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Honors Project Prep: Patricia Smith, “Blood Dazzler”

May 30, 2014

I remember first hearing about Hurricane Katrina, as it approached the Gulf Coast in late August 2005.  I was in my grandmother’s kitchen, watching the Little League World Series, when breaking news interrupted the commercials.  The satellite image said it all.  Katrina looked as big as the Gulf of Mexico, and even at 12 I knew that New Orleans was below sea level.  All I could think was, “Dear God, they’re doomed.”

Yet even with the wall-to-wall media coverage, the federal government’s ineptitude, and the Red Cross donation drives at my middle school, I don’t feel I have ever understood Katrina.  It’s like 9/11: an event I remember intellectually, but one which is so large and world-altering that it seems like an abstraction.  In other words, I have no idea what happened in New Orleans.

I wonder if Patricia Smith had similar thoughts when writing Blood Dazzler, a 2008 collection of poems about Katrina, from build-up to aftermath.  Smith is not from New Orleans; she was born in Chicago and has since moved to the Northeast.  She is far older than I am, yet the geographic separation is not insignificant.  Yet, she wrote a fantastic account of the storm, or at least her impressions of it, and that’s something worth emulating.

Blood Dazzler employs an impressive variety of forms and styles to detail the devastation of New Orleans.  Smith frequently speaks in the persona of Katrina (and, in a memorable twist, Hurricane Betsy from 1965); the voice she employs is both frightening and seductive, knowing what lies ahead for her targets.  Smith is able to seamlessly shift from free verse to tankas, from sonnets to sestinas; there’s even an abecedarian for the named storms of the 2005 Atlantic hurricane season.

All this formal variation is impressive in its own right, but it also serves the project of Blood Dazzler very well.  Smith has several recurring characters and motifs.  In addition to Katrina, she includes reports from the National Weather Service, the experiences of a dog (Luther B) during the storm, the thoughts of FEMA director Michael Brown, and series of pieces entitled “Voodoo”.  The details are tight, and the decision to vary form and style keeps the material fresh and moving.

The recurrent element I found most striking, though, is the repetition of the word “go”.  It’s the command for residents of New Orleans to evacuate the city.  It’s so simple, so direct – and yet it assumes so much.  It assumes that everyone has the ability, the luxury to just up and leave their homes.  It’s initial appearance, in “Man on the TV Say,” sums it up best: “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” (pg. 7).

I don’t have much more to say.  I love this book to ribbons, and hope you go read it right now.  And I appreciate how a fellow outsider brought me closer to the tragedy of Katrina.  If I could write something with a fraction of the power of Blood Dazzler, I’d be thrilled.

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From → Literature, Politics

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