sleeping, talking, just as we were,
how we used to guess the destinations.

Do not forget the grace of aeroplanes,
the majesty of skyscrapers.

You know, I'm sure.

 

(ix)

You have a new message:

Still, a year on, you rifle through
black boxes, mail-boxes, voice-boxes,
in search of my final words.

You hunt them in the white noise
between stations on the radio, the blank
face of a TV with the aerial pulled out.
You walk in crowds, wondering

if my words were passed to him,

or her, as messenger. If I'd had time

to leave you words, you know, I'm sure,
they would have been
I love you.

 

(x)

You have a new message:

Now, my voice stored on your mobile,

I can tell you fifty times a day

how much I love you. "Tell the kids,"

I say. I don't know if you still do.
Sometimes, when you're out of town,

on trains, or in the shadow of tall buildings
You lose the signal. The network breaks.
You hear vowels splinter in my throat,

as if struck by a sudden despair.

 

(xi)

You have a new message:

Where did my last words go?

Out and out on radio waves

into the all-engulfing emptiness,
fading to a whisper as they cross

from sky, to space, to nothing.

Or in, and in, as litany repeated

in your heart until all tape is obsolete.

Each cadence, every tongue-tick,
every breath is perfect, as you say
my words: You know, I'm sure.

 

(xii)

You have a new message:

There is nothing new in this.

My voice has printed like a bruise,

like a kiss, like a kiss so strong

it leaves a bruise. I love you.

You know it, I'm sure.

Beyond the smoking ruins,

smoking planes, and empty rooms,
above and beyond is a network.

A matrix of souls,

as fragile as lace,

but endless and unbreakable.

To save the message, press.

 

 

For some iGreen thoughts on Sept 11 click here

 

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Last modified: October 19, 2005