Brett Foster

Brett Foster is the author of two poetry books and a regular reviewer of contemporary poetry, new editions of older poets, and poetry in translation. His writing has appeared in Books & Culture, Boston Review, Hudson Review, IMAGE, Kenyon Review, The New Criterion, Poetry Daily, Raritan, Southwest Review, and Yale Review. A teacher of creative writing and Renaissance literature at Wheaton, he will spend 2014-15 as a Distinguished Visiting Professor at Azusa Pacific University.

Second Chances: Part Two

The first portion of this review was published on Monday, June 2.

With all due respect to the strengths of Patricia Smith’s Teahouse of the Almighty, Blood Dazzler exists on a different plane. Encountering it, it felt less like a collection of poems and some instantly authoritative monument of heartache and fortitude. I still cannot believe I forgot it three years ago. Smith dedicates her book to family members and also to “the people of the Gulf Coast, who redefined faith.” The arc of the volume is chronological. The first poem’s title is like a dateline, “5 p.m., Tuesday, August 23, 2005,” which features an epigraph of the National Hurricane Center’s first description of the “broad low pressure area over the southeastern Bahamas,” the tropical depression that would eventually become Katrina. Right away, we have a sense of excruciating hours and days passing under sentence and governed by a dark providence, as in Thomas Hardy’s great Titanic poem, “The Convergence of the Twain.”

That said, to put it more precisely, there is a sense in which time ends when Katrina moves ashore―the dated titles cease after “10:30 a.m., Sunday, August 28, 2005,” a third of the way through the book. Still, that move from anticipation and anxiety into the destruction of the storm and the dystopian aftermath, in New Orleans particularly, makes Smith’s book akin to documentaries such as Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts, or Tia Lessin’s less known but powerful Trouble the Water. Lee’s film features the numerous visual indictments you would expect, both symbolic and grimly material―images of tattered American flags, bodies floating face down in the water. One body lies just outside of the Superdome, and remains there days later. Yet this film’s less expected power resides in some of its details: the operator telling residents that 911 was “not taking any calls.”

Smith’s Blood Dazzler is full of those kinds of details, the lived-through things happening in the shadow of the televised villain-boobs (Michael Brown) and the instant icons (the Superdome and the vile conditions there). She renders the small, horrid images as well: “‘H-E-L-p’ in an oak tree, knifed in fever” or “Some mamma’s body, gaseous, a dimming star splayed / and so gently spinning, . . . collides sloppily with mattresses, power lines.” That said, the dramas of voices are more memorable. “What to Tweak,” for example, opens with an email from a FEMA employee in New Orleans to Brown, the employee’s boss and FEMA’s head: Sir, I know that you know that the situation is past critical. Here are some things you might not know.

The poet then provides a harrowing list:

“The word river doesn’t know edges. . . . There’s a Chevy growing in that tree. . . . So many people are thirsty . . . A kid breathes wet against my thigh. / He calls me father.” The list soon turns to “solutions” or “advice” in a more satirical mode: “consider detention, / throw them some cash from a bag . . . Try not to breathe them, fan them with cardboard, / say that their houses will rise. . . .  Say help is coming, say help is coming / then say that help’s running late.”

The poem’s last line is Brown’s reply: Anything specific I need to do / or tweak? The following short poem, “Michael Brown,” is a portrait of tragic veneer, transforming the director into a Gulf-Coast Pontius Pilate.

Smith first gives a poet’s assessment of the blunt fact of nature that is a hurricane. In various poems she personifies Katrina (“Every woman harbors a chaos”), and focuses on its name―how the “hard K” steels the storm, or in the hurricane’s own words, “how suddenly and surely it grants me / pulse, petulance.” Good writers in any discipline will give attention to this dimension, the language and wording of our catastrophes. Douglas Brinkley, in his important, historian’s first-go, The Great Deluge, explains how he and his family found themselves witnessing from a high-rise that the “whitecapped Mississippi River was roaring backward” on August 29, 2005. They would have fled, Brinkley muses, if the hurricane had had a name more menacing than Katrina, which brought to his mind “whimsical images of a Gaelic ballad or a Vegas cocktail waitress.” He had a friend named Katrina, and so, “There was no menace in the echo.”

