Discussed in this essay:
• Saltwarer Empire, Raymond McDaniel. Coffee House Press. $16.00. 130 pp.
• Blood Dazzler, Patricia Smith. Coffee House Press. $16.00. 90 pp.
• Colosseum: Poems, Katie Ford. Graywolf Press. $15.00. 64 pp.
“Containing multitudes,” as Whitman wrote, is the basic job requirement of a writer. Authors must be able to write beyond their own experiences, but when it comes to disaster literature the situation is suddenly reversed; audiences not only crave an “authentic” account of tragedy; they often bristle at the suggestion that an outsider can offer the same veracity and insight as a firsthand account.
In 2008, three years after Hurricane Katrina, numerous books of poetry dealing with the hurricane were published, several written by authors not native to New Orleans. These books sparked much debate among both audiences and authors, particularly in Louisiana, where I now reside. Three in particular—Raymond McDaniel’s Saltwater Empire, Patricia Smith’s Blood Dazzler, and Katie Ford’s Colosseum—offer unique insight into how Katrina, and all disasters, should be portrayed in literature.
When writing about Katrina, time is the most important factor. Because the hurricane hit only three years ago, there is no shortage of firsthand accounts, a vastly different situation from events now consigned to history, such as U.S. slavery or the Holocaust. When writing about history, authors often cite the need to speak for those who are no longer with us and to bring immediacy to events that risk being relegated to distanced historical treatment. With Katrina, though, authors can claim no such authority. Moreover, the fallout from the storm is far from over, and so there is an ongoing danger of suggesting resolution.
Writing about Katrina is further complicated by the fact that New Orleans is vastly different, culturally, from the rest of the United States, and even the rest of Louisiana. Much of the superficial media commentary that surrounded Katrina proved that the relationship between race, class, and politics in New Orleans is difficult for those who haven’t lived in the area to penetrate. Though the hurricane and its aftermath highlighted national issues of racial inequality and political incompetence, I would argue that Katrina was not a shared national tragedy in the same way as 9/11. Territorialism plays a larger role in Katrina literature.
FEMA image of New Orleans on August 29, 2005
There’s also the fact of the genre of poetry. Money is an issue here; these books would be received differently if we were discussing a screenplay or even a novel, where there’s a higher potential for the authors to profit. More importantly, however, genre’s role in the authenticity debate has changed as the public’s expectations of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction have become more rigid. As nonfiction has grown in importance and popularity, it’s become defined solely in opposition to fiction, creating a dichotomy of truth (nonfiction) and untruth (fiction), and as a result audiences have been much more critical in regards to authenticity and adherence to facts in nonfiction. This leaves Katrina poetry in an awkward position. Although poetry in general makes no claims about veracity, these particular poems are framed by a true event.
At its heart, the question of post-Katrina poetry is a question of whether those who don’t know New Orleans and the tragedy firsthand are less capable (or even incapable) of accurately representing the disaster. Blood Dazzler, Colosseum, and Saltwater Empire are well-suited to probing this question while also offering a glimpse of what these three authors feel they have to offer to both literature and our understanding of Katrina.
“What drove me to care about the fate of the place was personal,” McDaniel, author of Saltwater Empire told me via email, “but what compelled me to write about it was civic.” He went on to explain that what drove him to write Saltwater Empire was the portrayal of New Orleans’ citizens by the media:
One moment seemed to rely upon a sense of a great national tragedy while the next drew just as heavily on the hysteria of the white viewers’ fears of uncontrolled black people in large numbers. So I wanted to write about it as a citizen, as a person who saw all those people as neighbors, as familiar faces. Human persons, not merely Victims or Others.
The poems in Saltwater Empire have a strong intellectual force behind them. At the forefront is an interesting amalgamation of voices and personae, from the “street pharmacists & or versus day laborers / cane cutters & citizens of sawgrass,” to the “bog god” that “rattle[s] the oysers under his tongue” and “spit[s] out Dixie Beer and a fine sheen of grit.” All this is tied together by McDaniel’s fierce lyricism and offset by unadorned quotes from New Orleans citizens. The end result attempts, as one poem states, to “suture the city with celebration.”
