Poetry

Poetry Sunday:
Three poems from ‘Blood Dazzler’ by Patricia Smith

Commentary by Amanda Moore, Contributing Editor

In 2005, when Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, I was a thousand miles away, eight months pregnant with my first child and obsessed with following the news of the storm. While eagerly anticipating my baby, my joy was tempered by what Katrina revealed to me about the brokenness of our country and the potential hazards of the natural world. This confluence of storm and new birth perhaps renders Katrina a more compelling narrative to me than to others likewise unaffected by the storm due to distance or privilege (or both), but because of this personal connection, almost every August I reread Patricia Smith’s inimitable Blood Dazzler, a book of poems published in 2007 and nominated for a National Book Award. What keeps me coming back, however, is more than just the anniversary and personal connection; in Blood Dazzler I find lessons in voice and craft imparted through a wide range of characters and scenarios, and a deep empathy for all the lives touched by Katrina, including the storm herself.

The poems in Blood Dazzler present voices never heard on the news during the coverage of Hurricane Katrina, voices not usually part of such reports but which reflect the human side of tragedy. Many are persona poems, dramatic first-person narratives that offer the perspectives of specific characters. “Persona” derives from the Latin “personae,” or mask, and while the Poetry Foundation’s  entry  cites Robert Browning, Linda Bierds, and John Berryman, when I read Smith, I also think of the poet Ai and her persona poems, described by Major Jackson  as “often disturbing dramatic monologues in the voice of public figures, famous celebrities, murderers, and everyday people.” [“Assuming the Mask: Persona and Identity in Ai’s Poetry”]. Like Ai, Smith’s body of work includes persona poems from all manner of characters and points-of-view, and her stunning performances of these poems demonstrate embodiment in its truest sense—more than the words of her personae, Smith channels voice and comportment as well.

In Blood Dazzler, Smith writes in the persona of various victims of Katrina and its aftermath, from nameless inhabitants awaiting the storm in “Only Everything I Own,” to M’Dear, the owner of a Rottweiler left tied to a cypress, whose narrative unfolds across several poems. At the extraordinary and gutting center of the collection, “34” speaks from the point of view of each of 34 nursing home residents left to die in the storm, and later in “Looking for Bodies,” Smith writes as someone returning after the crisis to the unspeakable. Smith’s deft persona work also tackles the Superdome; FEMA director Michael Brown, who introduces himself as “I am not much / beyond buttoned cuff;” and George W. Bush, whose clueless late arrival to any understanding of the magnitude of the tragedy is reflected when he concludes, “I understand that somewhere it has rained.”

For me, the most resonant persona work in the book is in poems penned from the perspective of the storm itself. In those poems, Smith animates a literal force of nature to create a compelling character whose narrative complicates and deepens conventional notions of hurricanes. The third of five poems taking their name from a time and date marking the storm’s progression, “5 P.M., Thursday, August 25, 2005,” addresses the moment the tropical storm is upgraded to Hurricane Katrina. The poem’s layout on the page feels a bit like a hurricane beginning to organize itself, with two wider stanzas of longer lines tapering into a single smaller, shorter-lined stanza at the end. Between these three stanzas are short single-line stanzas that punctuate and accentuate the focus of the storm: its “hungers” and “The eye.”

This eye is what moves the storm and poem forward, and even Katrina  is at its mercy: “My eye takes in so much— / what it craves, what I never hoped to see.” Beyond the novelty of writing from a storm’s perspective, I appreciate how Smith works here to harness her curiosity to create empathy with Katrina, herself a victim of the eye’s desires. Next, the poem enjambs several lines of anaphora, a repetitive scheme at the beginning of a sentence or line discussed in my column last month. All sentences following the opening start with “It,” and although not always at the beginning of the line, the repetition of this small word drives the poem forward forcefully, referencing the actions of the personified eye—“It doesn’t care,” “It needs,” “It spots,” “It spies”—until the final sentence names it again—“The eye // pushes.” Katrina and the eye are not a single, unified force, and the storm’s voice lays bare the disconnect she feels from an eye wanting to “unravel the world for no reason at all.”

This feeling of powerlessness humanizes Katrina, a move typical of the book, which refuses a single narrative of the hurricane or single locus of blame for the tragedy of its aftermath. Rather, Smith presents a confluence of factors and an extraordinary range of voices that evoke a deep connection with readers of all kinds. Katrina evolves into a relatable and “restless” being with needs and desires, one who “loudly loved / the slow bones // of elders, fools, and willows.” At the end of the book, in the second of two poems titled  “Katrina,” she calls herself  “a rudderless woman in full tantrum, / throwing my body against worlds I wanted”—directionless, hapless, in search of fulfillment. How unusual it is to see something of this magnitude, power, force, and even violence given the persona of a woman! And yet, Katrina’s last words in the book communicate disappointment: “All I ever wanted to be / was a wet, gorgeous mistake, / a reason to crave shelter.” This expression of a failure hits me solidly in my heart, and I can’t help but identify with this character, a “rumbling bulk” who perhaps did not intend every consequence of her actions.

