In minute-by-minute detail, Patricia Smith tracks Hurricane Katrina as it transforms into a full-blown mistress of destruction. From August 23, 2005, the day Tropical Depression Twelve developed, through August 28 when it became a Category Five storm with its “scarlet glare fixed on the trembling crescent,” to the heartbreaking aftermath, these poems evoke the horror that unfolded in New Orleans as America watched it on television.
Assuming the voices of flailing politicians, the dying, their survivors, and the voice of the hurricane itself, Smith follows the woefully inadequate relief effort and stands witness to families held captive on rooftops and in the Superdome. She gives voice to the thirty-four nursing home residents who drowned in St. Bernard Parish and recalls the day after their deaths when George W. Bush accompanied country singer Mark Willis on guitar:
The cowboy grins through the terrible din,
And in the Ninth, a choking woman wails
Look like this country done left us for dead.
An unforgettable reminder that poetry can still be “news that stays news,” Blood Dazzler is a necessary step toward national healing.
Patricia Smith is the author of four previous collections of poetry, including Teahouse of the Almighty , winner of the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award and the Paterson Poetry Prize. A record-setting, national poetry slam champion, she was featured in the film Slamnation , on the HBO series Def Poetry Jam , and is a frequent contributor to Harriet , the Poetry Foundation’s blog. Visit her website at www.wordwoman.ws.
|Publisher:||Coffee House Press|
|Product dimensions:||9.02(w) x 5.92(h) x 0.24(d)|
About the Author
Patricia Smith is the author of four previous collections of poetry, including Teahouse of the Almighty, winner of the 2007 Hurston / Wright Legacy Award. A record-setting, four-time national poetry slam champion, she was featured in the film Slamnation, on the HBO series Def Poetry Jam, and is a frequent contributor to Harriet, the Poetry Foundation's web log.
Read an Excerpt
5 P.M., TUESDAY, AUGUST 23, 2005
"Data from an Air Force reserve unit reconnaissance aircraft ... along with observations from the Bahamas and nearby ships ... indicate the broad low pressure area over the southeastern Bahamas has become organised enough to be classified as tropical depression twelve."
— NATIONAL HURRICANE CENTER
A muted thread of gray light, hovering ocean,
becomes throat, pulls in wriggle, anemone, kelp,
widens with the want of it. I become a mouth, thrashing hair, an overdone eye. How dare the water belittle my thirst, treat me as just another small disturbance,
try to feed me from the bottom of its hand?
I will require praise,
unbridled winds to define my body,
a crime behind my teeth because
every woman begins as weather,
sips slow thunder, knows her hips. Every woman harbors a chaos, can wait for it, straddling a fever.
I console myself with small furies,
those dips in my dawning system. I pull in a bored breath. The brine shivers.
11 A.M., WEDNESDAY, AUGUST 24, 2005
"Satellite imagery ... Doppler radar data from the Bahamas and Miami ... indicate [tropical depression twelve] has become much better organized ... has strengthened into tropical storm Katrina."
— NATIONAL HURRICANE CENTER
The difference in a given name. What the calling,
the hard K, does to the steel of me,
how suddenly and surely it grants me pulse, petulance. Now I can do
my own choking. I can thread my fingers with grimace and spit
zephyr, a gentle marking of the very first time I felt
that crisp, bladed noun in my own mouth.
5 P.M., THURSDAY, AUGUST 25, 2005
The National Hurricane Center upgrades tropical storm Katrina to Hurricane Katrina.
My eye takes in so much —
what it craves, what I never hoped to see.
It doesn't care about pain, is eons away from the ego's thump, doesn't hesitate to scan the stark, adjust for distance,
unravel the world for no reason at all, except that it hungers.
It needs to croon in every screeching hue,
strives to know waltz, hesitation,
small changes in sun. It spots weeping, then wants to see its sound. It spies pattern and restlessly hunts the solid drum.
The eye pushes my rumbling bulk forward,
urges me to see what it sees.
7 P.M., THURSDAY, AUGUST 25, 2005
Hurricane Katrina makes landfall in Florida.
I see what this language does and taste soil on my tongue and feel brick splintering spine and hear them and want it all
WHY NEW ORLEANS IS
Rollicking karaoke sweats the walls of a red-washed room,
and six southern Illinois breasts swag in unison to "You Can't Hurry Love." These A-line skirted divas want that so not to be true, the way they click hard Pilated hips in time to a layered Negro beat,
drawing lustful licks from the boys at the bar.
This is why New Orleans is —
to scrub and soil us in parallel,
to serve up patented alibis for pluck and perfume,
then peel us down to silly shimmying warblers on a sloped stage slick with beer and Tabasco.