As with McDaniel, Smith was also driven by personal reaction, and later by civic concerns. She told the Times Picayune that the “first breath” of Blood Dazzler came when she heard about the thirty-four residents of St. Rita’s Nursing Home that were abandoned to die during Katrina. However, when Smith went on a book tour for Blood Dazzler, she found that many of the poems made audiences uncomfortable: “I realized that there were a lot of people who wanted it to be over and filed away, who would look at CNN and see somebody nailing up a bit of bright wood or throwing beads and say, ‘New Orleans is all right.’”1
Blood Dazzler, which was nominated for the National Book Award, recounts the storm from a number of imaginative personae, including New Orleanians, a dog, and the hurricane itself. The book narrates the graphic details of those in the Superdome, who are left to “lick their own sweat for healing salt,” and balances those details with equally gritty elegies in which, “fingers of ice climb . . . / reach my dimming light.” Like McDaniel, Smith also grounds her poems with quotes, such as one poem that includes email excerpts from Marty Bahamonde, a FEMA employee, to his boss, Michael “Heckuva Job” Brown: “Thanks for the update. Anything specific I need to do / or tweak?”
In an interview with SFStation, Katie Ford echoes a similar fear that “the New Orleans story has been dulled by time. The story has gotten further away from us.” 2 Her collection, Colosseum, recounts the hurricane and Ford’s evacuation from New Orleans, while also engaging historical parallels to other massive disasters and tragedies. Many of the poems layer lush sound and imagery while engaging questions of faith, silence, and the elegiac voice of poetry that attempts to bridge the two. At other times Colosseum shows a stark sparseness not present in her first book, particularly in the poems that directly invoke Katrina and New Orleans.
Thus, all three poets felt the need to address claims they felt were being made (either directly or through a lack of discourse) about the citizens of New Orleans. Even as they tried to speak for New Orleans, however, these three also acknowledged the tension of addressing Katrina as outsiders. McDaniel makes it clear that he was wary of alienating New Orleans’ citizenry as victimized “others,” and tried to avoid “ventriloquizing” them in his poems. Ford, despite having gone through the storm, emphasized that “My own loss or grief is not, in any way, comparable . . . to what many citizens in New Orleans went through.” Similarly, Smith told New Orleans’ Times Picayune that she was “really uncomfortable . . . try[ing] on . . . the shoes” of Katrina victims.
These authors saw their challenge as finding a way to approach the storm that honestly dealt with their discomfort as outsiders: “I’m very particular, as are many of [New Orleans'] citizens, as to what it means to be (or to ever have been) a resident of New Orleans,” says McDaniel. “It’s one of those places that people and families tend not to leave, and so it takes more, I think, to justifiably claim the city as your home.”
However, it’s important to note that none of these three felt like complete outsiders: Ford, of course, was actually present for Katrina. For her own part, Smith found herself able to approach the mindset of New Orleans’ citizens through other routes: “I think that if you’re African-American, you were placed there in another way. . . There is always the chance, no matter what you’re going through, you will be abandoned to deal with it on your own.” McDaniel used a similar approach, though through an economic rather than racial perspective: “I grew up poor and I felt acutely the effect of the distortion field the [media] coverage [of the storm] created—the combination of bourgeois shock, revulsion, pity and contempt.”
The Pursuit of Authenticity
Smith and McDaniel tell us that there are multiple ways to approach Katrina. This raises an important issue—perhaps instead of questioning whether these three authors can offer an authentic portrayal of Katrina, we should ask what exactly we mean by such a portrayal. One component of authenticity is the desire for an authoritative account—one that communicates to readers what Hurricane Katrina was really like. But what is “authoritative” in a place like New Orleans? The city covers an immense range of races, religions, and socioeconomic classes—to suggest that there could be a single authoritative account of their experience (whether all-encompassing or merely as synecdoche) is naïve. Indeed, it’s offensive; such a suggestion defines a diverse group of individuals by their victimhood alone. As McDaniel has suggested, one of the greatest tragedies of disaster is the atomization of those who experienced it as victimized others.
