Do You Know What It Means?: Memories of Hurricane Katrina

Do You Know What It Means?: Memories of Hurricane Katrina

 

 

 

clare e. potter is a Welsh poet. After completing an MA in Afro–Caribbean literature in Mississippi she lived in New Orleans for 7 years working as a consultant for the New Orleans Writing Project. Next year marks the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, the devastating storm that slashed deep, ugly scars into the city’s timeline, many of which remain unhealed. Here potter lays bare the devastating impact of those events on her beloved New Orleans.

 

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Clare Potter

12 hrs ·

I’m writing a piece about New Orleans. It feels like it doesn’t know what it wants to be. At present the writing is fragmented. It was traumatic to return to a place I knew and loved shortly after Katrina and see it undone in an incomprehensible way. And so I am finding it hard to put it all into words, into a coherent narrative because, frankly, it seems impossible to process. Boats on roofs, cars in trees, people dispersed . . . and the smell, I can’t describe that. Anyway the point of this post: do I just allow it to be what it is, a seeping out of what’s ready to come, or do I do my best to shape it into a linear narrative that is informative and reflective rather than offering up a body of emotions and confusion?    I’m lost here.

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CC, MR, CT and 4 others like this.

JF: First draft, just write the images and thoughts that won’t let you go. They may find, or create, their own order, and not need to be made all neat and tidy. There’s something to be said for montage, cutting from one key image to the next – not being obscure for the sake of it, but not having to spell it all out.

11 hrs · Unlike · 2

FF: Can’t you do both? Can you craft the framework but leave room for fragmented descriptions (of memory) in body paragraphs? This type of organization might fit the occasion: chaotic during and directly after Katrina; more organized in the synthesis and analysis of the event.

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RW I think there’s a way to go before you do any ‘craft’. If you can face it I would keep letting fragments emerge. If you get stuck, shift them around & see how bits work with each other in combination – which could give you a new way in. But hold your nerve and stick with the messy route if you can…See More

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SF: Writing from the hart will all ways be confusing, writing with passion will change something. Finding the balance of both will . . See More.

10 hrs · Unlike · 1

K K: Call Anita

5 hrs · Unlike · 1

JD: I wanted to say something intelligent and meaningful. But that’s your job. I usually post funny videos.

How about Facebook time lines? They are eclectic and random yet threaded and linked together. And over time they show where they were, where they are, and where they want to be both singularly and collectively.

 

 

. . . See More

 

You want to say something linked together,

make meaningful fragments, but you’re finding

it hard to put it all into words

the chaos, trauma, directly after Katrina

and now a messy route through paragraphs

attempting synthesis and analysis. Hold your nerve.

Write the images and thoughts that won’t

let you go. There’s a memory held in body

and place made incomprehensible

and something to be said in the return.

 

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Last Night in New Orleans[i]

August 2003

 

After leading the second line through Julia Street,

feeling pied piper power, crunching heels

on left over Mardi Gras beads,

I danced to the Preservation Hall Band

with my feathered parasol

––undulating bird with diamonds,

 

took tired feet to the Carousel Bar,

drank juleps while it revolved

so slow I thought

I caught sight of Capote. Born in there he claimed.

 

Course, everyone wants to be born in New Orrlins

born/reborn in da quarter, that’s why they all migrate

there to hide, blend with thick air, jazz air, blues tappin’ air

coz no-one asks you where you from, you just is.

 

You someone new there.

 

I went by the bistro where the piano plays itself,

though I never believed that until I met Bogie’s girl

one night, wearing a hat with a real flower trapped

in a burgundy net, smelled red fish couvillion, crab boil,

étouffée, beignets, bagass from the suga plant, passed

Carondolet, Terpsichore, Decatur, Piety, Bud Rip’s,

feelin like Prufrock, feelin like a smoke tendril, like

an old ghost wandering, clingin like mist on da bayou,

feelin like anythin’ cept myself.

4 a.m.

when Marsalis played for me, broke me,

as I sucked down the last chicory coffee, bitter

to shed this humid skin I’d learned to live in.

 

Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans?

 

I knew             before I left.

 

 

July Something 2014

In 1996 after three years of studying in Hattiesburg Mississippi, I moved to New Orleans and lived there for eight years, slow and easy. The Crescent City rich in shade, spice, sound, pulses in the heat; the streets vibrate, tempt the palate, enchant, alter biochemistry. Though I’ve been gone for a decade, the complicated feelings I have for the city built on delta marsh still sing to me in polyphonic lines. And the blues for missing her run deep.

 

Over two weeks ago, my Aunty died. There was a post-mortem (we suspected malpractice) so burial had to be postponed. I asked the funeral directors if I could come to pay my last respects. I was advised not to, ‘You’d be better off not coming. She does not look good at all. Remember her how she was the last time you saw her’. . .

