1.1.06

A Poem Written During Hurricane Season: "on the vacation of spirits"

I wrote a poem about Hurricane Katrina - because I lived through it. Here is the poem (and yes, I took the photograph too).
A damaged house in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina hit the city in 2005.on the vacation of spirits

when the zephyr blazed through MR GO, the gods, naiads, goddesses, with their hollow shrieks vacated the levee womb, a deposit bereft of running life
left, vacant and empty where once
spirits danced and melancholy wept –
on the corner of St. Claude and Alvar –
now split into dry wood, a gaping gash,
unsutured and sullied with faded peeled shrimp –
drained,
as if blood itself where all that is necessary for a full spectrum rainbow –
now only empty houses, prom dresses

milton’s house,
left on top of a pickup
because there are no longer laughing gods to re evacuate,
no longer a god to sit on the stoop at the fish market,
a boy to close the door behind him when he leaves

text and image © Greig Roselli

10.11.05

Book Review: The Hours


When I read the required reading list for the Virginia Woolf Seminar I took at Southeastern Louisiana University, I was happy to see Michael Cunningham’s novel The Hours included in the list. I had read the book before and liked it so much that I read his two other books: Flesh and Blood and A Home at the End of the World (which along with the Hours was made into a motion picture). My favorite is Flesh and Blood, his first. It is a drama spanning three generations of a suburban New York family; quite dysfunctional, of course, because no one wants to read about normal people. They’re too dull. All of his novels deal with family issues. A Home at the End of the World is about three friends who try to make a family together, to raise a child and to make a home for themselves. The Hours is about family as well; most poignantly when family becomes suffocating and you want a way out.

It’s funny the images that Cunningham frequently uses in his novels. In an interview with Cunningham in the Kenyon Review (I think it’s the Kenyon Review), he talks candidly about his books and how they have been received by the general reading public; especially his role as a gay author writing books that do not necessarily fit into the Gay and Lesbian genres. It could be said that Cunningham is breaking new ground by writing books from a queer perspective accessible to the non-queer type and not solely formula fiction. Typical gay books tend to follow a formulaic outline: 1.) boy (or girl) is unsure of his/her sexuality 2.) has a sexual experience 3.) there is talk about the danger of AIDS 4.) then “coming out” to family and friends 5.) maybe more sex 6.) falling out with partner 7.) and either a reconciliation or more commonly, going separate ways. I have even heard that some formula fiction (whichever the genre) is so predictable that you can flip through the book quite easily and find all the parts. While not all queer fiction is formulaic, the books I’m talking about are either “coming out” books, gay bildungsromans with stereotypical characters, or they tend to be Harlequin romances or Barbara Cartland yarns with a homoerotic theme. Suffice it to say, hopefully, Cunningham's books represent a shift in queer fiction. He doesn’t even use the word “gay” (if at all) in his novels. Sexuality is fluid for him; what I mean is that sexual identity is not fixed in stone; like the Kinsey model -- none of us are either completely one way or the other; most of us lie somewhere in the middle of the sexual spectrum.

And also, as we mentioned in class  we read novels because we want to read them; we shouldn’t read a novel because a character has or has not a particular “orientation”  so what if a character is gay, straight, transgendered, bisexual or whatever? It’s the same problem we affix to other genres  Christian fiction, historical fiction; as if the genres themselves dictate how we are supposed to enjoy the book. Someone mentioned in class last night that walking into a Barnes & Noble, you get the sense that the books are choosing you not you choosing them.

I can’t help but mention the fact that in the interview in the Kenyon Review the interviewer mentions that in every one of Cunningham's novels there is mention of baking a cake. In Flesh and Blood the mother is baking a cake for a birthday party; in The Hours, Laura Brown sticks her hands into cake dough, evanescent of her repressed sexuality and in a Home at the End of the World, Bobby learns to bake a cake from his best friend’s mother and eventually becomes a chef. Responding to this observation about cakes in his novels, Cunningham laughed and said that it wasn’t done on purpose. But, he said, it was true  cakes are everywhere in his works. If you want to know the symbolism of something in a book don’t ask the writer because he will deny any kind of signification; writers don’t like to give away “why” they wrote a book (as if there is something to “give away”);. Readers, however, are different from the writer of the book in that we want to discover meaning behind recurring images in a novel but authors are reluctant to say, “yes I meant this when I wrote that.” If I were to give meaning to baking in Cunningham I would say that he is very much involved with domesticity, uncovering the mundane “stuff” we do in our everyday superficial lives. But, he just as well may say that it was a coincidence.