Being able to make an intimate connection with a storm is certainly due to Smith’s persona work, which puts us in the heads of so many different characters, but it’s also the result of her use of personification, a term many associate with Mother Goose’s fiddling cat and eloping dish and spoon. Deeper than just imbuing nonhuman objects and entities with human characteristics and actions, personification also powerfully gives literal life to abstractions. We humans tend to like the world described in a relatable way, and endowing Katrina with human needs and desires makes her deeply identifiable. Not simply an arbitrary force of nature, a scientific result of various factors, or a punishment from some god, Katrina-the-storm is something we can relate to on a human scale.

Another wonderful example of personification is in “Siblings,” the poem from which Smith takes the title of the book. “Siblings” is an abecedarian poem, which organizes lines alphabetically by first letter. As with personification, I sometimes associate abecedarians with children’s poetry and mnemonic devices, though “Siblings”—along with Carolyn Forché’s “Blue Hour,” Harryette Mullen’s “Sleeping with the Dictionary,” and Erin Adair-Hodges’ “Afterbirth Abecedarian”—go a long way to render the abecedarian a complicated, sophisticated form. The engine of the poem is the World Meteorological Organization’s alphabetical list of names of the hurricanes in 2005. After naming the hurricanes in the order they occurred, Smith provides a quick description of their actions in very human terms: they “learned” and “prayed;” “threw pounding tantrums;” “couldn’t keep her windy legs together;” “spat” and “danced;” and were “born business” and “died.” Uniquely human, each storm is connected to the others by the poem’s list structure of names:  “Bret,” “Cindy,” Maria,” “Nate,” “Wilma.” The  exception, of course, is  Katrina, set apart from the list, out of alphabetical order, her name at the end of a line: “None of them talked about Katrina.”

Not only structurally separated from her siblings, Katrina is described differently as well. While they enact actions and feelings, Katrina isn’t doing anything; she’s just “their odd sister, / the blood dazzler.” In an interview with Jon Riccio on the Volta Blog, Smith explains how she used “blood dazzler” as “a placeholder,” intending to come back with a more suitable phrase when the right inspiration hit. Eventually, however, the “two words had stretched to fit. They bellowed and mystified, all wrong and yet perfect against each other.”

It is this tension that I like so much about the pairing—“dazzle” is something I certainly aspire to do with my words, my ideas, perhaps even my aesthetics or looks—but what does it mean to “dazzle” someone’s “blood?” A “blood dazzler” is a thing of visceral power, strength, and beauty, but it is not without harm or consequence, the perfect description of that awe-ful, destructive hurricane.

That Smith was not living in the Gulf Coast area when she wrote the book speaks to the power of her imagination and of persona poems to reach into new experiences and create empathy. She tells Moira Richards in an interview: “I’m not from New Orleans, I have no relatives in New Orleans, I have no connection at all to the region. I experienced the story of Katrina that same way thousands of other people did—on television, on radio, in newspapers, online.” While many of us also experienced the storm as Smith did, it is her unique vision that crafted Blood Dazzler from those news stories. There is much discussion in contemporary poetry about appropriation and who has the right to tell what stories, a conversation shining important light on various harmful forms of appropriation. While we must remain vigilant in separating intention from impact when employing a persona in a poem, it’s also important to remember the power of persona and the positive effects of investing in new and “other” perspectives that include a panoply of voices. Blood Dazzler keeps Katrina alive and talked about, and Smith’s poems continue to be vital and necessary—especially to me each August as I revisit this storm that “urges me to see / what it sees.”

 

 

Amanda Moore, the author of this column, is a contributing editor to Poetry Sunday. Her poetry has appeared in journals and anthologies including Zyzzyva, Cream City Review, Tahoma Literary Review, and Best New Poets, and she is the recipient of writing awards from The Writing Salon, Brush Creek Arts Foundation, and The Saltonstall Foundation for the Arts. She received her MFA from Cornell University, where she served as Managing Editor for EPOCH magazine and was a lecturer in the John S. Knight Writing Institute. Currently a 2019 Fellow at The Writers Grotto, Amanda is a high school teacher and Marin Poetry Center Board member, and she lives by the beach in the Outer Sunset neighborhood of San Francisco with her husband and daughter. Author photo credit: K.C. Ipjian.

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