Photo by Mario Tama
The new issue of the New Orleans Review features a strong essay by Brad Richard on the issues a poet faces when writing about Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. The disaster prompted an engorged number of poems, essays, books, and stories, and the essay, excerpted here, explains why some of them succeed, and illuminates the challenges so many failed to surmount.
The New Orleans Review is available at better bookstores throughout the Greater New Orleans area. This excerpt is reprinted with permission.
A Poetics of Disaster: Katrina in Poetry, Poetry after Katrina
by Brad Richard
One challenge in thinking about post-Katrina poetry is the problem of historical context. “Katrina” conjures up the overwhelming images of August 29, 2005, and immediately thereafter—neighborhoods flooded and shorelines stripped; people waiting for rescue on rooftops, at the New Orleans Convention Center, at the Superdome; people dying, waiting for rescue; American citizens in an American city guarded by American troops. But the contexts of those events, the histories that give full meaning to the name “Katrina” and the catastrophes it signifies, not only include early twenty-first century American politics, the bellicose and paranoid Zeitgeist of the post-9/11 world, but also the ecological and economic histories of the Gulf Coast, the histories of race in America, and many other factors. Given these contexts, Katrina was as much a manmade as a natural disaster (“the Federal Flood,” as New Orleanians often call it), and also augurs further failures of the postmodern state. Mired in endless military actions aimed at protecting its economic interests, and codependent with its transnational corporate allies for survival, our government showed great difficulty, even reluctance, in offering its devastated citizens even the most fundamental aid. In some key respects, the BP oil disaster followed a similar template; one can expect there’s much worse to come.
If we narrow the focus a bit and consider Katrina and its aftermath as events adjunct to the post-9/11 wars, certain elements come into stark relief, not least of which is how differently the government and the media responded to 9/11 than to Katrina. The 9/11 attacks, strictly and brutally unified in their timing and purpose, generated a swift, vast set of military, legal, and cultural responses. They were something that happened to “us,” as a nation—better, a “Homeland.” “You’re either with us—or you’re against us,” George W. Bush declared, assuming the power to speak for all of “us,” just as he and his cohorts would assume many other powers. They pinned a flag at Ground Zero, used the attacks as an excuse to wage a patriotic holy war, and hastily raised their “Mission Accomplished” banner to further an illusion of command and competence even as events spun out of their control. One of those events was Katrina. They couldn’t stick a flag in it; New Orleans, which gained most of the media attention, raised messy problems of race and class, and besides, in their calculus, the value of New Orleans was less than that of the Twin Towers, the Pentagon, and Middle Eastern oil. So they embarked on their stumbling response strategy, first trivializing the disaster (“You’re doing a fine job, Brownie”), then making a practical and political mess of it, and finally declaring as soon as possible that they had done everything they could to help—mission more or less accomplished. If their help did not accomplish what we needed it to, that was essentially our fault, and furthermore, they had more important matters to attend to. I oversimplify somewhat, but the message understood by those living in the disaster zone was clear: we did not matter. Who we were and what we had experienced did not have a meaningful place, a place for meaning, in the discourse of Bush’s “Us.” Without home, without Homeland and all its dubious securities, we were abject.
Some of Julia Kristeva’s meditations on abjection in her essay Powers of Horror are useful in reflecting on the experience I’m describing, and will be apt in relation to many of the poems I will take up. For Kristeva, abjection is experienced as at once personal and also as a radical state of divorce from what gives meaning to the personal: “what is abject . . . draws me to the place where meaning collapses.”
Not me. Not that. But not nothing, either. A “something” that I do not recognize as a thing. A weight of meaninglessness, about which there is nothing insignificant, and which crushes me. On the edge of nonexistence and hallucination, of a reality that, if I acknowledge it annihilates me. There, abject and abjection are my safeguards. The primers of my culture. 1
To experience this and speak of it poses huge problems for poetry. Where can one speak from to give meaning to the destruction of one’s meaning? To whom will one speak? Is it enough to witness? Dare we imagine?
Claudia Rankine’s poem “Backed Up in the Soul (Collected from CNN)” engages some of these questions in provocative ways. Rankine’s poetry constantly interrogates the poet’s subjectivity as she responds to events in the world, as in her masterful, book-length 9/11 poem, Don’t Let Me Be Lonely. There, in reflecting on the inadequacy of her emotional responses to the individual deaths at the World Trade Center, she notes, “There is no innovating loss. . . . It is not something an ‘I’ discusses socially. Though Myung Mi Kim did say that the poem is really a responsibility to everyone in a social space.” “Backed Up in the Soul” takes up this responsibility by skillfully interrogating the subjectivity of the media’s reporting from New Orleans in the days after Katrina. Her method is simple and damning: she takes direct quotations from CNN reporters, anchors, and interview subjects and arranges them so they become self-revelatory confessions of the Homeland’s subconscious, all its uncensored fears and anxieties on nightmare display:
climbing over the bodies, one said, stranded on a roof, one said, trapped in the building, and in the difficulty, nobody coming and still someone saying, who could see it coming, the difficulty of that.
[…] The missing limbs, he said, the bodies lodged in piles of rubble, dangling from rafters, lying face down, arms oustretched on parlor floors.
And someone said, where were the buses? And simultaneously someone else said,
FEMA said it wasn’t safe to be there.
[…] We never reached out to tell our story, because there’s no ending to our story, he said. Being honest with you, in my opinion, they forgot about us.
[…] You simply get chills every time you see these poor individuals, so many of these people almost all of them that we see, are so poor, someone else said, and they are so black.
[…] Then this aestheticized distancing from Oh my god, from not believable, from dehydration, from over-heating, from no electricity, no power, no way to communicate
We are drowning here