As the waters fall
Let us mourn what was and praise
The music to come
This exquisite haiku by Oakland, California poet Adelle Foley bears the same title as this collection of poems, "For New Orleans." Indeed, the book received its title from her poem. The book's editor, Ashis Gupta, was wise to place this haiku right on the cover for, in three spare lines, Foley sums up New Orleans as place, New Orleans as loss, New Orleans as neglect, spirit, and hope. In this way, she also signifies the essence of the entire poetry collection.
It's possible that none of the poets of the 65 in this collection are native sons or daughters of the great southern city that was so devastated by Hurricane Katrina and by the inept, racist government overseeing the levees and rescue efforts, but the poets do New Orleans, and therefore America, proud by paying tribute to the faith, courage, integrity and sacrifice of those who suffered and who suffer still. They include W. D. Snodgrass, Molly Peacock, X. J. Kennedy, Jane Mead, Wendell Berry, Marge Piercy and many other fine poets from all over the country.
In his personal and informative preface to the book, poet F.D. Reeve reminds us that not "the storm Katrina itself wrecked the city but three kinds of human failure: shoddy army engineering, police repression at the time of the storm, and federal incompetence and indifference." He informs readers about skewed information presented by the on-line search engine Google; he lists major unsolved problems: white parishes restricting rentals to poor blacks, the closure of the city's main public health provider, the transformation of public schools on the un-flooded side of the Mississippi River into charter schools, and more. But despite the litany of wrongs being enacted by the frightened and the cruel, Reeve also speaks of a vision: a restored and revitalized New Orleans. "May that vision come true," he implores.
Not all of the poems in For New Orleans were written at the time of, or even after, Hurricane Katrina, but each poem speaks in some way to New Orleans and her inhabitants -- and displaced inhabitants -- in meaningful ways. Franz Douskey's poem "Misfortunes of Harmony: What the River Knows" was written several years before Katrina. It begins "When the river sprang a leak/the Corps of Army Engineers/tried to remake its bed/tried to cover its mouth…" Later in the poem, "The CNN retinue/scanned the/waters, saw that they had/taped enough human misery/followed by empty official explanations." Many poems, however, were written in direct response to the disaster. In "Weather," Kathleen Lynch asks "What if the earth like any body/has a mouth and must be fed/and it shoves its breath/in a fierce and shocking way…" The poems in "For New Orleans" are sometimes delivered in gorgeous lyrics, sometimes thrown like a left hook. Maxine Kumin, in "Waiting To Be Rescued," holds nothing back:
And here's the President
flanked by his all-white boys' club
striding through the devastation
embracing a little too ardently and long --
what a photo op! -- two black sisters…
And in case it's possible to forget what New Orleans has meant to so many of her visitors from around the world, Jack Foley reminds us half way through his poem, "Monody for New Orleans":
let us mourn for new Orleans
for the city of mardi gras (this Tuesday is thin, thin)
for the city of good food and coffee and delicious beignets
for the city of magnificent music
"For New Orleans" & Other Poems is a strong, intelligent, compassionate collection of poems that celebrate one of America's great cities while reminding us what must never happen again. There is "music" in this book, a foreshadowing perhaps of "The music to come."