Sunday, August 17, 2014

Resurrecting We after the Flood

Resurrecting We after the Flood
A poetry review by Rudolph Lewis

“Second Line Home: New Orleans Poems”
By Mona Lisa Saloy
Truman State University Press, 2014

June 2005, almost a decade ago, was the time I last visited New Orleans. It was still almost the Big Easy I knew in the mid-1980s. Several months later the nation observed via television the flooding of the Crescent City—85 percent after levees collapsed. The Lower 9th Ward was devastated and much of the 7th Ward. That is, entire communities and family homes were destroyed and were never to be reoccupied. New Orleans lost 140,845 residents, most of which were black and poor. Maybe the best of New Orleans retreated to cities in Texas, and other sanctuaries east, north, and west—made refugees by government officials.

That is, the abandoned poor were not given a choice—they went where they were sent. Other cities provided these impoverished rejects opportunities New Orleans wouldn’t. Only a quarter of the city’s 4,200 public housing units demolished . . . have been rebuilt” The black population fell from 67.3 percent to 60.2 percent.  Over a 1,000 were killed by the flooding (David Mildenberg, “Census Finds Hurricane Katrina Left New Orleans Richer, Whiter, Emptier”). “City blocks . . . smile / Toothless, missing homes now demolished, / Families lost to Gonzales, Vacherie, Houston / Black-lanta and all points out of here” (Mona Lisa Saloy, “Sundays in New Orleans”).

Construction and real estate agencies encouraged Latin “fresh blood” from Mexico and Central America to come work for them, while natives of New Orleans were not allowed to return by a collusion of city, state, and federal agencies—done legally by condemning homes, dynamiting federal housing projects undamaged and inhabitable, and specious housing codes which prevented poor residents and homeowners from returning and rebuilding their family homes. “Obstacles to public funding of affordable housing came from within New Orleans and in neighboring parishes. Many in New Orleans do not want the poor who lived in public housing to return” (Bill Quigley, “Eighteen Months After Katrina”). In the 1980s (and before) the cost of housing in New Orleans was rather inexpensive compared to other big cities. The poor lived rather comfortably in the arms of cultural and familial traditions and look forward to an even brighter future. Many homes, especially in the 7th and 9th wards had been passed down from generation to generation.

For tens of thousands that future in New Orleans was drowned. Housing costs soared. According to Jose Torres Tama “Hard Living in the Big Easy” (June 2006), “In the Marigny neighborhood where I live, downriver and east of the Viuex Carre, a double shotgun Creole cottage that was worth $120 grand in 2001 was selling at the hefty speculated value of $240 to $280 thousand dollars.” All of what was the Big Easy was lost by leaders careless and corrupt in September 2005.  Later, eighteen months after that tragic drama—the flooding of New Orleans—Jerry W. Ward, Jr. published a literary view of the cosmic depth and breadth of the grief and loss and the evil that brought on the flooding in his  The Katrina Papers: A Journal of Trauma and Recovery (2007). One of Ward’s journal pieces was written as early as 6 December 2005, titled “Reckoning with Displacement”:

“The disadvantages of forced exile, you can freely lie to yourself, are sweeter and yield higher dividends. Matthew Arnold thought sweetness and light were primal ingredients of the civilized mind. He was dead wrong. The truly civilized mind is a product of recurring darkness. It can not flourish where the dirt is not as saturated with bitter toxins like the soil of post-Katrina New Orleans. Examine the fabulous textures of writers exiled from the Crescent City for evidence. Or explore the weavings of writers who have returned to the Big Easy to create in the moldy stench, in an "exile" from the normal.”

In contrast to Ward’s journal of poems, essays, letters and other materials, Mona Lisa Saloy’s refreshing, Second Line Home (2014) is a poetic memoir of her post-Katrina experiences—from her evacuation with friends and neighborhoods to her return, through efforts to rebuild and reoccupy her 7th Ward home handed down to her by her Black Creole father. Saloy emphasizes the resilience of Black Creole culture, which she views at the core of New Orleans cultural life. With its central faith, New Orleans, with a little help from her friends, can be as the fabled phoenix bird and live again as it once did before its demise. That is, a fount of cultural creativity.

As a teller of tales in the tradition of New Orleans’ excellent oral storytellers, Professor Saloy uses printed verse to mime the voices and intricacies of life lived fully in the Big Easy before the post-Katrina flooding. Personally blessed with talents and intellectual skills, she too was forced out the city. Nevertheless, Dr. Saloy managed to return to her home city and reestablish her position of professorship at Dillard University. She returned in 2007 after almost two years in Seattle. Still teaching and speaking for New Orleans unique culture, she’s still trying to rebuild her home in 7th Ward New Orleans, nine years later. To do so, the new housing codes required her to demolish her flood-damaged family home: as she reports, “$100,000 cost to elevate it and termite eaten wood / Nixed keeping our family place” (“From Lament to Hope”).  Professor Saloy is exceptional. Only a select few have had her resources, talents, and persistence necessary to jump through all the political and legal hoops needed to acquire government assistance and loans. Of course, we cannot underestimate her profound love for the community in which she was born and raised, as well as thankfulness for her familial inheritance and her conscious desire to sustain and extol the virtues of that neighborhood life passed down over the generations.

A story of despair, grief, love, and hope, Second Line Home contains 54 poems, divided into six sections and slightly over a hundred pages in length, including “Notes” and a “Glossary.” Dr. Saloy, a very skilled poet, as well as a local folklorist, captures Black Creole speech, music, and other cultural aspects of New Orleans neighborhood life. For instance, the title references the cultural tradition of a marching band playing after the loved one is buried: neighborhood folks—family and friends—follow the employed band chanting and dancing. This procession is called the “second line.” The book title used as a metaphor, this book of poems thus is a kind of celebration. But, as we all know, a celebration is not without thoughts and memories of the past, sometimes a very tragic past and present. The book opens with the section “See You in the Gumbo” (a folk statement of cultural unity) containing three poems that sketch out and describe what New Orleans is and the westward traffic-jammed evacuation.

The first poem of the same title characterizes the uniqueness of what is New Orleans—a place of food, music, dance, celebration, religion (“venerating saints like Anne, