I can’t think of a more appropriate book to review in this prolonged season of hurricanes than Patricia Smith’s Blood Dazzler, her 2008 book of poems about Katrina’s record-breaking devastation.
“What?” I can hear the moans, “Another poetry review?” Bear with me, dear readers, Blood Dazzler is unlike any book of poetry you’ve read, and I have no intention of covering it in academic terms. From my point of view, BD is like reading instead of seeing a documentary of what happened to New Orleans and its residents at 8:00 a.m. on August 28, 2005.
One of the reasons I love poetry is its lack of waste. Ta-Nehisi Coates said it best when describing his experience of “. . . learning the craft of thinking. Poetry aims for an economy of truth – loose and useless words must be discarded, and I found that these loose and useless words were not separate from loose and useless thoughts.”
Patricia Smith knows how to hold onto the very best. Blood Dazzler should be read straight through from its Prologue, And then she owns you, (a poem in the seductive voice of New Orleans) until its last poem (page 77) Voodoo VIII: Spiritual Cleansing & Blessing, the eighth poem arising from the culture of Voodoo. Many of the poems have epigraphs from a variety of sources: The National Hurricane Center; FEMA emails; New Orleans PD; Barbara Bush; UPI; New Orleans City Administrator in charge of cemeteries.
What other voices are in this amazing book? Katrina, herself, doesn’t miss a beat, speaking before she becomes a full-fledged hurricane:
A muted thread of gray light hovering ocean,
becomes throat, pulls in wriggle, anemone, kelp,
widens with the want of it. I become
a mouth thrashing hair, an overdone eye. How dare
the water belittle my thirst, treat me as just
try to feed me
from the bottom of its hand?
I will require praise,
unbridled winds to define my body,
a crime behind my teeth
every woman begins as weather,
sips slow thunder, knows her hips. Every woman
harbors a chaos, can
wait for it, straddling a fever.
I console myself with small furies
those dips in my dawning system. I pull in
a bored breath. The brine shivers.
And so the story of New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina begins. Smith allows Katrina’s voice to be heard with a variety of stanzas and line breaks. Don’t let any of that stop you (as if you could).
Still hearing the voices that will soon be muffled and drowned, New Orleans has her own say within the poem Why New Orleans Is:
This is why New Orleans is—
to scrub and soil us in parallel,
to serve up patented alibis for pluck and perfume,
then peel us down to silly shimmying warblers
on a sloped stage slick with beer and Tabasco.
The next voice is that of a black resident watching the newsman saying,
Go. He say it simple, gray eyes straight on and watered,
he say it in that machine throat they got.
It’s the nitty-gritty eye for detail that Smith brings to Luther B, the dog left behind in the poem Won’t Be But a Minute:
Tie Luther B to that cypress. He gon’ be all right.
That dog done been rained on before,
He done been here a day or two by hisself before,
And we sho’ can’t take him.
But the last line of the poem is a false assurance that Luther B will survive:Then we come on back home. Get our dog.
Of course, reading this poem in 2017, we know that will not happen.
On the morning of August 28, 2005, Katrina is elevated to a Category 5 hurricane. Again we hear the voice of the newsman, but this time it is the white wealthy New Orleans resident who listens to the word “Go” in the poem Inconvenient: Best to consider this whole mess a holiday, a simple trade, one home for its vacation version.
Throughout Blood Dazzler, Smith comes back to these voices and others as found in the poem What to Tweak, both quoting and enlarging on an email from the only FEMA employee in New Orleans at the time of the hurricane to the head of FEMA. Among the things Smith has the FEMA employee adding to his email are:
Rainbows warp when you curse them.
I have held a shiver of black child against my body.
The word “river” doesn’t know edges.
There’s a Chevy growing in that tree.
And the last line of the litany: A kid breathes wet against my thigh./ He calls me father.
Smith’s words are as powerful and swift as Katrina herself. She takes you from the first warnings of the storm to the visceral reality of its devastation. Once you’ve read straight through Blood Dazzler, I have no doubt most of you will go back for seconds, probably looking for this or that poem that grabbed you most. One of my favorites, the last voice of Katrina, is a poem I’ve gone back to many times: Katrina
Weather is nothing until it reaches skin,
freezes dust, spits its little swords.
Kept to oceans, feeding only on salted water,
I was a rudderless woman in full tantrum,
throwing my body against worlds I wanted.
I never saw harm in lending that ache.
All I ever wanted to be
was a wet, gorgeous mistake,
a reason to crave shelter.
Patricia Smith’s Blood Dazzler should find its place in the canon of American Literature. – Sunny Solomon
Also available by Patricia Smith: Incendiary Art; Teahouse of the Almighty; Janna and the Kings; Close to Death; Big Towns, Big Talks; Life According to Motown; Gotta Go Gotta Flow.