This is why we stumble into stinging neon showers of beads, feathers, and voodoo figurines —
because we need to hurt in public,
throw up a little in a ghosted alley,
close pert mouths around the cocks of strangers.
Every damned body needs a midnight stage,
an intricate accordioned theme song,
a little country that worships at our dime-store altar.
We can rearrange our bruised religions
while pouting over pristine snack packs on jumbo jets hurtling home.
Hungering for just a little harbored nasty,
we realize that each breath is strangely bladed,
and we hiss it, then: Love, c'mon, dammit, hurry up.
MAN ON THE TV SAY
Go. He say it simple, gray eyes straight on and watered,
he say it in that machine throat they got.
On the wall behind him, there's a moving picture of the sky dripping something worse than rain.
Go, he say. Pick up y'all black asses and run.
Leave your house with its splinters and pocked roof,
leave the pork chops drifting in grease and onion,
leave the whining dog, your one good watch,
that purple church hat, the mirrors.
Go. Uh-huh. Like our bodies got wheels and gas,
like at the end of that running there's an open door with dry and song inside. He act like we supposed to wrap ourselves in picture frames, shadow boxes,
and bathroom rugs, then walk the freeway, racing the water. Get on out. Can't he see that our bodies are just our bodies, tied to what we know?
Go. So we'll go. Cause the man say it strong now,
mad like God pointing the way outta Paradise.
Even he got to know our favorite ritual is root,
and that none of us done ever known a horizon,
especially one that cools our dumb running,
whispering urge and constant: This way. Over here.
ONLY EVERYTHING I OWN
This is my house.
This was my grandfather's house.
This is my thin wood, spidered pane.
These are my cobwebs, my four walls,
my silverfish, my bold roaches.
I bury my hands in that little garden,
cool them in the broken earth.
My food comes from my garden.
At my table, I slice the peppers,
seed the tomatoes, chop mint,
rip bitter green into wooden bowls.
The tiny pine table is my whole kitchen,
daddy's legacy, my certain warm nurture.
I dream loud in this house. I pull my bed down from that wall, and I fall to my knees next to it to question this shelter.
I sleep while a limp breeze dies at the window,
waking to dawn tangled with my dust.
This is my house.
Let's step out into the steam,
sip new breath from a Mason jar,
find a sleeping rhythm for our chairs.
Let's wait patiently for the rain.
That blistered sky has learned my days and hates me for everything I have. As it should.
VOODOO I: LOVE AND PASSION
Offered by Voodoo Authentica Cultural Center & Collection, New Orleans: "Packaged in Parchment envelope with our logo wax seal ... Our Authentic Voodoo Magic Spells & Formulas are available for the following magickal purposes ..."
Sudden a batteried bongo in her layback,
hair root lazed sizzle, fluent spine of silver,
heart a hall of solo mirror, stuttered,
and why is everything swollen?
Her breasts walloping,
his cock a thrilling cerulean,
damned adjectives all over everything.
The heart relishes its role as machine,
knowing no one but God can numb the forward and meanwhile, it's fuck, fuck, fuck,
unbooked thrums just because.
An appetite rhythmed like this must boast booms,
and the mirror can't take it. Eventually,
a shard escapes.
WON'T BE BUT A MINUTE
Tie Luther B to that cypress. He gon' be all right.
That dog done been rained on before,
he done been here a day or two by hisself before,
and we sho' can't take him. Just leave him some of that Alpo and plenty of water.
Bowls and bowls of water.
We gon' be back home soon this thing pass over.
Luther B gon' watch the place while we gone.
You heard the man — he said Go — and you know white folks don't warn us 'bout nothing unless they scared too. We gon' just wait this storm out.
Then we come on back home. Get our dog.
8 A.M., SUNDAY, AUGUST 28, 2005
Katrina becomes a Category 5 storm, the highest possible rating.
For days, I've been offered blunt slivers of larger promises — even flesh,
my sweet recurring dream,
has been tantalizingly dangled before me.
I have crammed my mouth with buildings,
brushed aside skimpy altars,
snapped shut windows to bright shatter with my fingers. And I've warned them, soft:
You must not know my name.
Could there be other weather,
other divas stalking the cringing country with insistent eye?
Could there be other rain,
laced with the slick flick of electric and my own pissed boom? Or could this be
my praise day,
all my fists at once?
Now officially a bitch, I'm confounded by words —
all I've ever been is starving, fluid, and noise.
So I huff a huge sulk, thrust out my chest,
open wide my solo swallowing eye.
You must not know
Scarlet glare fixed on the trembling crescent,
What, again? What nuisance, this back and forth.
But even the blessed must bow to damp tantrums.
Some network blathering, ominous graphics,
and we pack the steamer with overnight,
lash the boat to its mooring, wrap the new guest house up like some stern little package. And for what?
