Summary

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Line 1

The explication of “Curse” depends as much on understanding its style as its language. Bidart is noted for his quirky punctuation and presentation of words, such as using all capital letters or italics. In this poem, he uses italics and gaps in lines to emphasize his point, but what he does not use is just as important. The first line, for instance, may be confusing initially because it lacks the commas it needs to make the meaning easier to grasp. If it were punctuated as “May breath, for a dead moment, cease, as, jerking your,” its message would be clearer.

Starting the sentence with the word “May” is in keeping with the title of the poem, as the speaker expresses a wish or desire for what is to follow. What follows is the beginning of the “curse” that the speaker wants to befall the targets of his hex. Specifically, the first line expresses the speaker’s desire for the “you” in the poem (here, plural) to be so shocked at what is happening that they lose their breath for a moment and jerk in response to the scene. The fact that the moment is “dead” foretells the sorrow and death that underlie the main focus of the poem.

Lines 2–4

These lines identify the subject of the poem, as indicated by the reference to “one hundred and ten / floors” collapsing. Each tower of the World Trade Center had 110 floors that burned and collapsed on September 11. Here, the speaker’s desire is that those responsible for the attack should have to experience in slow motion the same horror of being trapped in a crumbling skyscraper. The hope that it occurs slowly implies the speaker’s yearning for the attackers to suffer as long as possible. He wants them to hear the floors falling evenly, one on top of the other, above their heads until finally all the floors “descend upon you.”

Line 5

This line employs the old “eye for an eye” concept of retribution. Just as the terrorists of September 11 “made” the World Trade Center fall, killing nearly three thousand people, the speaker wishes for the same to happen to them. Another common saying that this line brings to mind is, “You reap what you sow.” At the heart of the speaker’s curse is the desire for the terrorists themselves to experience terror.

Lines 6–7

In these lines, Bidart uses word spacing to slow down the action of the poem. By offsetting “your victims,” “their eyes,” “their / breath,” he effectively halts each image long enough for the reader to grasp it completely. The idea is that the attackers should have to consider very deliberately the human beings they have killed. Ears, eyes, and breath are all real and physical, and they suggest the strong, haunting connection that the speaker wants the terrorists to feel with their victims.

Lines 8–9

The anger displayed in these lines is biting, but controlled. Referring to the previous two lines, the speaker wants the terrorists to be so plagued by their actions that their victims’ breath may actually “enter” their bodies and become vile and destructive, “like acid.” The part of the terrorists that the speaker wants the acid to “eat” is important to note: it is “the bubble of rectitude that allowed you breath.” “Rectitude” means righteousness or morally correct character or behavior. It is a form of goodness that generally implies sternness and strict adherence to a set of rules. The word appears twice in “Curse” and carries much weight in the evaluation of the terrorists’ mindset. While...

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it seems contradictory to apply any word that has to do with morality or righteousness to people who commit heinous crimes, the speaker uses “rectitude” to describe the killers’ beliefs that they are justified in attacking a country, regardless of the loss of innocent life. He suggests that it is their sense of self-righteousness that gives them life and purpose in the first place.

Line 10

The message in line 10 sums up the ultimate purpose of the curse. It may be paraphrased this way: May you identify so closely with your dead victims that it is as though you now must breathe for them. Once again, Bidart uses italics to stress the significance of this single line.

Lines 11–12

Line 11 introduces an “us” into the poem, referring to people in general in a post-9/11 world—perhaps Americans in particular, but, more broadly, anyone emotionally affected by the events of that day. The arrangement of the words in these two lines appears awkward, but they also read like the archaic language used to cast curses centuries ago. “You cannot for us / not be” means that, just as the terrorists “wished,” their existence and their acts will never be forgotten by those left behind. The speaker hopes that this fact is the killers’ “single profit”—the one and only infamy they enjoy.

Lines 13–14

In line 13, the word “rectitude” appears again, but now the terrorists are “disenthralled,” or set free, of it. Describing them as “at last disenthralled” alludes to the hijackers’ own deaths on September 11, as they supposedly achieved everything they desired in their own “moral” sense. Themselves deceased, they now “seek the dead,” trying to “enter them” just as the terrorists entered their living victims on the final day of their lives.

Line 15

This line indicates the defiance and disgust that the victims feel toward their killers. In death, they have the power to “spit . . . out” whatever unwelcome thing tries to enter their mouths. In the end, they have the strength to prevent the terrorists—and, more specifically, the terrorists’ philosophy—from becoming a source of energy or nourishment. They are “not food” for the dead.

Lines 16–17

The final two lines of “Curse” allude to a line from the prose work In Defense of Poetry, by nineteenth-century poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. In the “Notes” section at the end of Star Dust, Bidart writes: “Shelley in his Defense of Poetry says that ‘the great secret of morals is love’—and by love he means not affection or erotic feeling, but sympathetic identification, identification with others.” In his poem, Bidart puts a twist on Shelley’s benevolent intention, turning “the imagination to enter / the skin of another” into a curse, instead of an attempt to sympathize with someone. The goal is to have the terrorists receive just and equal punishment for the act they have committed. In essence, the speaker condemns them to suffer the same as they have caused others to suffer.

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Themes