I wish an undertaker for the Deep South would have warned me off flying back to New Orleans six months after Katrina, then I could have remembered her in full bougainvillean bloom, semi-assured that I could return at any point and resume the life I’d had which had become a series of films in my head. Series, fragments, dislocated parts I’ve put lids on. Had to.

 

Malpractice.

 

. . . .ond mae fy meddyliau’n llifo nol

i farciau mwdlyd o gwmpas y tai

sy’n dweud hanes yr hurricane yna

ble mae cysgodion y lefi

mor dennau ag esgusodion,

gweddillion bywydau sy ben i waered

cychod ar doiau, gwreiddiau coed tua’r nefoedd.. . [ii]

 

I can only let bits leak out, a little at a time. This is grief work.

 

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Welsh speakers say there is no real translation for hiraeth; they’ll concede that it describes a yearning, a longing, but underneath that they know the word evokes a more complex feeling, one that evades definition. Similarly, if you’ve been to the Big Easy for any amount of time, you’ll know what I mean when I say it’s more than a place, a flat place with a river and melange of skin tones, She has a personality with a voice thick and syrupy, an attitude, and a way of making time un-time itself, so pace of place and being work some strange spells. Not all voodoo.

‘A summer afternoon in New Orleans can stretch intoinfinity over a few beers. One can daydream in the shimmering cool, with or without companions, until it is either late in the day or late in the century.’[iii]

 

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I also Facebooked my friends in New Orleans: a therapist, a Cajun academic, a hair dresser, a concierge and a poet-shaman, to ask advice because I’m agitated here, far removed in time and space, heaving around a closed trunk of compressed and un-processed emotion. After all this time, I tell them, I need a way back in. And I don’t know if I can do it again. Re-visit. Figuratively. Literally. What’s left unchanged after violation?

When I returned soon after the disaster, I poured through the remains of the dead marriage we’d put in storage before leaving for Wales the previous year, still hopeful that we would fix what had broken between us. What can I say? After the levees had breached and all that water sat for weeks making a new kind of obituary cocktail out of the city, our stuff was all moldy, photos and book turned to sludge, the stink gut-turning. But it was just stuff, right?

I stood on the main road into Chalmette, empty of honk or horn or bass of radio, no nothing, not even like a film set. Post-apocalyptically still. Desperate words daubed on houses ‘We gone to Letta’s. Call us on Momma’s Cell.’

The feeder of nightmares.

 

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It’s hard to breathe. Hay fever. Unfinished business. PTShockD and a cricket I can hear in the garden, relentless, chirping its story with such fluency. Sometimes the thing to do is open the throat, let the images come. Or else, sing,

 

Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans?

 

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I never lost a loved one, or had to ‘live’ in a FEMA trailer park, barbed wired in: the ‘George Bush’s federal Guantanamo for Katrina survivors;’ [iv] I was not left on a roof for days, nor bussed out to Texas with no hope of return because the government wanted me erased, which is what happened to countless black families who did come back (if they could find the means to do so) to find their homes although undamaged by flood waters, boarded up. Prime real estate; Katrina came in handy like that.

 

So. I feel like a tourist here, riding a Hurricane Katrina Tour gawking (from an air conditioned bus) at houses collapsing, taking snapshots of the sprayed tattoo of 3 Dead in the Attic left by search and rescue teams; I’m someone rifling through a dead woman’s house for riches. It’s uncomfortable writing. I don’t know my place in it, what right I have to speak about a city and a people that I left. And beyond that, it’s not just piecing together the catastrophe but the rebuilding of a collective sanity. My not being a part of that. I just don’t know where New Orleans is at right now. But then, neither do my friends who live there.

 

Only now, after 9 years has my friend Anita been able to read a whole book for pleasure again. ‘I don’t even know where to start when it comes to talking about this place’ she says, followed by a smiley emoticon. Even now, the catatonic confusion; the fun-loving laissez les bons temps rouler [v] bumping up against each other, dumping debris, washing it away.

 

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 Overheard on a New Orleans Bus

(Post-Katrina)

You know what I noticed most

when I returned to ma house?

No birds.

Now we usta have doves and mockin’ birds

they always makin’ a racket. Well,

there weren’t none. Maybe coz there

weren’t no trees to sit on no more. Well,

I s’pose, I sorta went in ma head

to the part where you listen real quiet

coz if I’d a opened my eyes and nose,

what I woulda taken in woulda

killed me. For sho.[vi]

 

My Aunty had 6 rounds of ECT to take the sting out of what made her ill. It left her jittery and unable to locate anything other than the past-past. There were pieces she couldn’t cling on to (she was meant to be better off without them) but the amputated scenes left squatters she could sense but could not name.

 

The nightmares, those noxious absinthe coloured tormentors, ghosts needing laying to rest, some wanting to talk. . . Hush . . . Hush . . .

 

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I don’t even know where to start when it comes to writing about this place.