So some dreary witch with a name bigger than she's worth can drip scare into nightfall, turn one day, maybe two,
into missed manicures, grayish harping, dull dinners of canned soup. Go. And this time, again, it's serious.
What it is is just more windy yelping by wild-eyed anchors,
round-the-clock warnings followed by wet drumming in the flower beds, stretched nerves, maybe a hint of mold.
At least twice a year, we deal with the plumped drama of an oversold storm, watching as the sky bulges,
leaks melodrama, postpones our garden parties.
Best to consider this whole mess a holiday,
a simple trade, one home for its vacation version.
Best to cram our luggage into the idling Lincoln and wait while my husband revels in busywork,
clawing through his toolbox, hammering a thumbnail and strengthening every room's surface with tape.
After he slides his pampered girth behind the wheel,
we point the car toward rumored sun, scan the sky for signs. Again, we run. Left to me, I wouldn't budge.
Up here the dollar sings. We pay for this boredom.
Hell, I rode the back of the last one.
It was all they said it was, but I rode her good.
The key to making it through is to strap yourself hard against a thing,
keep your mouth shut tight lest all that wrong weather gets in.
She gon' slap the black offa you now,
don't get me wrong, but that big fuss don't last but a hot minute.
Just lay yourself flat while ol' girl points her chaos toward your upturned ass,
just hold onto maybe while she blows away what you thought would hold you down.
Ain't no feeling like the one when it's all over and you still here. So go on, peek through the blinds.
See a mad-ass woman with us in her eye?
She picks her teeth with prayers. Get ready to ride.
THE DAWN OF LUTHER B'S BEST DAY
Luther B, months mangy and chained down against m'dear's shade tree, feels a little thrill shoot through his planted paws, sniffs questions in the swirled air. Suddenly the day is touching him.
The mutt whimpers, raps yaps, twists his stout squatness,
strains against thick links, moans a wavering O.
But nobody's coming this time, nobody to scratch the dead skin behind his ear, no m'dear hobbling out in scuffs and shift, cussing, carrying a fresh can a' heaven.
All that's reachin' for him now is the sky, the God daddy,
pressing down fast, cracks of purple in its fingers.
Luther B writhes on his back in the dirt, tumbling the fleas,
then forces himself still. Snout upturned, he watches his deliverance come closer. With the first plops of rain,
he snarls low and realizes just what kinda dog he is —
itchy, utterly bitchless, locked to the skin of a tree,
but fat with future. And now a cool day comin'. Hot damn.
There were early indications that this was no mere rain when the B-boys stopped their ballin' to shout Yo! You hear rain?
But air just danced wrong around them. Doomed brick and wood shivered a little. Children saw no reason not to go near rain —
storms had roared through their little lives, cleansing and slamming shut whole seasons, putting on a lushness show. Should they fear rain?
Never. They tilted faces up, giggled and swooned beneath the battering wet, felt denims slog with weight, with sheer rain.
To punctuate their flailing dance, gusts swirled and grew heavy with stone. Sparks slapped tree sides, chaos roared its loud and clear reign.
Everyone else tried hard to vanish the sight of dripping nomads rowing cardboard boxes. No, this was not mere rain.
Knowing it wouldn't end, mothers pulled whole lives to rooftops and wailed for light, wept a blue note we won't know. A tear? Rain?
Still they are there, gasping for new sky, while the B-boys search the soggy wreckage for game. They curse the disappeared rain.
10:30 A.M., SUNDAY, AUGUST 28, 2005
Their hard-pressed hair is topped with every manner of church hat — ski-sloped satin, velvet, or brocade crowns adorned with glittered netting, babbling florals,
even stunned fake bluebirds. The senior choir warms up, humming tumult away from their joints.
Caged in impossibly proper brown serge, the elders amble to their front pews and gaze upon the preacher with unquestioned reverence. They try not to notice how small he really is, cause he's the only one there who knows Jesus by His first name. Rev's an itty bitty somethin', though.
If they all took a deep breath and let it out in his direction,
they could lift him off his feet. They could pray for themselves.
SHE SEES WHAT IT SEES
The eye of Hurricane Katrina passes over New Orleans.
And the levees crackled,
and baptism rushed through the ward,
blasting the boasts from storefronts,
sweeping away the rooted, the untethered,
bending doors, withering the strength of stoops.
Damn!, like a mantra, drummed and constant comment on the rising drink. Shit! Skirts shamelessly hefted,
pants legs ripped away, babies balanced in the air.
But still, acceptance, flurries of ha ha I'll be damned,
because breakage has always been backdrop and water — well, water sears through them,
drenches their white garb and reveals a savior's face.
It has provided hard passage,
sparkled its trickery and shepherded them to death before.
WHAT WAS THE FIRST SOUND
it made, heaven's seam splitting?