Speaking of cakes and domesticity, it is interesting to note how Cunningham “places” his novels. He doesn’t portray starving people in Ethiopia nor does he showcase the horrors of war in Iraq  his novels are about sometimes superficial peoples’ lives in an artificial world trying to find a home. Clarissa in the Hours lives in a fabulous apartment; she is privileged; she is throwing a party for her former lover; like Mrs. Dalloway, it’s all rather superficial. What’s the point? What’s the so what? Cunningham is writing from what he knows just as Woolf wrote from what she knew, her (and his) collection of memories and experiences that serve as the fodder for the novels. What’s more universal: dying of AIDS in Uganda or dying of AIDS on the Upper West Side?

I don’t know if the Hours (or any of Cunningham’s novels) will make the list in the years to come. It’ll be interesting to see what’s included in the canon before my own life is finished. The Hours is a fine book; it is not an imitation of a previous masterstroke, but nor is it a genius piece of work either. I enjoyed it a second time after reading so much Woolf in a short span of time. It was a nice dessert! I can’t help but think, though, that perhaps cake may be Cunningham’s only perduring legacy.

9.11.05

Virginia Woolf and the Intellectual Sphere

Virginia Woolf, Photograph: AP
Not only is Virginia Woolf a cultural icon, as Brenda Silver in her book, Virginia Woolf, the Intellectual, and the Public Sphere, demonstrates, but she is also influential in the current intellectual sphere.

But, what is the intellectual sphere and what does this have to do with Woolf studies?

The intellectual sphere is the realm of influence surrounding the propagation of ideas, forming an intellectual history from Confucius to Kant, et cetera. Intellectual history is the record of this journey; mainly domineered by men, so it is curious to consider Woolf as a member of this sphere.

Will Durant, the well-noted historian, listed the top-ten most influential thinkers and did not include a woman. It is difficult to think of the most influential thinkers in history without thinking of class and gender. And besides, do we think of Woolf as an intellectual, anyway? Novelist comes to mind. Essayist. Woolf did write 500 essays on topics ranging from current British figures, novelists and literary criticism. In A Room of One's Own she contributed to the idea of the androgynous mind, the idea that the most creative artist creates from the locus of both "man" and "woman".

Also, Woolf was a member of the Bloomsbury group: artists, writers, poets who didn't include the masses. She was a member of a higher social class than most; she didn't have to work. She was very well-educated -- more than many men -- but she didn't have a university education like her brothers. She was able to be educated because she was the daughter of an educated man; she read the books in his library. She describes herself as being between the devil and the deep sea (Three Guineas 74 See more on this page). Her father's library educated her: the Victorian books that surrounded her educated her; She received a pastiche education, pulling knowledge from wherever she could. She did feel bitterness about this; she writes in the Three Guineas about "University Education": "What is this mysterious process that takes about three years to accomplish, costs a round sum in hard cash, and turns the crude and raw human being into the finished product -- an educated man or woman?" (24).

But, are we speaking about an intellectual elitism here? Would Woolf consider herself a part of an elitist intelligentsia separated from the masses? How did Woolf imagine herself in the context of the intellectual elite and/or the public sphere? It is difficult to speak about "the intellectual" without also speaking about a class society. Intellectuals, as Gramsci puts it, come from the different social classes so as to articulate the identity of that particular class. This is different from Plato's idea of the Philosopher King in his dialogue The Republic. Ancient Greece was a democracy of free men, women excluded. The intellectual was a man who had the leisure time to spend writing and thinking. He was taught gymnastics in school, learned the art of war. The slaves worked or went to war -- the women stayed home and kept their chitons tight around their belts.

