We've tapped some very special guest bloggers to help us celebrate this summer's Word for Word Poetry series at Bryant Park. They provide a behind-the-scenes look at each event and divulge about the talented poets who share their work in the park. Experience Word for Word Poetry yourself every Tuesday through September 14, from 7pm to 8:30pm, at the Bryant Park Reading Room.
Anne Lovering Rounds on Word for Word Poetry, August 31
Before any of the poets took the mike on Tuesday night for a program entitled “The Katrina Project,” Bryant Park’s own Paul Romero shared two poems: Patricia Smith’s “Siblings: Hurricaines 2005” and “Victoria Green (mother of four),” by Cynthia Hogue. Smith’s poem, an alphabetical litany of hurricane names and personifications (“Rita was a vicious flirt”), came to Katrina only in its last, haunting line: “None of them talked about Katrina. She was the blood dazzler.” The second poem, from Cynthia Hogue’s recently-published When the Water Came, is an “interview-poem” whose speaker recalls Katrina with both tough irony and pride of place. Together, this pair of poems set the stage for a night whose three readers would cross genre boundaries, blend tones, report, reveal, remember. This past week, many “Katrina five years after” events have been in the atmosphere and in the media. The Katrina Project was not such a marking of anniversary, as if to celebrate; but nor was it all about anger; nor was it all about lament. What emerged from the three voices in this project—Nicole Cooley, Tonya Foster, and Yusef Komunyakaa— was power of poetry to intertwine creation, observation, and remembrance.
The first poem Nicole Cooley read, “September Notebook,” immediately connected New York and New Orleans. At points, the poem put the two seasons of 9/11 and Katrina, and the two cities Cooley calls home, into mythical perspective, terms that transcended circumstance: “Once upon a time there were two Septembers in two cities: / the one of the towers on fire / and the one of floodwaters rising.” At the same time, Cooley’s takes on both events were always personal; the fire and the flood came across in memories of her child’s hair, a family phone conversation: “The sharp smell threaded through / my daughter’s hair for days”; “I / was on the phone with my parents, begging them to leave the city.” Throughout, “September Notebook” maintained this balance between talking small (“I hold my daughter on my lap”) and talking big (“I’d like to sit with her, Our Lady of the Breach”; “I’d like to force the floodwaters down her throat”). Throughout, Cooley’s poems reflected the reach of disaster by calling out intimate details and individual memories, carefully listing the objects of land- and cityscape, then letting these portraits speak for themselves. In “Debris,” for example, she turned her eye to the stratigraphy of rubble in New Orleans: “The face of a metal fan”; “A front door”; “A sign: do not destroy”; “A refrigerator spray painted Help Me Jesus”; “A sign: we’re coming home.” In “Write a Love Note to Camellia Grill,” she catalogued messages on post-it notes that covered the iconic diner of New Orleans when it closed: “Dear street car”; “Dear neutral ground”; “I will stay hungry forever.” A poem written along Highway 90, Hurricane Alley, described a “new lexicon” in “The spray painted X”; “The house marked O”; “Missing a whole story.” By noticing that lexicon of destruction and naming its features in her poetry, Cooley suggests the stories that are missing, that we may otherwise have missed.
Tonya Foster’s poetics is expansive, omnivorous, and rhapsodic. Foster read from A Mathematics of Chaos, a work she describes as blurring the boundaries between prose and poetry. The long poem took us from Harlem to the Big Easy, from the speaker’s childhood to adulthood, and into every crevice of Foster’s imagination. To hear this was to hear the poet thinking, linking, and revising, all in the space of a single work: “Thought bubble: hurt”; “There’s water everywhere” “Water like language” “Like licking like lapping.” As its fusion of genres suggests, Mathematics of Chaos is compelled by what is multiple. “The disaster has no single origin,” Foster tells us; “Origins have their own origins.” Foster’s repetitions, and the resonances she sets up within and across lines, also bespeak a desire to amplify complexity, rather than eliminate it. Loops and reiterations pervade the poem, whether Foster is thinking about crime statistics, definitions of home, or communication through contemporary media: “If a body got got by a bullet”; “To the point or desired goal,” “Into the desired position”; “I canceled my plans to cancel cable”; “Cellular circuits / Cellular circuits / Cellular circuits.” The scope of this poem could have made it hard to follow—but the other piece Foster shared, “New Orleans Bibliography,” was equally comprehensive. In final section of the poem (“Aside troix”), the title bibliography is realized. It’s an alphabetical ecstasy: “Daughters / Dead-end / “Desire”; “Red beans / River / River / River / Semen / Seventh Ward”; “Vagina / Virginia”; “Where you at” / “Where you from”; “Zulu / Zydeco,” and finally, the end to this accelerando: “Amen. / Only after taking in my mother landscape was speech possible.” Foster’s poetry “takes in” so much, and her incredible bibliography is at once an ordered series of keywords and an endless opening up of questions around race, place, gender. Foster doesn’t answer these questions; she does more. As the language of her poems creates a space of productive relationships between them, Foster is asking us to do as the poem does: take it all in.
In a very different way, Yusef Komunyakaa asked us to do this, too. Komunyakaa is a poet of long sentences, accumulation of appositions and conjunctions, syntactic frameworks that demand way more than the one listen we were lucky enough to have. But like both Foster’s and Nicole Cooley’s, Komunyakaa’s poems were about facing history. “You Made Me” narrates the personal (“I am a man who came as a boy / out of Little Rock, Selma, / Mobile & Bogalusa”), chronicles a broader history (“The past / rises in red bud & bluejay, in blood oath”), and gives us a speaker rising from blood and hurt: “Out of this,” the speaker says, “out of spit & mud, straw / & myth,” “still I sing / till the auctioned-off faces / rise out of the bottomland.” I come forth, Komunyakaa said; I rise. That regeneration may not have been visible in “Requiem,” the Katrina poem he closed with. When the water came, as the poem told it, “the Crescent City was already shook down to her pilings,” “lost to waterlogged / memories & quitclaim deeds / exposed for all eyes, damnable / gaze & lamentation,” and “already the last ghost song / of the Choctaw & the Chickasaw / was long gone,” “a tally / of broken treaties & absences echoing cries of birds…” This isn’t only a requiem for Katrina’s victims and survivors. It’s for all who have known “broken treaties & absences,” all who have known the sullying of land, violence against the body, crimes against human dignity. Walt Whitman, at the end of “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” his elegy for President Lincoln, comes to “the song, / the wondrous chant of the gray-brown bird, / And the tallying chant, the echo arous’d in my soul.” In “Requiem,” Komunyakaa reminds us that tallies can measure the monstrous; what Whitman calls “the wondrous chant” doesn’t always seem available. And yet. One phrase from “How It Is,” the poem Komunyakaa read right before “Requiem,” stands out. It was a poem on writer’s block, on the unpredictable behavior of the muse. “A grace note”: as I jotted down lines and phrases from the poem, I starred this one. Post-Katrina, man-made disaster, national shame, we need—and for this evening had—the grace notes, the notes of grace that poetry can strike.
Anne Lovering Rounds is Adjunct Professor of Humanities at Metropolitan College of New York and an editorial assistant at Cambridge University Press. She holds a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from Harvard University. This is Anne Rounds's final blog post of the 2010 season.