By Patricia Smith
Coffee House Press, 2008
Watching MSNBC with my mother one night, I started flipping through a few pages of Patricia Smith’s Blood Dazzler – Mom looked over my shoulder and stopped me on page twenty-two. There I found poetic rage, the perfect counterpoint to the televised images of shoes being hurled at President George W. Bush’s head and autoworkers waiting for the verdict on their economic futures’.
GETTING’ HIS TWANG ON
George Bush plays guitar with country singer Mark Willis; 2p.m., August 30, 2005
The President strums the vessel’s flat face,
his stance ossifying, his dead eyes fixed
on the numb, escaping chord. Everyone
feigns amazement at the tuneless thrumming.
They spur him on with spurious laughter.
The cowboy grins through the terrible din,
the flashing bulbs, the rampant ass kissing.
And in the Ninth, a choking woman wails
Look like this country done left us for dead.
That’s our soundtrack, and here comes the chorus.
The lyrics, siphoned of light, are shadow
In everyone’s throat. He plucks strings. We sing.
The President’s “dead eyes” have stared out from our television sets with depressing frequency since 2005 as relentless harbingers of death, war, suffering, and economic collapse. And Smith’s recollection of George Bush’s banal publicity stunt during the dark days of Hurricane Katrina reminds a country currently beset by recession that the New Orleans’ residents “left for dead” by the US government still cry out for our help.
|Smith’s powerful, visceral collection of poems recounts the days leading up to the Gulf Coast’s crisis, the shattering impact, and the horrific aftermath. Each poem is startling enough to arrest the casual reader because Smith imbues her lyrics with distinctive voices, perspectives, and forms. Dialects from the Ninth Ward appear next to the leisurely cadences of the rich, and flood victims look to heaven even as news helicopters, reporters, and the President himself survey the scene from the air. Together, the poems create a resonant and devastating portrait of a vivacious city’s destruction.|
Early on, the personified hurricane describes her journey as she travels towards the site of her grotesque meal: “I have crammed my mouth with buildings,/ brushed aside skimpy altars, / snapped shut windows to bright shatter / with my fingers. And I’ve warned them, soft: / You must not know my name.” Altars and preachers can’t compete with the force of Katrina’s blasts; in fact, “she picks her teeth with prayers.” Baptists convene anyway, “And the levees crackled / and baptism rushed through the ward.” Smith magnifies the storm into a monstrous witch with a single wild eye. Abstract images of the starving female Cyclops appear next to quotations and updates from the National Hurricane Center:
5 P.M., THURSDAY, AUGUST 25, 2005
The National Hurricane Center upgrades tropical storm Katrina to Hurricane Katrina.
My eye takes in so much –
what it craves, what I never hoped to see.
It doesn’t care about pain, is eons away
from the ego’s thump, doesn’t hesitate
to scan the stark, adjust for distance,
unravel the world for no reason at all, except that it
It needs to croon in every screeching hue,
strives to know waltz, hesitation,
small changes in sun. It spots
weeping, then wants to see its sound. It spies
pattern and restlessly hunts the solid drum.
pushes my rambling bulk forward,
urges me to see
what it sees.
The dispassionate recording of time and the weather updates remind readers how quickly the deadly storm descended on the Gulf Coast, and the impressionistic poem conveys sensory confusion as well as the speaker’s struggle to “take in so much”. The narrator “never hoped to see” the eye hunger. The storm “croons in every screeching hue,” and it “pushes” and “urges” the poet into a new kind of sight – these word-images defy logic and nature. Sound melds with sight in this lyric, and the irregular alliterative meter forces the reader to hear the insistent “S” accompanying the storm’s sight. At the same time, Smith’s pauses isolate the storm’s “eye” and “hunger” from the confused, mixed reactions of the narrator that arrive in enjambed, off-kilter lines.
Although the individual poems offer divergent reactions to Katrina arising from different quarters of New Orleans, some images reappear throughout the collection. We often encounter a mangy mutt named Luther B whose owners chained him to a tree before they jumped into their car to escape Katrina:
But nobody’s coming this time, nobody to scratch
the dead skin behind his ear, no m’dear hobbling out
in scuffs and shift, cussing, carrying a fresh can a’ heaven.
All that’s reachin’ for him now is the sky, the God daddy,
pressing down fast, cracks of purple in its fingers.
Luther B writhes on his back in the dirt, tumbling the fleas,
then forces himself still. Snout upturned, he watches
his deliverance come closer. With the first plops of rain,
he snarls low and realizes just what kinda dog he is—
itchy, utterly bitchless, locked to the skin of a tree,
but fat with future. And now a cool day comin’. Hot damn.
Smith follows the fate of Luther B until we find him “smashed level with the mud,” and the image of a household pet “locked to the skin of tree” becomes a metaphor for all of the powerless New Orleans residents who couldn’t leave their homes. While a naïve and useless newscaster says “Go,” Smith recognizes that thousands of people didn’t have that option. Her working class speakers chastise ignorant public commentators who don’t understand why they stayed:
Go. Uh-huh. Like our bodies got wheels and gas,
like at the end of that running there’s an open door
with dry and song inside. He act like we supposed
to wrap ourselves in picture frames, shadow boxes,
and bathroom rugs, then walk the free, racing
the water. Get on out. Can’t he see that our bodies
are just bodies, tied to what we know?
Like a dog tied to a tree by its owner, poor people were shackled by their poverty and abandoned by the government. Without cars and without public transportation, they stayed with the picture frames, shadow boxes, and bathroom rugs of home, unwilling and unable to forsake “what we know.” Who can forget the parking lot of school buses that failed to drive these people away?
After the storm crushes these deserted citizens, swollen bodies float on diseased waters, and the second half of Smith’s collection is a vital reminder of the tragic results of apathy and abandonment. Burying the dead and grave digging became the responsibilities of the survivors.
Smith’s insistent pleas to remember and aid Katrina’s victims also lead to beautiful moments of commemoration. She writes a sestina in of honor Ethel Freeman whose “body sat for days in her wheelchair outside the New Orleans Convention Center. Her son Herbert, who had assured his mother that help was on the way, was forced to leave her there once she died.” Smith chooses a notoriously difficult poetic form to depict a woman of pure and unquestioning faith – the simple words “wait”, “come”, “sleep”, “chair”, “sun”, and “son” repeat over and over to illustrate the extremes of suffering, faith, betrayal, and ascendance experienced by good people like Ethel Freeman:
Lawd, some folks prayin’ for rain while they wait,
forgetting what rain can do. When it come,
it smashes living flat, wakes you from sleep,
eats streets, washes clean out of the chair
you be sittin’ in. Best to praise this sun,
shinin’ its dry shine. Lawd have mercy, son,
is it coming? Such a strong man, my son.
Can’t help but believe when he tells us, Wait.
Wait some more. Wish some trees would block out this sun.
We wait. Ain’t no white men or buses come,
but look—see that there? Get me out this chair,
help me stand up. No time for sleepin’,
cause look what’s rumbling this way. If you sleep
you gon’ miss it. Look there, I tell my son.
He don’t hear. I’m ‘bout to get out this chair,
But ghost in my legs tells me to wait,
Wait for salvation that’s sho to come.
I see my savior’s face ‘longside that sun.
Ethel Freeman keeps her faith in the sun, her son, and the Son even as she waits in the blistering heat for the “white men” that her son believes will save his mother. Instead the “savior’s face” appears to Ethel Freeman. Her patience results in God’s deliverance if not man’s. Smith rewards Freeman’s faith by imagining heaven calling for her: Come.
Patricia Smith’s utilizes the form of the sestina with great aplomb, and the reader sets the book down feeling shaken by the intensity of this talented poet’s emotional appeal. She resurrects the voices of the dead to remind the living “just what He’s capable of.”
Blood Dazzler’s appeal to remember those who died due a storm as well as the paltry efforts of FEMA honors the dead, but it also condemns the Bush administration. Since Coffee House Press published the collection in September of 2008, I expect that the press hoped that Smith’s incendiary poems would urge voters to reject the Republican Party. The poems ride the wave of anger and disillusionment that spread through red and blue states alike, and they demand the attention of Americans who have witnessed myriad images of war and economic downfall on their television sets since Hurricane Katrina descended upon the Gulf Coast. Blood Dazzler dramatizes the troubling moments when citizens drowned in their own homes to propel people off of their couches and into political action.
Sharon Fulton is a PhD candidate in English literature at Columbia University. She is working on a dissertation about the role of animals in the literary dream-visions of the late fourteenth-century.