Plato does ask the question, though, why is it that Women are reserved the role of nurturer, thus the weaker sex, and man has the role of a warmonger, the stronger sex? Marx can be called a public intellectual for he wrote about the rise of the working class. Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr. were intellectuals for the Civil Rights Movement in the '60s. Cuddy-Keane, in her work on Woolf and the intellectual/Public sphere, argues against the popular notion that Woolf was an elitist. Woolf deliberately published her essays in magazines that many people read: Ladies' Home Journal, for example. Woolf gave lectures at schools on the importance of education. Again, in the Three Guineas, she writes about the importance of education, "judging for yourself, comparing the views" so as to distinguish between fact and fiction. Woolf didn't trust the status quo. She realized that the war effort wanted able bodies, producers, and women were fixed to provide for the state as long as they were forbidden from an education; the women's college that asks her for a guinea, she argues, will only purchase matches and petrol that will burn the college to the ground! (36). She noticed that the world is divided into public and private spheres.

In a comical way, she broke into this private sphere. As a young woman, she poked fun at government security by dressing up as an Ethiopian prince and boarding the HMS Dreadnought to the chagrin of the British Navy who fell for the hoax! Woolf realized that women were excluded from the private sphere and she wanted to bring the divide that separated them closer. Woolf published two book series called the Common Reader. In it, she published essays, literary criticism and biographical sketches for anyone to read. In a way, this is her most accessible work for the public intellectual sphere. The Three Guineas, which we read in class, is her most polemical attack; but also, her most insistence insertion into the intellectual sphere, championing her cause as a pacifist.


Works Cited:

Cuddy-Keane, Melba. Virginia Woolf, the Intellectual, and the Public Sphere. Cambridge. 2003

Woolf, Virginia. The Common Reader: First Series. Harcourt Brace. 1925, 1953.

--------------------. The Second Common Reader. Harcourt Brace. 1932.

---------------------, Three Guineas. Harcourt Brace. 1938, 1966.



I also consulted the Philosopher's Index, the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, the Dictionary of Intellectual History to find entries on Woolf. Woolf had one entry in the 2004 edition of the Philosopher's Index and none in the others, except a cross-reference note at the end of an article in the Philosophical Encyclopedia


I also have a fuller, annotated bibliography on Virginia Woolf and the Intellectual Sphere posted here.

11.10.05

Journal Entry on Orlando by Virginia Woolf

Nature and letters seem to have a natural antipathy; bring them together and they tear each other to pieces 
- Virginia Woolf
The first realization, in hindsight, that I was not a part of nature, but rather of culture, was when I first assumed that I was a boy and not a girl. At some point in my development culture assigned me the gender of male and I, for the most part, accepted the sign. But, signs, as we know, do not always point to something that is really real, rather, they sometimes merely point  which is an oddity, if you think about it, because we expect a sign to point to something. Real, that is. And when I say the word “something” (or the word “real”) I mean a metaphysical something. This metaphysical something - that for millennia was assumed and presupposed until Ferdinand de Saussure came along and said: No, I don’t think so  there is no referent in language -- language does not point to a something. So does my gender point to something real about my sex or is it just a sign that really leads to nowhere in particular? I would have to say that signs do point to something, but I would hazard a guess that it is not an A = A equation. Rather an A = “A” equation. And when it does point to something, at least something we perceive to be rooted in the real, we cherish those rare moments; we stand back and gasp -- and call that experience Aesthetics. I call it the art of the “awe”. We stand in awe. Like Orlando, in Virginia Woolf's gender-bending novel, standing up after a long trance: always a woman and at this point a man (or a woman). She is not perturbed when she stands up and find herself a man, or a woman, in fact, she is nonplussed. Woolf puts no words in Orlando’s mouth but rather describes the situation as if Orlando is waking up for her morning ablutions or walking her Seleuchi hound. Ordinary events, really (I can hear Woolf chuckling): “It is enough for us to state the simple fact; Orlando was a man till the age of thirty; when he became a woman and has remained so ever since (p. 139). She doesn’t explain anything, as if she has to give a reason why Orlando is now a woman and not a man. We merely stand in awe. Woolf states: “Let other pens treat of sex and sexuality” (p. 139). I guess I am one of those other pens.

In reading the biography of Orlando, I have to step back and wonder what sign indicates who we really are. I usually have taken signs for granted, a given  signposts to help guide me in this strange land (1). Take de Saussure’s tree, for example. The sign for tree seems easy enough, but the sign for “me” is more difficult to get a hold of, despite the omnipresence of our bodies  we can’t escape ourselves, yet we remain indefinitely perplexed by our very selves (2). Especially if we have been disrupted somewhere along the way. Abuse. Violence. These traumas can either be signs of grace or asphyxiation. The signs no longer work. Or grace seeps in and we can see again. The signs that clue us into our gender are based on assumptions about what it means (how it is comprehensible) to own a phallus between your legs or a pair of scissors on your lap (tongue in cheek). These assumptions either become whole or fractured.

Gender is not only a lesson in anatomy – yes, certain physical features of our anatomy, so we are told, designate us as male or female  but there are other dynamics at play here. Either you are a male or a female? It seems easy enough, but already, before the child even leaves the mother’s womb, the infant is beset with the problem of sex and gender. Gender presents a host of possibilities, many of them rife with problems. Just think of all the restrictions that gender places on us (that Orlando seems to be liberated from, miraculously enough).

If you have a penis you cannot speak of shopping with the same reckless abandon as you would if you have a vagina. The who-has-what is culturally conditioned. Orlando can play (and did) both gender sides. Case study: A boy playfully applies his mother’s lipstick when no one is looking (see the film, Billy Elliot or L.I.E.) or a girl dodges her father’s resistance and joins the boxing league, despite the opposition. A father tentatively embraces his son after his ex-wife drops him off. Why is it that these gender roles are so fixed in culture? I know the question is hopeless, but I ask it indefatigably.

Gender remains a cultural construct, while sex is a hazy reminder of our once intimate link with nature. Now that we have shaken off nature, any idea of a utopian society in the feigned vein of a Rousseau (or even Plato) have fallen by the wayside. We are products of culture, and thus, depending on our cultural milieu, must endure certain gender roles that society places on us. I guess we could fight it but I am not going to risk the humiliation of wearing a dress to class with burgundy lipstick. Maybe Orlando can wake up one day, a different gender and amiably stride into her new role – but, I must confess, I don’t think I could do that. The gender roles are too much ingrained in me. Yeah, some gender constructs I can elide easily enough  like the idea of blue and pink as being exclusively male or female -- so that they no longer serve as signs of gender, but rather remain as spectrums in the rainbow of light No matter what we do to fight it, I feel, the legacy of the west remains, placing ideas in opposition (form and matter, good and evil, black and white) as if the tension between the two will actually produce something that is knowledgeable and meaningful. We are so binary about the whole thing. I hate that.

As a boy, I am sure (because Lacan assures me (3)), I looked in a mirror and saw an image reflecting back that I assumed was a whole image of me, even though it was a misrecognized image, incomplete, a partial imago of the real me, flabby, infantile and totally dependent on mum and pop. And I am sure, completely self-involved  more than I am now! Somewhere along the way, I looked in the mirror, butt-naked  like Orlando  and was gendered. Not solely by me. But by my parents. TV. Et Cetera. I was male. I am a male. I was wondering? Especially after a few beers. Will I wake up one day and find myself changed? Orlando had no qualms about her sex: there was no doubt about his sex (pg 1) but she is two-gendered in the novel. It makes for awkward pronoun usage because you don’t know if you should use masculine or feminine pronouns to describe her. In the novel, it is not problematic at all because the narrative is progressive. Woolf brilliantly avoids any grammatical ambiguity although the text remains rather ambiguous. Or is it androgynous?


There is a song by the Crash Test Dummies called “Androgynous”:

Here comes Dick, he's wearing a skirt
Here comes Jane you know she's sportin' a chain
Same hair, a revolution
Same build, evolution
Tomorrow who's gonna fuss?
And they love each other so, androgynous
Closer than you know, love each other so, androgynous

We'll don't get him wrong, and don't get him mad
He might be a father but he sure aint a dad
And she don't need the advice that is sent to her
She's happy the way she looks, she's happy with her gender
And they love each other so, androgynous
Closer than you know, love each other so, androgynous

Mirror image, see no damage, see no evil at all
Cupie dolls and urine stalls will be laughed at
The way you're laughed at now

Something meets boy and something meets girl
They both look the same they're overjoyed in this world
Same hair revolution
Unisex evolution
Tomorrow who's gonna fuss?

And tomorrow Dick is wearing pants,
Tomorrow Jane is wearing a dress
Future outcasts and they don't last
And today people dress the way that they please
The way they tried to do in the last centuries

And they love each other so, androgynous
Closer than you know, love each other so, androgynous. 
PDF Copy for Printing
________________

(1) I stole this from the title of Walker Percy’s posthumous collection of essays Signposts in a Strange Land.

(2) Percy wrote about that too in his book, Lost in the Cosmos. He describes two phenomena that I can remember: walking by a mirror in a department store and not knowing who that person was you just walked past, so you back up and see and startled to discover it was your reflection in the mirror. Or why is it that when you look at a photo, for instance, a family portrait, the first person you seek out is yourself?

(3) See Lacan's writings on the subject in “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience”

