by Patricia Smith
Coffee House Press
Perfect Bound 90 pages
Link to Purchase
by Katie Cappello
Perfect Bound 88 pages
Link to Purchase
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.