 

 

How She got under my skin

It begins like this. I’m in the classroom, it’s before a thunderstorm. The sky is jackdaw black and grey. But it’s not hurricane season yet. All the kids have gone home. My friend slams open my door, tells me ‘I fucked the landlord,’ makes me close my eyes, hold out my hands, a perfect gardenia, pungent, Southern white and a sort of non-weight like an empty bluebird egg; thunder grumbles in the distance.

Later, after the storm, when the courtyard is a swimming pool and the mosquitoes are epileptic, I’m about to shut the door I propped open with Huck Finn so I could feel the brazen weather breath, and a dove flies in. It circles a few times. I’ve gone stiff, not sure if I’m amazed or afraid. She offers up these metaphors. All the time. I struggled to decipher them then, and now.

 

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Little Altars

In houses water-gutted, damp and doorless, altars that helpers constructed after clean-up missions, tending to found objects like they were washing the bodies of the dead: wiped photographs, unbroken crockery, keys and sodden pages of family bibles, all arranged with care alongside poems written on scrubbed walls to soften ‘home’ coming. The viewing of their corpse.

 

These memories are the talismans I’d want to come home to:

*          Two men, early 50s in neon lycra jog in Audubon Park, their miniature pony on a   lead

*          Magazine Street: a motorised arm chair is manouvered down the road. Its pilot      drinking an Abita Amber.

*          Drive-through daiquiris

*          ‘Throw me somethin’ mister’

*          Fighting over beads and doubloons. Showing titties for beads and doubloons. Getting      arrested for beads and doubloons

*          Hurricane parties

*          Bouganvillea, sweet olive, gardenias, magnolia, oleander, causing synaesthesia:      sweet cicada air

*          The old lady in the French Quarter walking her albino ferret

*          Sucking on sugar cane

*          ‘Hey mistah, I bet you 5 dollar I can tell you where you got yo shoes.’

‘On yo feet!’

*          Bywater, watching ships above street level gliding down the Mississippi

*          And that man who cycled past my apartment with a kitchen clock strapped to his back. Perhaps he knew something we didn’t. But hell if anyone paid him any mind.            ‘He could be God,’ my friend had joked.

 

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Attic

Every time a storm was headed our way, like for instance Georges, my mother-in-law would call with well-rehearsed instructions while we rolled our eyes and listened to her talk to the answer machine:

 

Hope y’all have y’alls axe up in y’attic? And water and matches. Y’all could get stuck up in there. I know you think I’m playing crazy, but it happened in ’65 and people died y’hear; y’all need an axe up there. And batteries for the… beep…

 

When the levees gave in, the tidal surge reached the attics, days in the attic, 110 degree heat, no food, no phone, no axe, the dark.

 

 

My journals thick with ten years of loving and living. They’re in the loft. Recounted therapy notes; 9/11, fear; some inner mysteries revealed at 4am on the shrimp boat; the stuff that happened in the desert in New Mexico. And the nightmares. I’m sure they have water-logged the pages. Those bridges that kept collapsing, rendering us waist deep in sulphurous marsh mud, how being held face-down in Lake Pontchartrain gave me pneumonia . . .

 

It’s hard to breathe. Hay fever. Unfinished business. Sometimes the thing to do is write the images and thoughts that won’t let you go. . .

 

No. Let them stay boxed and bound in books bought on Magazine. Let them contain like levees the pull and push.

 

Sometimes I think I hear a rat up there, or something trying to get out. Mike says it’s just the house settling.

 

Settling for what?

 

*

 

This morning in Cardiff, two men with two Welsh ponies shook a collection box, taking donations for local disabled children.

 

When I get home, Mike shouts down from the attic, ‘We’ve got a leak somewhere.’ There’s heat and panic, the bathroom ceiling is bulging under the pressure, the water fans down the walls like dye. It’s brackish; I know it. Soon the room is flooded. I go under, surface, go under, come back up for air, dive; I think: this time, I’m here, I’m swimming, I’m coming back to shore. I’ll see my friends who weathered the storm, went under, resurfaced. Knew what it meant.

 

 

 

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[i]potter, clare e. spilling histories, Cinnamon Press: Blaenau Ffestiniog, 2006

[ii]potter, clare e from ‘Haf Bach Mihangel’ Heno Wrth Gysgu: Barddoniaeth am y Newid yn yr Hinsawdd, Roynetree Press: Ammanford, 2011, p.31

[iii]Codrescu, Andrei ‘In the Realm of Timelessness with Kerri McCaffety’ Obituary Cocktail: The Great Saloons of New Orleans by Kerri McCaffety, Vissi d’Arte Books: New Orleans, 2001, p 14

 

[iv]Palast, Greg Big Easy to Big Empty: The Untold Story of the Drowning of New Orleans, 2007 written and directed by Greg Palast, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y-cAApvpPX4

 

[v]Cajun French phrase meaning ‘Let the good times roll’ It is a motto for Louisiana inhabitants

[vi]potter, clare e. spilling histories, Cinnamon Press: Blaenau Ffestiniog, 2006


 original illustration by Dean Lewis