18.9.05

Hurricane Katrina: My Personal Story on Living Through the Storm

We had just read Virginia Woolf’s The Mark on the Wall before the storm came. We were in a circle sharing thoughts and ideas about possessions and the seeming impermanence of things.
     It was the end of the week and I had a pile of readings to get through before weekend’s end. My first semester of graduate school had only begun on Monday at Southeastern Louisiana University and I had just started a Master's program in Englis. I had paid my tuition and fees and had procured a graduate study carrel from the library so I could stash my research materials in one locked place. I had figured out the best commuter route from the house to school and I was even beginning to feel normal in my new routine even though I was a little anxious and nervous at the prospect of my next new adventure; I am planning on getting a degree in English so I can teach at our local seminary college which is run by the Benedictine religious community that I belong to as a professed monastic. We live near Covington, north of Lake Pontchartrain, the behemoth lake that separates us from the fishbowl called New Orleans and the mighty Mississip’. We call our little municipality Saint Benedict. Area code 70457. We have a little post office stuck into an extremity of the Abbey. A Romanesque Church and Bauhaus looking college are architectural
I lived in St. Benedict,
Louisiana when the storm hit 
highlights here. Loblolly pines (a few Longleaf) characterize the area flora along with strawberries and bedroom community traffic. Many people who live in the towns and cities that sprinkle Saint Tammany parish work in New Orleans. Slidell. Covington. Mandeville. Madisonville. Folsom. Abita Springs. Reminiscence of convalescence from tuberculosis and insanity populate the urban legend of the area. The Northshore was at first home to the mad and the sick. Mandeville is a sanatorium founded by Bernard de Marigny who invented craps and Abita Springs is regionally famous for its beer and spring water, apparently easing body and mind for a century or more in what used to be called the ozone of New Orleans.
Hurricane Katrina is
one of the most powerful storms
to hit the Gulf Coast in a century
     On Friday, August 26, I heard murmuring at the coffee bar about a storm system in the Gulf of Mexico. I kept the news in the back of my head but it didn’t strike me at first as something to be afraid of. Living in New Orleans, you always have the fear that a big storm will hit and there always seems to be some sporadic storm system in the Gulf, especially during August and September. We’ve escaped many hurricanes here. New Orleans had barely escaped hurricane Ivan, last year and the four most dangerous, recent storms that wracked the Gulf coast hit other states. So, I wasn’t that eager to evacuate. I didn’t want to come back to yet another near miss. Coming back to averted disaster creates anxiety and stress and an unwillingness to evacuate again in the future. Not that we want a disaster to strike this city but the financial hardships that the tourist and oil industry endure every time the city evacuates disturbs our already weak economy. The rich and the middle class can get out of the city (but even they are inconvenienced by gas prices and hotel bills) when warning of a hurricane is issued, the poor and disenfranchised are stranded. I know a person who lives on the corner of Bourbon and Esplanade and he doesn’t have a car nor a way out. It seems now, in retrospect, that not having a car in this city is tantamount to exile (the streetcar or the bus will not be much help). In New Orleans, buses cart the poor to work and cars bring the bourgeoisie back to the suburbs. Public transportation to the north of the city begins to break down until there is nothing except a stretch of road without a bus stop. When Katrina came ashore New Orleans was Naxos with thousands of Ariadnes.
Artificial levees (like the one above) broke
— which caused catastrophic flooding in the city.
     Fifty hours before Katrina hit, contraflow began in Southeastern Louisiana and everyone with a car fled and everyone without one stayed. Contraflow is extremely organized, one of the most organized things we have in this state. Street lights are turned off, so people don’t stop. Once you get into the flow on the interstate, it’s like the Pacific current; there’s no turning back. The expressways become one-way arteries out of the hub. I have family in Orleans, St. Charles and Jefferson Parishes. Everybody got out. Mom and my Great Aunt came to stay with me. My cousin Linda and her children went to Houston. One of the last people I spoke to on the phone before Katrina knocked out power was her eleven-year-old son, who is like a brother to me. He said he was afraid that there would be nothing left of his house when he got home. I asked him what valuables did he bring with him. He said he had brought some photographs. I told him that I loved him and for him not to worry about us. I would see him and other family members when the storm blew over. I wasn’t able to get in touch with my dad but I knew he probably fled like everyone else. His house is right next to the 17th street canal which now has a hole in it the size of an eighteen-wheeler.
New Orleans after the levees broke
