“A storm’s eye view of the devastation that forever changed New Orleans and America.” –Book Jacket Summary
One of my favorite stories of all time is about my dad’s uncle, Wayne. Wayne was a farmer’s farmer’s farmer. He was notoriously strong and good-natured, and generally unflappable. One day my father was in the barn where Wayne was milking the cows. Without warning, a beefy barn rat fled a stamping cow hoof by climbing up the inside of Wayne’s pant leg. Without pausing the strum strum of milk in the bucket, Wayne simply reached over and grabbed the rat through the pant leg, gave it a quick bone-crushing squeeze, then shook the whiskered corpse out onto the floor.
My father begins a story like this with a long pause and a forty-yard stare. And that’s all the poetry I know. Over the years I’ve struggled with the thick language sauce I’m told are poems. They often offer me very little, and I have learned to ask for even less. But I’ve been told there are plenty of stories in a book of poems like Blood Dazzler for me to appreciate. Let’s see if we can find them.
For starters, the collection is about Hurricane Katrina, and carries with it all the impotent rage and wonderment that such a natural disaster inspires. It reminds me of Faulkner’s The Old Man, a story about the Mississippi in flood, and Faulkner’s fiction in general. He’s one of the most powerful voices in my writer’s head, so the connection is enticing. Perhaps it’s the intractability of the water, or the demotic voices in some of Smith’s poems.
Take the Luther B series. The first chapter of Luther B’s expiration is a colloquial instruction to tie him to a tree. After a few pages of more abstract poetry, I have now met a dog (dogs are profoundly empathetic protagonists) who has been set to an enormous challenge. The poem’s speaker doesn’t know what that dog is about to go through, but I do. When I was in film school, they said the worst thing a villain can do is kick a puppy. Well, Katrina is about to kick a puppy. I can see it coming, and there’s nothing I can do about it.
The next thing I notice is that several of the poems take on the persona of Katrina herself, as though the storm were a person. This assignment of will is called theory of mind, a uniquely human ability to give to an inanimate object or concept the same power of perspective that a human has. This is the very essence of writing fiction, of creating people that are true and real yet don’t exist.
My favorite of these is the critical perspective of Hurricane Betsy, who apparently rifled through New Orleans’ underwear drawer in 1965, with the brutal and stylish scandal of the recently derailed Kennedy administration. She condemns Katrina for roaring through like a man. A woman’s purpose is to seduce people, not destroy them.
The other interesting thing about this poem is that it has a note at the top, providing a little back-story about Hurricane Betsy. In fact, a number of the poems have this, whether it announces those trapped in a nursing home, or lost child survivors. I like these poems better as well. It’s as though the introduction is act one, the setup. Without it, the act two and three of most poetry simply doesn’t supply enough context for me.
For the most part, I struggle with the rest of the poems. The words climb all over each other, providing a million ways of seeing the same static moment. It’s a single frame of a movie–perhaps beautiful and suggestive, but without the inertia of the frames before and after, the whole of which overwhelms the sum of its parts.
And yet we bump into a couple more Luther B chapters along the way. It’s cruel and I hate it (which means I love it), and I hope and hope that in the end his survival is the one touch of God’s grace in this flood of suffering.
It’s this hope that’s the essence of story. Regardless of language and structure and style, the outrageous alchemy of good storytelling makes me turn away before my heart gets broken, but then peek anyway, just in case it doesn’t. So I flip the pages until I see the title “Luther B Ascends.”
That can’t be good.
Is this the best way to tell me a story? Who knows. But it worked.