- Hurricane Blues: Poems about Katrina and Rita
. . . Justsay someone will hear us.
These are the final lines of Mary Leary's poem, "New Orleans (Big Stuff )," and they speak well not only for the victims of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, waiting on roofs or in shelters for help during and after the storm, but also for the voices collected here, in Hurricane Blues. The hundred-plus poems gathered in this anthology collectively seek to bear witness to the great human, political, and environmental tragedy of 2005.
Some poetry accrues power because of its form: its execution itself embodies a struggle and a revelation. Other poems are given an automatic power from their subject matter—and these are the type that fills this book. They would seem to be the easier poems to write, in that the only requirement is to witness and record a major event. But there are difficulties inherent in such a task: the poem must not leach power from its source by funneling it into a poem that tries to find easy answers. To write this kind of documentary poem well, the voice must be continually present, never steering from the complexity of the subject or dancing off into what one of my first teachers called "the flight into 'poetry,'" a fancy flourish at the end that undermines the reality of the whole piece.
In its best moments, Hurricane Blues avoids just this, eschewing easy flourishes for gritty and heartbreaking accounts of the devastation. We've already seen as much as we can bear of the event itself—the wrenching television footage, the endless front-page photos, the Spike Lee documentary. What well-wrought line [End Page 133] could compete with the plaintive face of a mother holding up pictures of her lost children to news cameras, repeating their names in case anyone might have seen them? Yet poetry's power lies in its ability to convey emotional experience, the underside of action, the part that remains. This volume provides a record of the lingering trauma and the need for art—for creation out of the rubble. Editors Philip C. Kolin and Susan Swartwout write in their introduction that this collection seeks "not only to record history but to serve in some way as a balm, a relief effort toward the inevitable reconstruction of the region."
And in this way, Hurricane Blues is also a very democratic compilation, in just the way that the homegrown rescue effort was. The poems here are not gathered simply for technical brilliance or mastery of lyric form, nor for a star-studded list of authors. Among the ninety-two contributors gathered here the state poet laureate stands on equal ground with those for whom this marks their first publication. The poets are distinguished only by their state or country, which is listed next to each name to provide the angle from which they endured by the storm. We hear myriad voices from Louisiana and Mississippi, as expected, but also from Florida, New Jersey, Nebraska, California, Washington, even as far as Australia.
In the aftermath of a traumatic event, we need words. We need to be told that people are still out there, reaching, connecting, trying, making. I heard about the hurricane three days late, while on a writing retreat in the woods of Oregon with no access to phone or radio. Once I had seen my first picture in The Oregonian—rooftops like little bricks suspended in a brown sea—I spent the next weeks searching for words. I drove the five miles into town every day to get the paper, and read feverishly, not for technical information but for voices. I drove aimlessly up and down the mountain roads to hold a signal on NPR and hear the crackling line as an interviewer connected to a man defending his front porch with a shotgun, a woman feeding her newborn and praying for a boat. The Oregonian printed text messages from people in the Superdome contacting their family back in Oregon...