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SHERYL ST. GERMAIN Chatham University Postcards from New Orleans Let us go then, you and I When the evening is spread out against the sky Like a patient etherized upon a table . . . T. S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” THE SKIES OVER THE FRENCH QUARTER ARE CALM, AND THE BREEZE welcome, if a bit stinky: the smell of long rotting rot. It’s twilight and we can’t see well. I step out onto O’Keefe St., leading my students like the Pied Piper into god knows what. We are descending into a kind of hell, and they are following, trusting I will guide them somewhere safe, get them something good to eat. I am their teacher, their guide; I will take care of them, Inferno or no. It’s eight months after Katrina, and the buildings to either side of us are still boarded up, windows broken, garbage and debris piled up. We could be in Prufrock’s world: the streets are half-deserted, the night seems restless and the sky and my own heart, numb. As we approach Canal Street, a scratching and scurrying. I look to my left: two large rats, almost big as nutrias, amble across the littered street. They aren’t even in a hurry. The sight reminds me of a joke we used to tell about roaches in New Orleans years ago, that the roaches here were so cool that when you turned the lights on they didn’t run away, but instead put on sunglasses. The rats, apparently, have also developed that coolness, and I wonder if I’m going to have to become a Pied Piper in earnest. I don’t know if I want the students to realize what a huge increase in the rat population there may be in New Orleans now, given their access to vast supplies of food and the increased shelter available in abandoned homes. I don’t know if I want them to know that a single pair of rats has the potential to produce 359 million descendants in three years’ time, that rats are programmed to reproduce and thrive in situations that are catastrophic to humans. I hope the students, one of whom has Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, don’t know too much about the Black Plague. Perhaps they won’t see the rats. We turn the corner onto Canal Street. “Ack!” screeches someone. “A rat!” 594 Sheryl St. Germain * * * * * It’s May 2006 and I’m with a group of twelve graduate students I have taken with me to New Orleans for a creative writing field seminar. A highlight of the MFA program I direct, these traveling field seminars are designed to get students out of their comfort zones, to both inspire and disturb. The idea is to shake loose some of their preconceptions about the world and encourage writing that breaks new ground. In the past, instructors had taken students to such places as New Zealand, Costa Rica, Greece, and India. I knew that even before Katrina New Orleans was a city of such cultural richness, diversity, and weirdness that a trip there might shake students up as much as a trip to a far-away country. Now, after Katrina, I hoped New Orleans might function for them, as Franz Kafka said good literature must, as an ax to break “the frozen sea within.” I knew how much exposure to disaster had informed my own writing and spurred me to look at things in a way I might not have otherwise, how cultivating an ability to be intimate with darkness had opened my eyes to the larger human condition, and I hoped this might happen for my students on this trip. I had mixed feelings about bringing students to the ruined place of my birth. My family still lived in New Orleans and had suffered immediately before and after the flood. My brother had died unexpectedly right before the flood, and his house had been destroyed in the aftermath of the hurricane before the family had a chance to properly grieve for him. My uncles’ homes were destroyed as well, and my mother’s home of forty-five years, my childhood...


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pp. 593-607
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