Was the sound purple?
The sound was purple,
throbbing like a new-torn wound under August drape.
Under August drape,
Miss Katrina's swollen gaze considered bodies.
already filled with water but secure in bone.
Secure in its bone,
a squat building shit bricks.
The sound was purple.
The sound was purple.
And only mutts, priestesses,
and tree trunks heard it.
Tree trunks heard it ripping spit through matted leaves.
Wind found its color.
Wind found its color and cast an eerie alto to the first plops of rain
To the first plops of rain,
add the sound of purple,
shitted bricks losing bone,
the seam splitting and finally spilling
already filled with water.
LUTHER B RIDES OUT THE STORM
Lord ham mercy, m'dear moaned,
slow and real Baptist like, every time some kink swerved her day — an August noon sweatin'
the sugar out of her just-pressed hair,
a run in her last pair of church stockings.
Luther B sympathized with a cock of his thick head.
Now, in the looped reloop of dog thought,
he wonders about that Lord, and mercy,
and m'dear's little surrenders, surrenders.
His wet yelps and winding croon reach nothing.
Wobbling, he latches muzzle to the wall of wind.
There's got to be some good livin' at the end of this,
maybe a pork chop with some religion still hangin' from it,
or a skillet scrape of m'dear's fat oxtails and onion rice.
Bet there's daybreaks stackin' up behind those clouds,
regular, with quiet moons behind, all rowed up, ready.
The day's pewter howling wounds a rib,
darkens Luther B's itching with blood.
Paddling in frantic blue circle,
he fights his slippery chain,
treads toward a little bit more of remember —
Damn dog ain't nuthin' but trouble.
But I loves me some Luther B.
I loves him to death.
GETTIN' HIS TWANG ON
George Bush plays guitar with country singer Mark Willis;
2 p.m., August 30, 2005
The President strums the vessel's flat face,
his stance ossifying, his dead eyes fixed on the numb, escaping chord. Everyone
feigns amazement at the tuneless thrumming.
They spur him on with spurious laughter.
The cowboy grins through the terrible din,
the flashing bulbs, the rampant ass kissing.
And in the Ninth, a choking woman wails
Look like this country done left us for dead.
That's our soundtrack, and here comes the chorus.
The lyrics, siphoned of light, are shadow in everyone's throat. He plucks strings. We sing.
UP ON THE ROOF
Up on the roof, stumbling slickstep, you wave all your sheets and your blouses,
towels, bandannas, and denims, and etch what you ask on the morning:
When are they coming to save us? cause sinking is all that you're feeling.
Blades spin so close to your breathing. Their noise, crazy roar, eats invective,
blotting out words as you scream them. They turn your beseeching to vapor.
Water the dark hue of anger now laps at the feet you can't stand on.
Cameras obsess with your chaos. Now think how America sees you:
Gold in your molars and earlobes. Your naps knotted, craving a brushing.
You clutch your babies regardless, keep roaring your spite to where God is.
Breast pushes hard past your buttons. Then mud cracks its script on your forearm,
each word a misspelled agenda. But here come the flyboys to save you,
baskets to cram your new life in, the drama of fetching and swinging.
Some people think that you're crazy. As you descend from the heavens,
you choose to head for the questions. The earth and its water. The swallow.
Excerpted from "Blood Dazzler"
Copyright © 2008 Patricia Smith.
Excerpted by permission of COFFEE HOUSE PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Prologue — And Then She Owns You,
5 p.m., Tuesday, August 23, 2005,
11 a.m., Wednesday, August 24, 2005,
5 p.m., Thursday, August 25, 2005,
7 p.m., Thursday, August 25, 2005,
Why New Orleans Is,
Man on the TV Say,
Only Everything I Own,
Voodoo I: Love and Passion,
Won't Be but a Minute,
8 a.m., Sunday, August 28, 2005,
The Dawn of Luther B's Best Day,
10:30 a.m., Sunday, August 28, 2005,
She Sees What It Sees,
What Was the First Sound,
Luther B Rides Out the Storm,
Gettin' His Twang On,
Up on the Roof,
Voodoo II: Money,
What to Tweak,
M'Dear Thinks on Luther B,
Voodoo III: Gambling and Lucky Lotto,
Don't Drink the Water,
The President Flies Over,
Voodoo IV: Power and Domination,
Voodoo V: Enemy Be Gone,
Ms. Thang Sloshes in the Direction of Home,
Didn't Need No Music, Neither,
Their Savior Was Me,
Voodoo VI: Healing,
Looking for Bodies,
Voodoo VII: Develop Psychic Powers,
Remembering to Sing,
What Betsy Has to Say,
Luther B Ascends,
Golden Rule Days,
Give Me My Name,
Voodoo VIII: Spiritual Cleansing and Blessing,