New Orleans Poetry Festival: Post-Apocalyptic Polyvocality Panel

[I was honored today to present at NOPF5 with Laura Mullen, Jerika Marchan, and moderator Elizabeth Gross. Honestly, I think was the least polyvocal of the bunch, but I enjoyed the thinking this made me do—and I definitely felt the need to think in advance rather than just wing it on this one. I’ve also been jotting down a lot of thoughts about Parasite Kingdom, so this was an opportunity to focus and shape those into this draft—and it is very much a draft.

Rather than dealing with formatting issues on here, I’ve inserted a link to “The Raft of the Medusa” in the spot where I read from the first section. Also, because the panel preceding ours was a tribute to Marthe Reed’s Ark Hive, and because Laura Mullen, Marthe’s dear friend, was also on that panel, I also chose to read my “Cento to the Garbage Patch” as a tribute to Marthe’s advocacy and love for the fragile and imperiled ecosystems of South Louisiana. I’ve inserted a link to that one, too. Thanks for reading.]

One of the movements in my work from Motion Studies to Parasite Kingdom is from being a lyric poet reflecting on the nature of abjection (as subject and as witness) to being some other kind of lyric poet trying to imaginatively comprehend the powers that make others abject. In the former case, I was responding to a very literal disaster—the catastrophic federal flood that followed Hurricane Katrina—and bringing that experience into dialogue with, primarily, two works of art: Thomas Eakins’ painting Swimming and Théodore Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa. In most of the book, the voice is my lyric “I,” but in “The Raft of the Medusa,” it shifts into a plural register: [“The Raft of the Medusa”]. I took on the voice of the city, and had I only done that, I think it would have failed; but in “inviting” readers onto my/our raft, by placing them in my city’s abject position, I hope that I placed them inside the precarity and angry despair so many of us felt. I hope that doing that, and attending to the TV cameras that made that our abjection a spectacle for a nation of voyeurs, mitigates to some degree the unavoidable fact of my white male voice speaking for a city in which the worst and most enduring suffering was among poor people of color. Géricault made his painting to indict the French government and French capitalists. My aim was similar.

The shift from that to trying to comprehend power (the powers, for instance, that built the levees and allowed them to fail and brought in cameras to film the scene) arose from the spectacle we’ve all been part of for the last four or twenty or a hundred or more years: when, really, did the 2016 presidential campaign begin? And, actually, these poems started a few weeks after 9/11, when I wrote a poem called “Fear,” narrated by a librarian in a city at war. He takes refuge at his dilapidated place of work, where he finds the king has done the same and forces him to go through “unreckoned contents of his regime.” I’m just going to read the ending.

A shell burst above us, a shadow whimpered

behind me: he cowered as boots pounded down the stairs,

 

and I was glad to snatch my knife away, glad to point

to his dank little uniform, glad to let them open

 

the ledger of my body, to feel their bayonets

inscribe me with their cleansing lies.

That turn, where the librarian is apparently both himself and the king, is something I’ve thought about a lot. To quote Pogo (if you recall Walt Kelly’s brilliant comic strip), “We have seen the enemy and he is us.” I think it’s fitting that Pogo was talking about the first naive inklings we had of the environmental disaster around us, half a century ago. That disaster, the disaster of war, the disaster of our politics: they’re all the same. And we are the disaster, both its masters and its abject subjects.

In the scheme of Parasite Kingdom, a pathetic king is at war with, among other enemies, a mythically gigantic parasitic wasp. She breeds, as many wasps do, by laying her eggs in a host creature, on whose body her larvae feed and from which they emerge. To freely paraphrase Bela Lugosi’s character in The Black Cat, “Disgusting, perhaps; evil, perhaps not.” I mean, she’s a wasp, right? Nonetheless, as metaphor or allegory, that idea, that image, of one’s self being overpowered by another force that wants to use you for its own material ends—and even of one’s possible complicity, possibly even one’s pleasure, in letting this happen—has been disturbing and compelling.

That all leads to a peculiar polyvocality in this book. It contains a legion of first person narrators. They’re different and they’re the same. They are, like the wasp, solitary and yet a collective. They do not trust themselves or one another. If that sounds like the world you know, I’m sorry. There will be at least one sequel to this book, and perhaps things will become more optimistic. Or not. The voices will tell.

I’m going to close with one short poem, “The Baker,” so you can see what it’s like for an ordinary citizen in my book’s imaginary.

THE BAKER

Lately, I’ve been baking people

I mold from spit and clay.

Maybe they don’t look like people—

 

headless hat stands? baguettes on tripods?—

but I know what they are

and so do they. At dawn, after they’ve cooled

 

on the rack, I set them on a chess board

made from a butcher block.

Each waits, meditating on its shadow, poised

 

on a light or dark square. Toward noon,

they start to move, wary

of one another as they inch across the board.

 

Mid-afternoon, something about the light

agitates their limbs,

and they glide, zigzag and tumble

 

like soldiers dodging bullets. Some cower

in corners, while the rest

collide and merge: a new beast: horn-crowned,

 

stout, thick-legged, he hunts the others,

his touch poison, paralyzing—

rigid, each sinks into a light or dark square.

 

The last one caught, the King sinks with it,

the board is empty

and it’s dark. So I shut up the shop

 

and go to bed, and try, under my quilt,

to remember who I am,

panicked until it comes to me:

 

I am King.

 

[“A Cento of the Garbage Patch”]

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