City with a wounded heart

November 7th, 2010

During my week and a half in New Orleans, I heard people talk about Katrina only once.  That was while waiting for the Everette Maddox Memorial Poetry Reading to begin.  This reading has been held weekly since 1979 at the Maple Leaf

Everette Maddox

Bar, except for a few weeks after the storm.  Now hosted by Nancy Harris, it was started by beloved local poet and legend Everette Maddox, who died  at age 45 the year the Berlin Wall fell.  Some of his ashes are buried in the outdoor terrace at the back of the bar, where the readings are held, with the epitaph, “He was a mess.”

I arrived at the bar at 3:00 in the afternoon, the advertised time for the reading, but the Saints game was still going on and it was clear that nobody would be reading poetry any time soon.  The Maple Leaf consists of a long, narrow wooden bar under a high, pressed tin ceiling, a long, narrow back room with a stage from which great music can be heard many evenings, another squarish room in back of that, and behind that the outdoor terrace, furnished with wrought iron tables and chairs and lush vegetation.  On the stage in the back room was an enormous TV screen, supplementing the TVs in the bar, all turned up loud, with a rapt and vociferous audience at every one.

I stuck around, enjoying the crowd’s good-humored fanaticism as the Saints ignominiously lost.  Gradually, poets collected in the squarish back room.  It was then, while we were waiting for some of the regulars to show up, that I overheard a woman talking about her life after Katrina hit.  She and her family spent their days in a habitable room with blankets and plastic over the doors and windows, running an air conditioner off a portable generator, with nothing to do but play cards and read and talk.  “That was my life for a month after the storm,” she said with a laugh.

Nowadays, it is possible to visit New Orleans and never know that a disaster occurred.  Just as the flood obliterated so much, the signs that there was a flood have been hidden.  Understandably, although people may talk about it among themselves, they are not so forthcoming with strangers.  But, if you look, you will see that this is a city with a wounded heart.  Here is a poem I wrote about it:

Terra Incognita Waltz 2010

You could come to visit and you would never know.
Mandina’s waiters lace your turtle soup with sherry;
black-garbed pilgrims converge dry shod on the Superdome;
St. Charles’ live oaks stretch gnarly branches impossible lengths;
on Bourbon, crowds rejoice in drinking until they puke;
a trombone’s spit valve wets the pavement of Jackson Square;
Faubourg Marigny delights in home improvements;
freshly painted trim brightens Elysian Fields;
no watermarks on Desire, unless you already know.


But you can’t find a map that shows the city whole.
The maps they distribute to tourists show only where tourists are wanted.
You point to one that hangs on the wall at the official
tourist info place, framed like a Degas, and say
you want a map just like it.  The bored official tourist
info lady says they’re out of print a long time,
since the storm at least, no idea why.
At last, at the other official tourist info place,
they sell you a brochure containing several major
fragments of the city, unassembled, and dangling
off the side of one of these delicate grids of streets a
featureless grey blob labeled “Lower Ninth Ward.”


Attempting to fill that space, you cross the St. Claude bridge
and ride a bike down Flood, down Florida’s empty length,
and through the emerging savanna cartography’s given up on.
Street signs echo street names spray painted on telephone poles.
White-shirted mostly black kids romp in a schoolyard’s kraal,
a spot of brightness and noise surrounded by quiet absences.

On many blocks, the curbs are overgrown, the street runs
ragged as if drawn by a toddler in crayon green
for encroaching grass.  One block, the curbs are clean and straight,
five houses in a row with glass not plywood windows.
A dog leaves its owner’s weeds and chases you to the corner,
where the grass grows tall.

–                                                His barking long behind,
you pass a habitation where a woman watches
from her lonely stoop, and you wonder, does she
ache like a phantom limb struggling to grow back?
You ride through acres of grass that rustles overhead.
A sign: “We cut tall grass.”  There’s work enough, you think,
but where are all the workers?  Hot breeze.  The grass says, “Ssh.”


You ask the clerk at your hotel, a dour, white-haired
woman, why no map is to be had that shows the
city whole.  “They’re out of print for years,” you say,
“It couldn’t be the storm changed the streets.”  She pauses.
She says, “Oh yes, it did.  Our streets were swimming pools.
Unless you were here, you can’t imagine how it was.”

This entry was posted on Sunday, November 7th, 2010 at 4:17 pm and is filed under Places, Poems. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.