The inhabitants of Samarah saw the tower on fire
and Carathis and Vathek sacrificed them. Light
guided them to where no fire was found.
Ivory’s great but is no match for steel.
Stone, even better. Blow the tower down.
Anthony Royal designed Canary Wharf.
The twins were burning but they couldn’t fall.
They fell. North and South (and East and West)
the stories flattened truth against the wall.
We now go live to footage of the fire.
The eye is grateful that the smoke’s behind
a screen of glass to make the eye half-blind.
God, every time, looked down at Babel’s ruin,
knew, or ought to have known, the costly pattern,
swore this was the last time it would happen.
Note: Vathek built an observation tower with 11,000 steps. He climbed to the top and, with the help of his mother, lit fireworks which made the tower appear to be on fire. When the townsfolk rushed to the top of the tower to rescue their prince, he sacrificed them. Ivory towers are said to be divorced from reality, but there’s a dogged, even steely determination among some authorities to ignore facts, so it’s wilful negligence rather than benign ignorance. Anthony Royal was the architect of the high-rise building in Ballard’s novel, a structure thought to be located near to where the Canary Wharf tower now stands in London. High-Rise is about the thin line between civilisation and barbarism and how the pressure-cooker environment of the tower block destroys this line. The Twin Towers were thought to be unstable even before 9/11, but some believed they would never fall: they were, of course, a symbol of US capitalism. ‘East and West’ is to get the issue of foreign policy into the poem, though with only partial success. Many of these tower atrocities, from 9/11 to the Grenfell Tower fire, have unfolded in real time on our television screens on rolling news: the horror of the suffering is both captured for us but also, in some ways, screened from us. (I can remember first seeing the news of the attack on the World Trade Center on a dozen television screens through an electronics shop window in York: a very Ballardian way to learn what was happening.) The Tower of Babel was destroyed by Yahweh because it was a symbol of man’s vaulting ambition, and he had to put men back in their place: by creating linguistic confusion among the peoples of the world, he hoped that such a collective effort would never be able to happen again.
This poem © Oliver Tearle 2021