Poetry and the Absurd in 9/11 Dramedy “Rescue Me”

My cable plan lets me watch only the networks, so I often watch TV on DVD or through my Roku. After wrapping up Breaking Bad, I needed a show to tide me over until the latest seasons of my favorites are released. Someone I know  whose television taste I trust (but whose music taste is debatable) recommended Rescue Me. Running for seven seasons (the last episode aired on 9/7/11), the series centers on the professional relationships and personal lives of a mostly-male NYC fire company in the aftermath of 9/11.

A CC-licensed photo from flickr user LEO-ONE

From what I’ve seen of the first season, some of the best comedic moments happen when men in the fire company are forced to confront their narrow notions of masculinity. For instance: What is a metrosexual, and does metrosexuality relate to sexual identity? Consider another example: season one’s story arc on Kenny’s (aka Lou’s) 9/11 poetry, which he secretly composes at home before his wife discovers what he’s been doing on the computer every night. (Just writing poetry, actually.) 

Kenny eventually reveals his poetic efforts to his fellow firefighters (at this point, all male), a move which initiates a spirited, humorous debate about the artistic worthiness of his work. His poetry also represents an exploration of  the  enduring trauma of 9/11. Can art forms like poetry help one to come to grips with absurd, senseless experiences? Can any language in any form, for that matter? And who, the show’s poetry scenes ultimately ask, can claim ownership of 9/11 trauma?

After the jump: my full take on poetry and trauma (among other things) in Rescue Me as well as my transcription of one of Kenny’s poems.

Craving an audience for his poetry but also shying away from one at the same time, Kenny anonymously posts a short poem on the kitchen wall of his firehouse. The poem, which I’ve transcribed to the best of my ability here, ignites a hilarious exchange about something we Englishy-types call “poetics,” or theories about the object, function, and characteristics of poetry. What topics should poems be written about? What should poetry help its writers and readers to understand or feel? How should a poem be written–that is, with what imagery, rhyme scheme, etc.?

Kenny’s work initiates discussion about concepts far weightier than poetics, however; he writes poems to cope with having been a first responder in New York City on 9/11. Poetry offers him a way to quietly and, at first, privately process complex, psychologically terrifying feelings that he may not yet fully understand or be ready to confront. Perhaps because his coworkers refuse to talk about their emotional responses to his 9/11 poem, he attends a PTSD therapy group for 9/11 survivors. Kenny’s poem has a powerful affect on them, and their willingness to engage with him emotionally seems to bring him some comfort.

A CC-licensed photo from flickr user shoehorn99

At the same time, Rescue Me smartly demonstrates the limits of poetry and other forms of verbal expression in helping trauma victims, particularly those directly affected by 9/11, to process insensible experience.  After all, the group therapy attendees initially are moved to tears–that is, beyond words and into the realm of raw emotion. No one seems capable of choking out one word. The show’s poetry scenes, then, depict 9/11 as an absurd event–one that cannot be humanly understood because it defies logic and other forms of knowing, like religion. Poetry is simply too blunt a tool for such a deep, intricate problem.

[That being said, poetry certainly helps Kenny in the romance department. Rescue Me enthusiastically perpetuates the “tortured artist” stereotype: Lovelorn, lonely, and sexually frustrated, Kenny is a tragic figure who can’t manage to conceal his emotions and put on a brave front (supposedly as a man might do). Instead, he compulsively spills them onto the page (presumably as a woman might do). As a result, his attractiveness to the opposite sex ironically skyrockets, and it throws into doubt the desirability of his younger, hotter coworkers whose maschismo measures at astronomical levels.]

Perhaps most importantly, the poetry scenes in season one of Rescue Me debate who can claim 9/11 PTSD: Those who were in areas close to where the attacks  occurred? Anyone in U.S.? Anyone in the world? As participants in the therapy group begin telling their own 9/11 stories, Kenny suddenly becomes aware that none were in Manhattan on 9/11, and no one had a relative/loved one who died in the attacks, either. Kenny’s response to this revelation suggests he believes that only survivors, first responders, and those with other “direct” connections to the attacks legitimately can claim to have 9/11 PTSD. But that woman who was eating a bagel in the Upper West Side that fateful day? No. And “no” for the man who was on the other side of the country attending a business conference, and  a big “no” for the American who was in Paris. 

What do you think about what the first season of Rescue Me says about the ownership of 9/11 trauma?

Tagged with: , , , , , ,
Posted in Lifewriting, Medical Humanities, Visual Media
2 comments on “Poetry and the Absurd in 9/11 Dramedy “Rescue Me”
  1. gregc says:

    That one line, part of it sounds like he’s possibly saying “there’s little love in life.”
    I’ve played it over a bunch of times but still can’t figure it out for sure.

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Amy Rubens
Amy Rubens

I'm an Assistant Professor of English at a state-sponsored university in South Carolina and have over ten years of experience teaching at the college level.

I regularly teach courses in composition, professional writing, creative writing, and American literature.

My primary research interest is the medical humanities, particularly the depiction of contagious disease in American literature and lifewriting. I also have research interests in digital writing, social media, and the ways electronic environments shape notions of health.

I'm inspired by the great outdoors and enjoy hiking and backpacking. When I'm not reading, writing, or hiking, I like to blog and spend time with my family members (both human and animal).

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