01 January 2010

Two Tales of One Tragedy: Patricia Smith’s Blood Dazzler, Katie Cappello’s Perpetual Care, and the Catastrophe of Hurricane Katrina

Review by Karen J. Weyant

Blood Dazzler
by Patricia Smith
Coffee House Press
Perfect Bound 90 pages
ISBN 978-1-56689-218-6
Link to Purchase

 
Perpetual Care
by Katie Cappello
Elixir
Perfect Bound 88 pages
ISBN 978-1932418323
Link to Purchase


Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast in August 2005, flooding the city of New Orleans and surrounding areas, causing billions of dollars worth of damage and killing over 1, 8oo people.  Since that tragedy, writers have plunged into this dark part of American history, exploring the politics and people involved with this catastrophe. How often to we insist that it is the job for poets to bear witness to the truth? The truth, of course, is always subjective, but both Patricia Smith in Blood Dazzler and Katie Cappello in Perpetual Care come close. 

Patricia Smith opens Blood Dazzler with “Prologue - And Then She Owns You” a poem that introduces New Orleans as a “She” that is not necessarily a glamourous literary heroine: 
Weak light, bleakly triumphant, will unveil scabs,
snippets of filth music, cars on collapsed veins.
The whole gray of doubt slithers on solemn skin.
Call her New Orleans.
This “she” is hardly part of a poetic utopia; she “prefers alleys, crevices, basement floors” and has a voice that “sounds like cigarettes/pubic sweat, brown spittle lining a sax bell/the broken heel on a drag queen’s scarlet slings.” Smith humanizes New Orleans, which is what makes the devastation found in the poems afterwards so heartbreaking. Smith excels at working with persona. Not only is the city a “she”, but many of the poems are told through a first person point of view of the storm itself. For example, in “5 pm, Thursday, August 25, 2005,” the day that Katrina is upgraded to a hurricane the storm explains, “My eye takes in so much —/what it craves, what I never hoped to see.” In another poem, “8 a.m. Sunday, August 28, 2005" when Katrina becomes a category 5 hurricane, she exerts her power:
Now officially a bitch, I’m confounded by words—
all I’ve ever been is starving, fluid, and noise.
So I huff a huge sulk, thrust out my chest,
open wide my solo swallowing eye.
And if hearing from Katrina is not enough, we also see another historical storm critical of her little sister. In “What Betsy Has to Say” she admonishes the storm:
The idea was not
to stomp it flat, ‘trina,
all you had to do was kiss the land,
brush your thunderous lips against it
and leave it stuttering, scared barren
at your very notion.  Instead,
you roared through like
a goddamned man, all biceps and must
flinging your dreaded mane,
and lifting souls up to feed your ravenous eye.
By giving the storms human voices, Smith dismisses the idea that Katrina was a “natural” disaster. However, she does not leave the true victims out of her work. In “Ghazal” the poet chronicles the powerful force of the rain in such couplets as “Everyone else tried hard to vanish the sight of dripping/nomads rowing cardboard boxes. No, this was not mere rain.” In “Luther B Rides Out the Storm” the victim is a dog, whose “wet yelps and winding croon reach nothing/Wobbling, he latches muzzles to the wall of wind.” 

But the most heartbreaking and disturbing tale is the story of Ethel Freedman, whose body was left outside the New Orleans Convention Center. The poem relays her story in a poem titled “Ethel’s Sestina”:
Gon’ be obedient in this here chair
gon’ bide my time, fanning against this sun.
I asked my boy, and all he says is Wait.
He wipes my brow with steam, says I should sleep.
I trust his every word.  Herbert my son.
I believe him when he says helps goin to come. 
Of course, any discussion of Katrina in poetry or otherwise, cannot ignore the political elements of this particular disaster. George Bush appears in many of the poems including the “President Flies Over” where he chronicles what he sees below, not comprehending (or perhaps caring?) what is really happening with the words, “I understand that somewhere it has rained.”

Smith’s collection is brutal and honest, focusing on the human element of the natural disaster. It would be too easy to simply focus on the political aspects of the disaster; instead, she renders the stories of the storm, both human and natural. 

On the other hand, Katie Cappello’s Perpetual Care is, in many ways, is a collection of a more surreal South. Cappello excels at the image – especially when she explores the world through mythology. For example, in her opening poem, “Twentieth Century Genesis” she relays a creation story:
The snake slid out, pale pink
          like the inside of organs.
When she put her legs together
she counted fifty tiny razors
cutting her fifty times.
They found her lying in the clover
pale pink and drained of blood.
The boots of policeman
           ripped up the sweet pea
as they took photos, gathered bits of fiber.
No one noticed the newborn snake
like a glossed lip
in the shade of the bottle tree roots.
Is this the birth of a new world, or simply a rebirth of a devastated world? Or, is there really a difference? The opening is not clear, although through the poems that follow we see a narrator traveling through a devastated South. Unlike Smith’s collection, not every poem in Cappello’s book is specifically about New Orleans, but still the near death of this city is never really far from the narrator’s mind no matter what experiences she records. For example, in “The Bedtime Story” the narrator states, “My father says we will watch the world end/from the football bleachers/grasshoppers rising from the thirty yard line/noted legs, eyes like negatives.” Such details render a sort of the end of the world fairytale, filled with both wonderment and destruction. This juxtaposition can be seen in many of Cappello’s poems, where we see a destroyed city and the hope found within its carnage.

Cappello’s poems often record travel, and her words take the reader through trips to Alaska, California, and Texas. However, two poems bookend the narrator’s feelings about New Orleans. In “How to Drive Through Texas” a narrator cites the lasting image she has of the city:
Tell a new story, your final month in the city,
how the mechanized claw of the garbage truck
struggled, leaking dog out into the street.
Wonder why, when they found him shot,
they didn’t bury him, didn’t call the police
just threw him into the trash to swell and rot.
Realize this is why you left.
Yet, it seems that there is something about New Orleans that makes the narrator return. In “Louisiana State Line” the speaker has decided “to wait for New Orleans/your dream last night thick as gravy/in the back of your throat.”   

Still, it’s the poems that take place directly in the city that truly capture the reader’s attention. Many of her Cappello’s poems fit into aspects of Southern Gothic literary traditions; her words, with images of desolated landscapes, lonely and bewildered spirits, and grotesque characters take the reader through a haunted city. In fact, it seems that it’s the ghosts of the city who are the most alive. In “Hilary Street Cemetery, New Orleans” the narrator notes that “molecules of the dead” are “here in front of me/walking slowly through the intersection/sure no one will hit them when the light turns red.” Even those characters who among the living seem to prepare for the dead. The character of Miss Jenny Croix  is the most intriguing. Wandering in and out of many of Cappello’s poems, the mysterious Jenny acts as a guide, relaying what she knows and what she has seen, in surrreal chants and mantras. Jenny knows flooding, flowers, and bodies – and as she “files her teeth/to points” and “puts cayenne in her chocolate” she advises the narrator that “Every step//Honey child, leads us to our death.”

What can be learned from these two poets, or any poet for that matter, who writes about tragedy? We know, of course, that words cannot erase the past.  But we also know that words can help remember the past, cite the wrongdoings and provide hope for the future.  Both Smith and Cappello reach for these lofty goals, and surpass them.


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Karen Weyant's most recent poems have been published or are forthcoming in 5AM, The Barn Owl Review, Copper Nickel, Innisfree and Lake Effect. Her chapbook, Stealing Dust, was recently released by Finishing Line Press. Visit her blog