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.