Other poems by Smith give voice to those, like Brinkley, about to confront the hurricane, as in “Man on TV Say”: “Go. He say it simple, gray eyes straight on and watered, /… / Get on out. Can’t he see that our bodies / are just our bodies, tied to what we know?” It may seem like an easy decision, seen from a TV in Chicago, but it was not simple, having to leave “my grandfather’s house,” or “my thin wood, spidered pane.” We meet the recurring character of Luther B, a dog tied to a cypress. There is something here like the neglected hound Argos in Homer’s Odyssey. A sense of an author knowing full well the sentimental risks―“I know this is a sad-dog story, but I’m still going to make you face it, and it’s going to ruin you.” It should be said, too, lest I mislead, that the Luther B poems, or ones featuring Miss Thang or other speakers, also capture to great effect the gaudy energy of New Orleans, even one convulsing under storm siege and its attendant destructions. These voices conjure a glorious, indecorous past, the New Orleans of Lulu White the Queen of Storyville, the Fair Pay Saloon, Big Casino, Martha Clark, Queen Emmette, Josephine Ice Box, Minnie Ha-Ha, anything decadent or “Parisian.” Smith may not mention these illicit personalities by name, but their ghostly defiance is palpable throughout the book.

This defiance often finds its sharpest articulation in the politically denunciatory poems here, as in the “Michael Brown” portrait above. These poems are not hot-headed or ireful, but rather quiet, calculated, emotionally opaque. And in that distance, they are the more condemning. In “Gettin’ His Twang On,” President George W. Bush plays guitar with a country singer on the afternoon of August 30, 2005. He appears to have one of those stiff, alien-possessed bodies that clump around in Men in Black: “his stance ossifying, his dead eyes fixed / on the numb escaping chord.” He inhabits what seems a country-western opium den, slow motion and full of flash-bulbs and spurious laughter, “And in the Ninth, a choking woman wails / Looks like this country done left me for dead.”

The most striking of these poems, “The President Flies Over,” is spoken by the Commander in Chief, in an emotionally uncomprehending voice, at every turn revealing the distance and privilege by which he governs. “Aloft between heaven and them,” the poem begins with its terrible antithesis. He views Katrina’s destruction from the air, and declares, “This is my / country as it was gifted me— victimless, vast.” Bush is, finally, untouchable, and profoundly untouched by events: “I don’t ever have to come down. / I can stay hooked to heaven, / dictating this blandness.” Echoing Brown’s voice above, that casual tone of total disconnect, the poem ends, “I understand that somewhere it has rained.” George W. Bush recalls Katrina in his memoir Decision Points: “Five years later, I can barely write those words without feeling disgust,” speaking of insinuations that the government was negligent because the majority of citizens in distress were black. Some will hear a Freudian slip in the choice of phrasing there, and the author of “The President Flies Over” most certainly would redirect that sense of disgust. Elsewhere Smith finds an epigraph in a comment by the President’s mother Barbara Bush, herself a former First Lady: “And so many of the people here in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway,” she says of Katrina refugees in Houston, “so this—this is working very well for them.”

Other government officials, Michael Chertoff, escape Smith’s lyrical comeuppance. Poems such as these, and having to reencounter Katrina in any form, prevent us from forming our own diving bells of isolation or sliding into the emotional distance and narrowness of the sky ride. And what is unbearable for the storm’s victims to face may be something the rest of us cannot afford to overlook. As Smith writes in a late poem in Blood Dazzler, about the “diversions” of skirts and work shirts and decapitated dolls in the water, “You will lock your fractured heart upon them, / because what you will see next / will hurt you long and aloud.”

Smith shows a technical daring throughout Blood Dazzler, striking lineation here, a ghazal form there, or “Ethel’s Sestina,” spoken by an elderly woman whose son was forced to leave her to die at the New Orleans Convention Center. (She sat for days there, still in her wheelchair.) More ambitiously, “34” provides a section for each of the thirty-four nursing-home residents found drowned in one facility in St Bernard’s Parish. Flood waters reached the roof of that home on August 29. “Wait with me. / Watch me sleep in this room / that looks so much like night.” It is as if the poet’s diverse tools are being flung wide to try to capture better a piece of this huge thing. Some poems recount the breaking of the levees in New Orleans with apocalyptic edge― “heaven’s seam splitting” ―and some describe evacuations with brutal, phrase-fused breathlessness: “Water the dark hue of anger now laps at the feet you can’t stand on.” Following poems describe looting, voodoo chants or the trials at the Superdome, conveyed in the voice of that stadium: “I was never their church, although I disguised myself as shelter / and relentlessly tested their faith.”

Smith continues to be a powerful advocate on behalf of the country’s forgotten or downtrodden voices, no matter the genre: Check out, for example, her harrowing narrative in a Best American Essays volume a few years ago. The last poems in Blood Dazzler follow survivors in their displacement: an instantly recognizable “Katrina girl” with “her donated denims too snug / too not-hers” for example, and maybe these are the book’s most important poems, insofar as they remind us of lasting consequences or give a human scale (if not with justice’s scales) to disproportionate aid or lack of assistance for or attention to the Gulf Coast, to New Orleans’ dramatic decrease in population―29 percent overall, and especially so in the Lower Ninth Ward and New Orleans East.

