Issue 2 - Winter 2010
Cities of Flesh and the Dead
Cures and Poisons
How to Live on Bread and Music
Pictures in the Firestorm
Rhapsody of the Naked Immigrants
Rock Vein Sky
Slaves to Do These Things
The Air around the Butterfly
The Guilt Gene
the nested object
Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast in August 2005, flooding the city of New Orleans and surrounding areas, causing billions of dollars worth of damage and killing over 1, 8oo people. Since that tragedy, writers have plunged into this dark part of American history, exploring the politics and people involved with this catastrophe. How often to we insist that it is the job for poets to bear witness to the truth? The truth, of course, is always subjective, but both Patricia Smith in Blood Dazzler and Katie Cappello in Perpetual Care come close.
Patricia Smith opens Blood Dazzler with “Prologue - And Then She Owns You” a poem that introduces New Orleans as a “She” that is not necessarily a glamourous literary heroine:
This “she” is hardly part of a poetic utopia; she “prefers alleys, crevices, basement floors” and has a voice that “sounds like cigarettes/pubic sweat, brown spittle lining a sax bell/the broken heel on a drag queen’s scarlet slings.” Smith humanizes New Orleans, which is what makes the devastation found in the poems afterwards so heartbreaking. Smith excels at working with persona. Not only is the city a “she”, but many of the poems are told through a first person point of view of the storm itself. For example, in “5 pm, Thursday, August 25, 2005,” the day that Katrina is upgraded to a hurricane the storm explains, “My eye takes in so much —/what it craves, what I never hoped to see.” In another poem, “8 a.m. Sunday, August 28, 2005" when Katrina becomes a category 5 hurricane, she exerts her power:
And if hearing from Katrina is not enough, we also see another historical storm critical of her little sister. In “What Betsy Has to Say” she admonishes the storm:
By giving the storms human voices, Smith dismisses the idea that Katrina was a “natural” disaster. However, she does not leave the true victims out of her work. In “Ghazal” the poet chronicles the powerful force of the rain in such couplets as “Everyone else tried hard to vanish the sight of dripping/nomads rowing cardboard boxes. No, this was not mere rain.” In “Luther B Rides Out the Storm” the victim is a dog, whose “wet yelps and winding croon reach nothing/Wobbling, he latches muzzles to the wall of wind.”
But the most heartbreaking and disturbing tale is the story of Ethel Freedman, whose body was left outside the New Orleans Convention Center. The poem relays her story in a poem titled “Ethel’s Sestina”:
Of course, any discussion of Katrina in poetry or otherwise, cannot ignore the political elements of this particular disaster. George Bush appears in many of the poems including the “President Flies Over” where he chronicles what he sees below, not comprehending (or perhaps caring?) what is really happening with the words, “I understand that somewhere it has rained.”
Smith’s collection is brutal and honest, focusing on the human element of the natural disaster. It would be too easy to simply focus on the political aspects of the disaster; instead, she renders the stories of the storm, both human and natural.
Is this the birth of a new world, or simply a rebirth of a devastated world? Or, is there really a difference? The opening is not clear, although through the poems that follow we see a narrator traveling through a devastated South. Unlike Smith’s collection, not every poem in Cappello’s book is specifically about New Orleans, but still the near death of this city is never really far from the narrator’s mind no matter what experiences she records. For example, in “The Bedtime Story” the narrator states, “My father says we will watch the world end/from the football bleachers/grasshoppers rising from the thirty yard line/noted legs, eyes like negatives.” Such details render a sort of the end of the world fairytale, filled with both wonderment and destruction. This juxtaposition can be seen in many of Cappello’s poems, where we see a destroyed city and the hope found within its carnage.
Yet, it seems that there is something about New Orleans that makes the narrator return. In “Louisiana State Line” the speaker has decided “to wait for New Orleans/your dream last night thick as gravy/in the back of your throat.”
Reviewed by Karen Weyant.