     I spoke to my friend Frida on her cell phone hours before we lost connection. She works in the Garden District, a posh, live oak-lined neighborhood near the zoo. When I mentioned that there might be nothing to come home to, she dismissed it and said we can’t think like that right now; if it happens it happens. At that point, I was afraid for the city because I didn’t know what would happen. One guy here went to fetch his father from the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans, but his dad insisted that he stay, to take care of the dogs. Still, at this writing, we don’t know where his dad is; the last we heard was that his roof was gone and Saint Claude Avenue was under twelve feet of water. As the storm crept inland doors were pressured off their hinges. Water pumps failed. Cell towers down. The Hyatt Hotel in the Central Business District looked like Beirut, according to one news anchor. The Super Dome suffered massive holes and its outer skin was peeled off. It looked like someone had peeled it back to reveal a rusty navel orange. At least two breakages in the levee system caused rising water near Canal Street, inching toward the French Quarter, which has managed to stay dry, for now. It seems like most of the city is underwater and massive relief efforts are underway to rescue people stranded on top of the expressways. I just saw a C-130 carrier plane rumble overhead this morning. They are carting people to the Astro Dome in Houston and there is talk that people will have to board naval carriers to get out of here. Last I heard there were still 30,000 people in need of evacuation. People still on houses. People unattended to even in shelters.
           On the news, a little girl was crying, “Somebody help us!” A mother was pouring lukewarm water on her son’s back. A husband lost his wife; she couldn’t hold his hand, the flow of the water was too much; the storm had washed her away. Humanity is supposed to come alive when a storm hits. Even though now, Red Cross shelters and FEMA are distributing food, providing shelter, and caring for the sick and wounded, they came too late. The National Guard, the 82nd Air Borne Division, even ATF agents, are coming in to give relief, four days after the storm. Because so many people were left behind after the storm, relief shelters couldn’t provide for their needs, so people died, babies, the elderly and mental health patients. Dead bodies have been found, slumped in their wheelchairs in the Convention Center. The good news is that even though the Federal Government was slow in responding, most of the humanitarian relief has been by neighbors helping neighbors. My mother has been volunteering at the local high school which has become a local shelter. There was a story about a woman who had a baby by Caesarian section and was trying to get to Baton Rouge for care. She was in front of the Convention Center in New Orleans waiting for a bus to bring her and her baby to a hospital. Looters and thugs were firing gunshots, forcing the woman to start walking. She walked across the Crescent City Connection over the Mississippi River to a car and apparently drove to Baton Rouge. The doctor who received her at Woman’s Hospital, a refugee himself, who was just credentialed to help out, was emotional when he retold the story. Here at my house, stray folks are asking for water and food. Even showers. One family up the road who come to mass here lost their entire house and need a place to take a shower. We have people living in the library, the gym and offices scattered across campus.
     I guess there is a secret desire in every one of us to weather the big storm, to see as King Lear sees: the cracked skies and the spitfire of physical evil. But this storm was different. A storm like a category five hurricane has the tendency to shake people to their basic core; either they come alive or curl into the fetal position; a storm like this one should be reassurance that we’re not dead yet! I’ve read articles about hurricane psychology and seen it in action in people, including myself. When Katrina hit, I was on the second floor of our building, watching pine tree after pine tree snap in two, sometimes like a broken toothpick and other times, trees were uprooted and splayed across our walkways, their roots gnarled and exposed to the air. I went crazy. Live Oaks kept their trunks intact but Water Oaks and Cypresses on our property were tossed like a baby’s toy. When you hear a tree, especially trees you’re familiar with, that you walk by every day, that you come to know and love, snap in two, it is a horrible noise, a sound like a crushed spine. I watched most of the storm from the second-floor balcony. As the storm barreled its way northward something inside of me, restless and unassuaged, was desperate for air. I needed to release pent up tension. So we went to the first floor to the outside walkways to see the storm at Katrina’s level, to feel the wind and rain. I was soaked and mad. We hooted and hollered at the storm. I flung out Shakespeare: crack you thunderbolts! I’m skinny, so I was afraid that the wind would take me so I hid behind Danny who is a bit heavier than I am. He didn’t appreciate it too much. The wind never picked any of us up but I have a vivid image of the Tulip Poplar crashing to its end. I was mad at God when the Tulip Poplar broke, symbolic of so much further, deeper anger. Something snaps inside of you when a big storm comes. I didn’t feel guilty that I was angry at Mother Nature; I guess can project all of my frustrations and anxiety on her.
Storms do different things to different people. Some people hunkered in their rooms and didn’t come out. Others couldn’t keep still. Like me. I was raging Shakespeare to the nymphs and dryads while the guy next to me was contemplating running through the yard to the bridge, oblivious to the fact that the wind gusts could actually pick him up and toss him to his death. One guy was already out in the storm, in the middle of the gusts, picking up window frames that had flown off. Even in the midst of the insanity, I knew I was insane, but I couldn’t stop. I had to feel the storm inside of me, the rush of it through my body like blood flow. Only then could I know for sure that it had passed. As trees fell one after another I felt sad and disoriented, as if the trees themselves were us, were me, were those that I love.
       When the roof of our dining room experienced a major leak, ten or more guys got the nerve to actually fix the leak in order to save the murals that had been done to decorate our eating area. But, I think some of the Celotex panels were damaged and I came to the realization that not even art is permanent, demoralizing, but true. Watching gobs of water spray into our beautifully done murals made me realize how bad it really was.