Other Katrina-related books now deserve mentioning―Cynthia Hogue’s interview-poems in When the Water Came: Evacuees of Hurricane Katrina, Tom Piazza’s Why New Orleans Matters, Keith Spera’s Groove Interrupted: Loss, Renewal, and the Music of New Orleans―and other titles have now appeared since I first encountered and remembered these. It is the writer’s duty to give expression to and render judgment upon events of our history, whether remote or recent. Their work contributes to the making of something graspable, retrievable, for personal and national memory. To fulfill this duty is to render a gift, too, either of healing or understanding, for those who endured a historic storm such as Katrina and its nearly inconceivable aftermath, and for those who were not there, but who in certain fundamental ways need to think and act as if they were. Poetry, in its tiny ways, can sometimes make such solidarity possible.

Second Chances

Many pleasures accompany book reviewing, but occasionally some heartaches arise as well, even if relatively small ones. For example, at the end of the year, three years ago, I was invited to write a short feature on some memorable poets and poetry titles of 2010. Discussing recent writing on Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath in New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast, I singled out the Pulitzer-winning poet Natasha Tretheway’s prose meditation on the region of her youth, and a powerful collection of poems by Martha Serpas. I had another book vaguely in the back of my mind, but I never quite identified it, and so left it out. Then, eventually, I remembered . . . and I felt DUMB for having overlooked it in the first place, or worse, for knowing I was overlooking something and never overcoming the overlooking, despite the painful cognition that I was doing so. You following me so far?

So I would like to use this essay and this forum to correct that oversight, first of all. The book is by Patricia Smith, whose latest poetry collection, Shoulda Been Jimmi Savannah, was published last year. The earlier book now firmly in my mind, however, is the 2008 National Book Award-finalist Blood Dazzler. Its cover features a giant Doppler-radar image of the category-five hurricane making landfall at New Orleans. It is a collection still worth knowing of and encountering, even if this reviewer missed his chance to say so the first time. Second of all, it is such a powerfully political collection of poems, among other things, that it may help us think more sensitively about this kind of poem, and to appreciate better poems that combine, in ways only poems can, the political or even prophetic mode with the attentive eye to natural details and human conditions— suffering, endurance, fury, joy. Poetry is hardly the first medium people think of when they think of political will, or power, but the awareness that certain poems impart to us is unique, and can be uniquely forceful as cultural expression―as a record for the time, or reckoning of the times.

Let me tell you how I finally came to remember Smith’s great book. I guess I cannot in good faith call it “unforgettable,” in my personal case, but it deserves to be described as such, a book reviewer’s limitations and imperfections notwithstanding. Blood Dazzler returned to me, instantly, as soon as I was experiencing Chicago’s own version of weather weirdness and storm anticipation three winters ago, just before we experienced what would soon be known as The Blizzard of ’11. I quickly wish to clarify that I intend no comparisons between these phenomena, between the blizzard here and the hurricane of August 2005, which created conditions that caused almost unfathomable loss of life, and levels of destruction and experiences of deprivation or dehumanization likewise hard to fathom.

Here’s the difference: when the snow began to fall heavily, I retreated home and waited out the snowfall, and the resulting stasis, and confusion, and shutdown, in comfort and even with a welcomed sort of excitement. I remember the onset of the storm vividly. On that Tuesday morning, I said farewell to a friend who was driving down to St. Louis to catch a flight back to sunny LA. “You better hurry,” I said, “or you’ll be stuck for a few days.” I spent the afternoon grading papers in a nearby public library, and by then the snow was really beginning to fall. Before I left the library, my friend called to say he’d made it home smoothly; he was currently standing at the Burbank Airport, at the outdoor baggage carousel. How different his location was from here! And how different were Chicago’s sunny, late-August days six years ago, compared with the Gulf Coast’s storm horrors. America’s regions, its very neighborhoods, are different universes.

