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.