View of St. Louis Cathedral
from the Mississippi River in New Orleans
Not that we should be surprised. Climatologists and disaster experts have been doing worst case scenarios for years. In 2001 there was a spread in Scientific American about “Drowning New Orleans”. There are four major factors at play here, that isolated don’t do much, but collectively bode badly for our area. The first thing is New Orleans is below sea level. When you look down onto the French Quarter from the levee you look down into Jackson Square. Ships on the river seem to be above the Cathedral steeples. The levee system is ancient. Humans have been warding off the Mississippi River for over a hundred years. It is like a one hundred year old house that has been given periodic attention but is still old and cannot sustain the wear and tear any longer. The Army Corps of Engineers is in charge of the levee system, a network of man-made hills that keep the river from cresting into the city. New Orleans is like a bowl, sitting in a tub of water; you tip it a little, either way, and water starts pouring in. The third thing is that the Gulf waters have risen on account of global warming. And our wetlands have disappeared dramatically. When Hurricane Betsy hit New Orleans our natural defenses were better equipped to fend off the storm. Now with long droughts that have plagued the region in the past few years, New Orleans sits on a dry bed of soil. The spongy swamps won’t protect us like they used to do.
        And they didn’t. Katrina hit us in the gut, worse than Betsy and Camille in the 60’s. At first, weather reports were saying that it was good that the storm was moving westerly, supposedly saving us from an even more disastrous hit, but it seems now, judging from the destruction, that it didn’t matter. When the storm died down and we only had tropical force winds blowing, we celebrated the Eucharist in an open room. I was soaked, oddly sad and disappointed that the worst of it was over. There was something about the insanity and chaos of the storm that I loved and also hated. Receiving communion while the winds still blew, I felt my first twinge of sadness and first real conjecture of what this storm did to our way of life. It would take us days to finally realize that this wasn’t just a normal gulf hurricane. I knew it was bad, when later, while watching the news, someone commented, “oh! they only have two feet of water.” and someone else said, “they’re only walking waist-deep through the water!”
        I knew New Orleans would never be the same again, maybe parts of the city uninhabitable for years; the body count will be in the ten thousand range and it will be difficult to identify all the corpses; missing person reports will go on for years and displaced persons will have to find homes and jobs elsewhere. Entire bridge networks have been washed away and people in cars stuck underneath train trestles and on the roofs of houses. Streets are only navigable in some areas by flat bottom boats where only last week cars were driving down them. I can remember in grammar school, watching historical footage from hurricane Camille’s aftermath, a storm that devastated Pass Christianne, Mississippi. A woman was with police officials and family, looking for her home that existed in a “bombed out” area where apparently everything was lost. But they found her house unscathed and I remember she was ecstatic jumping up and down in disbelief, unable to reconcile her fears with what had actually happened.
     I hope stories like hers will be repeated today. New Orleans will be rebuilt, even if the politics are against it. For one: New Orleans represents a cultural heritage that fuels the national psyche. It is also home to millions of people. Louisiana is a model for other cities in the world that are suffering from coastal erosion. Louisiana produces one-third of the nation’s seafood and one-fifth of its oil and one-quarter of its natural gas. From New Orleans to Baton Rouge on the Mississippi constitute the United States’ largest port. We have 40 percent of the nation’s wetlands along our coasts and they provide wintering grounds for 70 percent of its migratory waterfowl. I got this information from the Scientific American article that I had read four years ago. If anyone says New Orleans is not worth saving, then I say they really don’t know what they’ll be missing.
     I find myself saying little prayers to Our Lady of Prompt Succor, the patron of our state. Not that I have a particular devotion, but at times it is the only thing that I can utter in prayer. Slowly but surely it is dawning on me, my family, and my brothers whom I live with, the vastness of the destruction and the affect this disaster will have on our lives. I can only begin to now to painfully put all of the pieces together. My friend Bonnie was Hardy’s reddleman today (from Return of the Native), picking up sticks alongside our buildings, she represented apocalypse at bay, keeping the time with each dropped pine, a silence and calm. I am reminded of life and a quote from Woolf: "the perpetual waste and repair; all so casual, all so haphazard."

12.8.05

Flash Fiction: Tchefuncte River, Summer 2005

One summer a boy dove into the Tchefuncte river and hit something at the bottom. When he came back up he hurriedly free-styled to the flood wall, clambered up the algal steps, frightened. We all looked and saw the corpse of a calf float to the top of the water. It had risen up from the depths. Bloated. Passed along by a farmer from downriver to here, near the mouth. Thrown in for the alligators. And a few days before that, a kid caught a nurse shark in the same river, near the same spot. Adam told me he used to swim in it, but not anymore. -- Rivers aren’t supposed to have cows and sharks swimming around in ‘em, he said. Besides, the water’s been getting muckier, disgusting. It’s not just the boats, either.

Image Credit: "Bogue Falaya River Bank" © 2005