Yet as I packed up, fearing the roads might already be turning treacherous, I was getting some glimpse, feeling a twitch, of an experience fortunately foreign to me. I had a strong impression of this huge, sustained force outside and all around me, revving up and rolling in to our region. I pictured it, even as the snow fell downward with increasing intensity, as a huge, slowly-moving avalanche, rumbling across the plains and about to bury Chicagoland. Like the Doppler image on Smith’s book. A white hurricane. That feeling of expectation, and inevitability, was intense too. I thought of Christian Wiman’s line in a poem in Every Riven Thing: “A cellular stillness, as of some huge attention / bearing down.” And yes, with an instant recall and clarity, I connected that current feeling with the effect that Patricia Smith’s Blood Dazzler had previously had upon me, when confronted with a lyrical testimony, or even with the thing itself, encountered in that vicarious way (yet genuinely) that makes the reading of strong writing so magical.

But first, let me finish my comparison, which ultimately needs to be a contrast. On the night of the Chicago Blizzard, I and my family enjoyed a “novelty” evening of everyone remaining inside together―no practices, no scout meetings, no trips to the store or office. I started a fire, and the snow, falling furiously by dinnertime, looked beautiful in the porch light. I don’t want to minimize the storm’s hostilities, and even its fatalities. Several Chicagoans were killed in the storm, either involved in weather-related traffic accidents, or dying the next day from heart attacks while shoveling massive pile-ups of snow from driveways. Lake Shore Drive, that iconic stretch of road between the city’s skyline and Lake Michigan, in particular looked apocalyptically forlorn, like something out of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Traffic that night was moving so slowly, and the snow drifted so quickly, pushed around by 70-mph gusts, that motorists had to abandon their vehicles and seek roadside emergency assistance. That major highway became a car sepulcher. “It was brutally cold, the wind was terrifying and it was still dark,” recalled one Chicago Tribune photographer.

People were running out of gas. Some worried about freezing―here in the heart of Chicago. There were some scenes of derring-do and good will: Groups of passengers helped to push stuck or abandoned cars from exit ramps, while someone living in a nearby high-rise brought Gatorade and cereal bars. The scene was like a bleak winter rapture. In the end, the ’11 blizzard threw more than twenty inches of snow on Chicago, just shy of the 1967 record of 23 inches.

Nevertheless, let’s keep things in perspective. A blizzard can be severe, but a hurricane’s energy equates with a ten-megaton nuclear bomb exploding―one every twenty minutes. It’s true, Chicagoans have a habit of being insensitive to weather elsewhere, and that’s putting it lightly. (Fans at Soldier Field, when the Chicago Bears played the New Orleans Saints in a conference championship game in 2007, held up signs like “Bears Finishing What Katrina Started.”) Therefore I mean only the remotest of comparisons. What I mean is, unmistakably there arose a sense of a similar feeling, a sympathy sharpened by a swiftly developing, unavoidable weather event that brought back Smith’s poems into my ken.

Well, let me at last say a little about Smith, who is also an author of children’s books and four-time national poetry slam champion, besides being an increasingly prominent American poet in general. Her earlier book, Teahouse of the Almighty, prepared me for some of the strategies and themes of Blood Dazzler. There we find poems that face the world and demand to answer back―one about an Iraq-war widow, ones featuring Chilean political dissenters, or Nigerian women protesting against Texaco. Various poems begin with epigraphs taken from AP stories, and another, which may helpfully frame Smith’s own compulsion of compassionate attention, introduces the invisible or hostile figures in her poems with Mother Teresa’s words: “Every day I see Jesus Christ in all His distressing disguises.” There is also present an affection for a region and its people, one that would soon be devastated: “delta teach me fatback, / skillet bread, hogshead, / alaga, drive me crazy with / warm grease, fatten me up” . . . The book’s line that most points to her coming Hurricane Katrina testament invokes one of her great predecessors among social-protest poets: “Gwen Brooks hissed Follow. We had no choice.”


Please come back Wednesday for the second-half of this review. 

Whatever Grace That’s Said

We bowed our heads before the meal
of chili and fresh bread. Our host
said, “Dear, would you say grace tonight?”
And then the teenager stammered,
mumbled “Dear God,” half distracted.
Before we knew it she gave thanks
for her fashionable new clothes,
asked that her father’s installation
of a flat-screen TV be done
smoothly, according to His will,
later in the evening. “Now that’s
an adolescent prayer!” I thought,
glad to be glad for even that.
Smiled on the inside. Cool with it.
Parents were clearly embarrassed,
and gave a requisite response
of caught-off-guard disappointment.
The grandfather, though, was the one
most beautiful, saying “Thank you,
dear,” and shrugging it far away.
“Since it’s God we’re talking about,”
he continued, “it’s easily
imaginable – isn’t it? –
that He has heard it all before.
We pray as the people we are.
And teen-aged prayers? Well, whatever.”
He smiled, having settled it all,
and turned gratefully to chili.

photo by: koelk_h