The other component of authenticity is harder to grasp, but it could be described as the desire for the account, even if it is fictionalized, to feel true. This has something to do with individual facts and small details, but, ultimately, it hinges on a rather abstract aura felt by the reader. Such auras can be based on the author’s identity—auras dependent on not the content but the context—but these tend to be shallow: while such writing may be more interesting or moving because of its context, the lack of focus on content means that it has very little to do with why we’re generally interested in literature, which is the commingling of ideas and emotions (indeed a definition that hinges on context implies that an anonymous account of Katrina from a New Orleans citizen would feel inauthentic).
By contrast, if the content of the poems is central to our definition of authenticity, then the question becomes whether these authors can understand what the experience was like. To say they can’t is to put strict limitations on the imagination. Indeed, books like Toni Morisson’s Beloved would not be possible if such feats of the imagination were beyond reach. Furthermore, such an argument creates a slippery slope—if authors are incapable of imagining and understanding a large-scale disaster, what makes them more capable of understanding any other situation outside that author’s individual experience? Moreover, how would readers understand disasters through books?
In the end, what it comes down to is that victims don’t have a special language; we are all limited to the same dictionary. Although any unique experience is never fully relatable—Nietzsche taught us that—there’s no inherent reason that a reader would be incapable of relating the experience of Katrina as well as someone from New Orleans.
This isn’t to say that there aren’t inaccurate, or bad portrayals of Katrina—it’s just that the limits of such portrayals are not necessarily clear or stable. Though the media botched almost every attempt to relate the experience to the nation, and though there has been plenty of bad Katrina poetry (indeed, I would argue that even some of the poems in these books fail), there’s no innate reason that such an understanding is beyond them. Smith and McDaniel have found empathetic footholds for approaching Katrina, and their critical reception suggests that something in them resonates as true.
To a large degree, what rings truest about these books are the issues that aren’t specific to Katrina or New Orleans. Indeed, Ford’s book, which draws parallels between Katrina, Pompeii, Nagasaki, and Rome, demonstrates that the issues raised by Katrina go beyond even time; “[While writing Colosseum] I was . . . looking at ancient ruins and civilizations.” Ford told the Times; “New Orleans became the modern example.” Smith tells the Times, “you’re responding to a human situation. . . . It becomes a universal thing.” Ultimately, this is one of the primary goals of disaster literature—to shatter the atomization generated by tragedy by making the event relatable.
Virtues in Incompleteness
Of course there’s a risk here; to suggest that Katrina is entirely universal is to disregard the uniqueness of the disaster and to oversimplify the factors that played into it. Similarly, there’s the risk that the empathetic footholds an author uses to approach Katrina can become the only lens through which the tragedy is seen; as one New Orleans poet put it, “if your pet issue is global warming, then the catastrophe was all about global warming. If it’s racism, then it’s all about racism. The truth is: the disaster was about the damn levees fail[ing] and that’s on the Army Corps of Engineers. But that’s too boring for folks who don’t live near levees.”
What prevents these authors’ works from being overly simplistic, or from disregarding the uniqueness of Katrina, is the fact that they embrace the incompleteness of their vision. The reason that we as readers continuously return to tragedy—be it King Lear or the book of Genesis—is that something about tragedy is utterly inexplicable. Approaching the limit of what is understandable and relatable is the primary issue of all great literature; indeed, these limits are a central property of language and, therefore, the human condition.
In a sense, then, what these three books offer is their inability to give a full account of Katrina. For instance, the impetus for Blood Dazzler, was the poem “34,” an homage to the thirty-four residents left to die at St. Rita’s nursing home. The poem is broken into thirty-four sections, with separate personas for each, and this imaginative attempt to speak for the dead is the most moving in the eighteenth section, which is nothing but white space. The recognition of the impossibility of Smith’s goal, the bare fact that these human beings will never speak again, is the ultimate point.
Similarly, McDaniel’s Saltwater Empire includes a series of six poems, all entitled “Convention Centers of the New World” that are composed entirely from excerpts of interviews with New Orleanians, compiled by the organization “Alive in Truth: the New Orleans Disaster Oral History & Memory Project.” In the final installment of “Convention Centers,” McDaniel quotes one of the citizens as saying, “Like I say, you just don’t know because you wasn’t there. / Nobody knows what we went through but God himself and us.” By embracing these unbridgeable silences, these authors offer the stark reality of Katrina, of life.
