Part Nine: More B-Words! and Coda
Cross my heart, I’ve had the word “benediction” in mind for Bruce Smith’s final words, as well as the word “gutbucket,” conjoined to ave atque vale, all along. (Surely it will come as no surprise that Smith's last poetic sighting was an untitled piece that uses the words “book” “blue,” “bliss,” and “bowl”.) But first I should mention that Smith, the acclaimed poet, teacher, and most recently the author of Devotions (University of Chicago Press), was a nominee for this year’s National Book Award, the NBCC; named to various “top-ten” lists; and honored by Publishers Weekly for writing one of the year’s ten best collections of poetry.
Smith, now back at Syracuse, has held faculty positions at both the University of Alabama and Houston, and believe me, the man knows his music as well as poetry, thus I received these words as a blessing:
“In those days it was either live with music or die with noise, and we chose rather desperately to live,” Ralph Ellison says in his essay, “Living with Music” about trying to write in his apartment while being surrounded by a “night-employed swing enthusiast”, a restaurant with “a jukebox the size of the Roxy”, “preaching drunks” in the alley and “a singer in the ceiling.” Ellison finds himself dueling with the latter, caught mid-range between “Negro folk music, sacred and profane” and Western classical music.
Between 1998 and 2002 I lived in Tuscaloosa, Alabama –183 miles from Oxford, Mississippi; Memphis, Tennessee; and Atlanta, Georgia. (You know you’re a Yankee when you define the place by its distance to another place, indicating your uneasy, carpetbagging, existence.) Like Ellison I listened to the music I found in these places that mentored and tormented me to the point of identification.
I arrived in August, couldn’t sleep, what is it with those onomatopoetic heat-bugs, don’t they ever let up? I drove to the Waffle House at two in the morning. I drove to the car wash. I picked up the escaping signals from Birmingham, WBHJ – 95.7 Jams, that broadcast the spare, low beats-per-minute, narcotically repetitious, bass-and-drum-machine drunk, call and response music that was Southern Hip-Hop. It was the equivalent to Ellison’s jukebox. It was loud and rowdy. It was the time of Dirty South music, reclaiming the red-hot clay and chicken coops and car-up-on-blocks poverty as the imaginative locus for a new movement of young Black artists from the former Confederate states. It was the high portamento of “Bombs over Baghdad” and “Rosa Parks” and “Ms. Jackson” from OutKast and Goodie Mob in Atlanta. And it was “crunk” (past tense of crank? crazy drunk? chronic and drunk?) from L’il Jon (Atlanta) and David Banner (Jackson, Mississippi) and the 3-6 Mafia (Memphis) who would eventually win an Academy Award for their song from the movie, “Hustle and Flow” – the first black group to be so awarded. The music was sex-obsessed and “jaw broke, wig split, neck snapped” violent and sometimes stoned and therefore profane and therefore interesting as a condition of depravation like funk, R&B, and the blues before them from which music (poetry) comes. It was the music of Ellison’s drunks in the alley. It was the voice of the “escaped slave” that Whitman wanted to use in Leaves of Grass – American, hankering, gross, mystical, nude. This music was the antipodes of the Southern Fugitives, those white men at Vanderbilt who reclaimed a different South. In the (civil) war between beats and the rhythmic phrasing of classical form, the beats won.
I drove through the Black Belt with my colleague and NPR contributor Diane Roberts stopping at Little Zion, a church burnt and rebuilt by 1996, to Faulkner’s house in Oxford, Mississippi, 183 miles. I was prepared to lick the “postage stamp of human soil” that was Yoknapatawpha County. I was prepared to hear the voices formed by racial segregation, Southern defeat, the Middle Passage, and the Trail of Tears. Instead I heard a live NPR show, which included Brazilian drumming and folk songs at one of the best independent bookstores in the country, Square Books. I heard Barry Hannah’s voice, a man who felt “a need to listen to the orchestra of living” and did and gave voice to the war vets, drunks and uneasy good ol’ boys. On Faulkner’s grave, the joke goes, the sticker reads, “I’d rather be reading Airships.”
I drove to Memphis where Beale Street was a sad weekend destination for frat boys and sorority sisters, but Sun Studios and Stax records lived in dilapidated glory. The poetry of the South, I maintain, is still found there, as chronicled in Stanley Booth’s book, Rythm Oil. And in the Civil Rights Museum, at the Lorraine Motel, room 306, the replica of King’s last meal, catfish and hush puppies and greens – an eloquent concrete poem of endurance.
Back in Tuscaloosa I instituted a ban on the word “kudzu” as a form of shorthand to describe the Southern experience. My colleagues were Jews from Brooklyn or geniuses from the Midwest, poet Robin Behn and Indiana’s prince in exile, Michael Martone. My neighbor spoke a south Alabama dialect that I couldn’t distinguish from barking, and I had trouble in general understanding and being understood. I was called “rude as a Yankee” at the dry cleaners when I couldn’t stay for the obligatory fifteen minute discussion of the weather and my life. I was dismayed that Bear Bryant Drive didn’t intersect with Lurleen Wallace Boulevard, although Helen Keller Drive intersected with Harper Lee. From Bryant-Denny stadium I could hear the whoops for the Tide and the brass of the Million Dollar band. They echo still as I try to write, 918 miles away.
