Thursday, December 28, 2006

Hurricane Blues

Hurricane Blues: Poems About Katrina and Rita
Edited by Philip C. Kolin and Susan Swarthout
Southeast Missouri State University Press tradepaper

For those still looking to support some worthy causes at year-end, Hurricane Blues is a new anthology of poems inspired by the hurricanes of 2005, all proceeds of which go to hurricane relief. As has been the case with all responses to Katrina, the poetry here runs the gamut, from the touching and moving, to the angry and bitter.

New Orleans is the cradle of jazz, so music often plays a role in the poems collected here. In Linda Back McKay’s “Moving Life,” one of the more hopeful poems, jazz is associated with rebirth, as McKay writes:

“Finally, after sky parlays with stars,
the city is frothy again
with charcoal, river fish, jazz riffs.” (p.175)

Conversely, jazz is associated with the death and New Orleans funerals in Marjorie Maddox’s "Jazz Memorial," which starts in a much darker mood:

“While the band jams,
_____Your widow passes out
beads as bright as grief.
_____I tap my feet
__________to “When the Saints . . .” (p. 148)

New Orleans legend Fats Domino makes several appearances, serving as the inspiration for Marion Menna’s “Blue Monday,” which often quotes his songs:

“Our tears fell like rain and the moon
stood still. The four winds blew
‘til blue Monday when Fats came
walking, yes indeed, still walking,
out of the dome.” (p. 105)

There are quite a few political barbs in Hurricane. FEMA, of course, comes in for some well deserved trashing. For some reason, the blue shirt Pres. Bush wore for his Jackson Square address seems to have particularly rubbed some of Hurricane poets the wrong way. While Nagin and Blanco largely get a free ride for their management, or lack there of, in this collection, the image of the abandoned school buses, intended to evacuate city residents, does crop up occasionally. In fact they inspired one of the subtler poems in the anthology, Walter R. Holland’s “The Yellow School Buses.” Holland writes:

“Yellow as flowers in a field, the un-driven buses
sat, loaves of an uneaten bread.” (p. 120)

Unfortunately, there is not much subtlety to Fred Chappell’s “The Grateful Gratitude Blues,” which borders on poor taste for the overtones of its mock obsequiousness, which could be interpreted as playing on past racial stereotypes. There is no interest in uniting the country for the long rebuilding process ahead in lines like:

“We know what you-all did sir to help us in our pain
You gave some cash to Haliburton and sent some ice to Maine
So we thank you very kindly sir we thank you Mr Brown”


“We’ll be bailing out our bedrooms and fighting starving rats
And fending off cottonmouths and voting for Democrats
Who will thank you very kindly sir yes they’ll thank you Mr Brown” (p. 82)

Hurricane Blues reflects the general response to Katrina itself—heartbreaking with interludes of ugly recriminations. Most of the poems are moving reminders of the loss engendered by Katrina, and it is important not to let the excesses of the Chappells to obscure that reality.

The publisher, Southeastern Missouri State, is donating proceeds to hurricane relief, so you can feel good about purchasing it, although they do not identify which funds they will be donating to. You can also give a year-end gift to the Jazz Foundation of America, as I did, for all their relief efforts on behalf of New Orleans musicians in need of a little help