Ford’s Colosseum takes a slightly different approach, invoking the unbridgeable silence of history. In “The Shape of Us,” for instance, she begins by telling us that “Pompeii was discovered / beneath calcifications of ash / because certain hollows looked human.” She then writes of the inverse shadows in Nagasaki, left by bodies that “had absorbed all they could.” The poem ends with an “American city” where bells “inside the walls wore on, not ringing / for us but for their own death.” The inverse shadows and “calcifications of ash” imply a necessarily fragmentary understanding in which “the living plagues,” as she writes in “Snakes,” “leave only their effects for archaeologists / to find.”
Like Smith and McDaniel, Ford recognizes the irretrievable loss at the heart of disaster. However, these poems also provide a unique outlook on history. By suggesting parallels between Katrina and disasters from Biblical times through the present, Ford doesn’t relegate Katrina to the history books. Instead, in her focus on fracture and incompleteness, she denies any sense of resolution to history. Furthermore, while the historical parallels inform our view of Katrina, the opposite is true as well. Thus, Ford offers a vision of history that is never complete, one in which the past changes with the present.
While Ford offers a dialogue between past and present, Smith and McDaniel offer a dialogue between insiders and outsiders. Just as McDaniel includes quotes from real New Orleans citizens alongside persona poems, Smith chronicles the factual development of Katrina through the persona of the storm itself; for instance, in “5 P.M., Tuesday, August 23, 2005,” she writes: “I console myself with small furies, / those dips in my dawning system. I pull in / a bored breath. The brine shivers.”
This combination of journalistic detail and imagined persona can be seen as a sort of reification of these authors’ position as outsiders. They must take the secondhand facts available to them and flesh them out creatively to build a full perspective (a position, it must be noted, shared by many of the books’ readers). By trying to creatively relate the experience of Katrina while still honestly admitting their outside perspective, Smith and McDaniel bridge an important gap; they open a dialogue between insiders and outsiders in the only realm that such a dialogue can occur: the imagination.
In the essay, “Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg,” Charles D’Ambrosio uses the Richard Hugo poem of the same name as a starting point to reflect upon the place of poetry in the face of disaster (the essay was written in response to 9/11). He concludes that, often, imagination is all that remains after tragedy. I began reading Smith, Ford, and McDaniel’s books as Hurricane Gustav descended on Baton Rouge. As a Northerner, the storm was like nothing I had ever experienced. In the eight days following the storm, with no electricity, my girlfriend and I sat on the porch, reading, in order to escape the sweltering heat inside the house. What I remember most, however, is opening the window when the storm had passed and smelling nothing but tree sap from the broken branches that lined the streets. My experience was nothing compared to those who suffered through Katrina, nothing even compared to the other residents of Baton Rouge whose houses were crushed by oaks, or who went upwards of a month without electricity or water. Nonetheless, in the thick smell of sap, in the leaves that plastered our porch screen like paper mâché, I was able to place myself, however briefly, in a realm outside my own experience.
The position of those who experienced Katrina is a sacred one—only they can offer witness to what occurred—and any author approaching that position must do so with reverence, humility, honesty, and measured thought. However, to disallow such an approach is to put a lethal prohibition on the imagination, one which not only severs a large group of people from the rest of the nation and the world, but which ultimately atomizes us from all but ourselves. In “Earth,” a four-line poem in the beginning of Ford’s Colosseum, she writes:
If you respect the dead
and recall where they died
by this time tomorrow
there will be nowhere to walk.
Hurricane Katrina not only exposed issues of racial inequality and political oversight in the U. S., it taught us a lot about the human condition. We owe the dead more than just a monument. It is our job, however difficult, as readers and writers, to return to the plots of the dead—to keep them vibrant, to keep them raw.
Jordan Soyka is an MFA student at LSU. He’s the poetry editor of New Delta Review and an intern at The Southern Review. His poetry appears in the fall issue of Cave Wall.
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