Received also with gratitude, though the bridge it provides is purely fortuitous—and fortunate—is Claude Wilkinson’s “Anything That Floats,” New Orleans being the heart of the final essay in the series known as “Notes on the State of Southern Poetry,” “Controversies, Connections, and Coincidences”:
Before even opening The Katrina Papers by Jerry Ward, its cover art ferries us toward the book’s thematic and metaphoric heart. Herbert Kearney’s construction All Mothers Are Boats is composed of paint, driftwood, lumber, dirt, masonry, and other rubble found around the artist’s studio post-Katrina. The literal importance of boats during and after the hurricane is evoked by the image alone. However, as we soon find out, Ward’s very act of writing a journal was for the author, a means of survival. His introduction refers to Katrina as “a matrix of stories,” and indeed whether speaking of the storm or the journal, there are situations within which something else originates, develops, or is contained. Although the book is in part documentary of a cataclysmic event, design elements such as no table of contents and the use of varied fonts and forms throughout the text remind us that The Katrina Papers is in fact one man’s memoir.
Generally sequential in its arrangement, the book begins under the romantic heading Early September Preludes. Ward’s first entry on September 2, 2005 sets out, “Being in the First Baptist Church shelter means . . . damn, the words don’t want to come out of the pencil . . . that thousands of us have been abused by Nature and revenge is impossible” (11). As one might expect of such writing, Ward’s iteration of the importance of home and the force of loss is constant. Considering his own transformation even near the end of the journal, the author thinks to himself and then writes,
You are fooling yourself about bright moments. All moments from now until the time of your dying shall be dull and prickly. You shall laugh, and laughter will bring you no joy. Sadness shall season all your waking minutes. Peace will exist when you are asleep. You will never be conscious of it. Stop wishing and dreaming. Wake up. (202-03)
What readers may not expect however, is Ward’s sometimes humorous, often Zen observations and his continued professional engagement in the face of catastrophe. At one point he asks, “Does water walk when you swim?” (210). Six days earlier, Ward expresses his annoyance over a fellow juror’s tardiness in making a selection regarding a literary award.
The Katrina Papers also presents the Zeitgeist of Ward’s vexing trial of registering online with FEMA and his reflections on the joy of getting a much needed haircut, as well as vacillating, conflicting emotions—from the brief happiness of finding out via e-mails that friends and family are still alive to the sorrow of his situation. “Be happy, then be miserable,” he writes (11). Interspersed in the entries are associations that Ward makes between experiences such as watching telecasts of people struggling through the flood and his having edited a poetry anthology subtitled Wade in the Water, followed by the mimetically iambic thought, “A boat is anything that floats” (11).
Ward’s claim of “trauma affect[ing] the mind, the soul, the body” is buoyed by descriptions of “wading in poisoned water with snakes and the dead bodies of animals and people floating by” (12). Although certain entries vent anger through commonly voiced political stabs at the American military’s involvement in Iraq by suggesting that the true terrorism is here in the flooded coastal areas, The Katrina Papers is also a stocktaking of sorts. Under the heading You Don’t Know What It Means, Ward describes the awful task of preparing to abandon one’s most secure place in the world, possibly never to return: “You hurriedly pack—vital documents, granola bars and water, sports clothing and toiletries for a week, put on your Army dog tags for good luck,” reminding himself “[You did survive Vietnam], lock up the house and leave at 12:06 with a backward glance at John Scott’s ‘Spirit House’ on the corner of St. Bernard and Gentilly (13).
Yet in the scope of other atrocities such as 9/11, slavery, and “the AIDS/famine/ethnic laundering crises in Africa and the triumph of evil elsewhere,” the author ultimately considers himself blessed (13). Nevertheless, Ward, a Richard Wright scholar, poet, and English professor, remembers and clings to sundry safety nets, stating: “You do have unfinished work at Dillard University, and suicide, damning your Roman Catholic soul, would hurt the relatives who love you. Wear the mask. Smile. Pretend you do not hurt” (13). The journal is evidence of an unquenched desire to ruminate on Emersonian philosophy and Harold Pinter’s Nobel Prize speech, to read new works of literary theory, and to communicate with colleagues. Alongside Ward’s Olympian pursuits are his mundane but necessary lists reminding him to write checks for bills and file a claim for flood insurance.
Near the anniversary of his leaving New Orleans just before Katrina hit, the author recalls other personal traumatic events—namely the death of his father on December 25, 1957, which hence hardened him against any celebration of Christmas. On the death of his mother in April 1992, which he admits to being better able to handle, Ward writes, “By then I had experienced the rising and falling rhythms of life”—an ominous, apt segue to the coming storm (232). Thus the journal closes in a manner reminiscent of an absurdist play. Exclaimed in bold font are the directions—which I ask you, dear Readers, to follow with me on 29 August 2012, the seventh anniversary of Katrina’s landfall:
Ward, Jerry W., Jr. The Katrina Papers: A Journal of Trauma and Recovery. New Orleans: U of New Orleans P, 2008.