Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Hurricane Katrina Memories

Seven years ago, New Orleans was being slammed by hurricane Katrina.  I didn't watch it happen in real time, or even see much about it.  I remember hearing a radio snippet for a brief time when the power blipped on and then blipped off again.  The levees had been breached, but had not broken.  We know how that was about to turn out.

No, we were dealing with this:

It's a downed ficus tree with my spouse and his chain saw in the foreground of the picture.  The standing tree stretched across the whole back border of our fence.  The downed tree took up our whole back yard.

The pictures are grainy, because they've been scanned and saved through many formats.  What you can't see underneath the green at the lower right is a smushed shed.

The picture below gives a bit of a sense of perspective.  Look to the left of the picture, and you'll see my spouse by the fence.  You can see the twisted trunk of the tree rising in the center of the picture.

Some day, I'll scan the rest of the pictures.  We've got a great picture of the tree on top of the shed, very Wizard of Oz.
Of course, we lost most everything in that shed.  But it could have been much worse.  The tree brushed the wall of our house as it gently fell over, after a day of soaking rain, but it didn't go through the roof or the windows.  I'm still not sure what prevented that.

We spent a week cleaning up what we could, and then the insurance folks finally got in touch with us, and we used the insurance payment to have an arborist company finish the job.  We never could have done the trunk grinding by ourselves.

I have not written many poems about specific hurricanes, but hurricanes do swirl through my body of work.  They make such great metaphors, after all.

Here's a poem I wrote last century, around 1996.  I think it still holds up relatively well:

Weather Wife

The hurricane flirts with us; like a reluctant
suitor, the storm cannot decide whether or not to commit
to us. It won’t even make a definitive date.
We watch it vacillate, wonder
if it might decide to court another.

Why do these storms always arrive at night?
They party with Caribbean island after island,
leaving the coastal wife watching the clock
and waiting for its arrival, keeping the lights
lit and the supper warm.

The storm should sneak in, with a whisper of wind,
A dozen roses of rain, leaving a bit of sleep
to the exhausted wife of a coastline.
Instead, the hurricane roars in, renouncing
all others to embrace us fully.

Like a battering spouse, it smacks
us again and again. Not content to just hit
until we back down, it smashes
us to unconsciousness and rips
our most beloved possessions to shreds.

We clean up the damage while we try to soothe
the little ones. We try to convince
ourselves that it won’t happen again. The weather woos
us with calm surf and skies full of sunshine.
We continue in this marriage. We cannot divorce
ourselves to head to the passionless calm
of a chillier climate.

If you want a book-length treatment of hurricane Katrina in poems, I recommend  two wonderful books. Patricia Smith's Blood Dazzler does amazing things, an astonishing collection of poems that deal with Hurricane Katrina. I love the way that Katrina comes to life. I love that a dog makes its way through these poems. I love the multitude of voices, so many inanimate things brought to life (a poem in the voice of the Superdome--what a cool idea!). I love the mix of formalist poetry with more free form verse and the influence of jazz and blues music. An amazing book.

In Colosseum, Katie Ford also does amazing things. She, too, writes poems of Hurricane Katrina. But she also looks back to the ancient world, with poems that ponder great civilizations buried under the sands of time. What is the nature of catastrophe? What can be saved? What will be lost?

Here's a more recent poem, written years after after Hurricane Wilma (which wreaked devestation in 2 months after Katrina, just after we had finished up our hurricane Katrina clean-up) when I found myself weeping in the car, flooded by post-hurricane despair, even though the clean-up had been done and regular life mostly restored:

What They Don’t Tell You About Hurricanes

You expected the ache in your lazy
muscles, as you hauled debris
to the curb, day after day.

You expected your insurance
agent to treat
you like a lover spurned.

You expected to curse
your bad luck,
but then feel grateful
when you met someone suffering
an even more devastating loss.

You did not expect
that months, even years afterwards
you would find yourself inexplicably
weeping in your car, parked
in a garage that overlooks
an industrial wasteland.

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