Poetry Sunday: “Wife’s Disaster Manual” and
“The Gulf, 1987,” by Deborah Paredez


Wife’s Disaster Manual

When the forsaken city starts to burn,
after the men and children have fled,
stand still, silent as prey, and slowly turn

back. Behold the curse. Stay and mourn
the collapsing doorways, the unbroken bread
in the forsaken city starting to burn.

Don’t flinch. Don’t join in.
Resist the righteous scurry and instead
stand still, silent as prey. Slowly turn

your thoughts away from escape: the iron
gates unlatched, the responsibilities shed.
When the forsaken city starts to burn,

surrender to your calling, show concern
for those who remain. Come to a dead
standstill. Silent as prey, slowly turn

into something essential. Learn
the names of the fallen. Refuse to run ahead
when the forsaken city starts to burn.
Stand still and silent. Pray. Return.


First published in Poetry (September 2012) and reprinted here with permission of the author. You can hear the poet reading her poem here beginning at 5:24.


Poet’s Note on “Wife’s Disaster Manual”

In many ways this poem is my ars poetica with its insistence on a feminist act of bearing witness to devastation. I restaged the scene of Lot’s wife’s transformation by imagining that her choice to “look back” was guided not by avarice or attachment to the “sins” of the material world, but by the commitment to stand and bear witness to and speak out against disaster and atrocity.  I chose the villanelle because this form, with its obsessive use of repetition, works well for the delivery of instructions and conveys a simultaneous sense of duration and of standing still. This poem is included in the book on which I am currently working, about women and war.



The Gulf, 1987

The day upturned, flooded with sunlight, not
a single cloud. I squint into the glare,
cautious even then of bright emptiness.
We sit under shade, Tía Lucia
showing me how white folks dine, the high life.
I am about to try my first oyster,
Tía spending her winnings from the slots
on a whole dozen, the glistening valves
wet and private as a cheek’s other side,
broken open before us. Don’t be shy.
Take it all in at once. Flesh and sea grit,
sweet meat and brine, a taste I must acquire.
In every split shell, the coast’s silhouette:
bodies floating in what was once their home.


First published in Poetry (September 2012) and reprinted here with permission of the author. You can hear the poet reading her poem here.


Poet’s Note on “The Gulf, 1987”

Growing up not far from the Texas Gulf Coast, I learned early on about the rhythms of loss and possibility that the region offers. I wrote this poem not long after Hurricane Katrina and in the early years of my Tia Lucia’s diagnosis with Alzheimer’s disease. This sonnet is an ode and elegy to her and to the many others along the Gulf Coast whose bodies and whose homes became their graves.



Deborah Paredez is the author of the poetry collection This Side of Skin (2002), available for order and the critical study Selenidad: Selena, Latinos, and the Performance of Memory (2009). Her poems have appeared in Poetry magazine, the New York Times, Callaloo, Crab Orchard Review, Palabra, Poet Lore, and elsewhere. Her honors include an Alfredo Cisneros del Moral Foundation Award and residencies from the Vermont Studio Center and Hedgebrook. Paredez is cofounder and codirector of CantoMundo, a national organization for Latinx poets. She lives in New York City, where she teaches poetry and ethnic studies at Columbia University. [from Poetry Foundation website].

Read more about Canto Mundo, sometimes called the “Latino Cave Canem,” here and here.

Start the conversation

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.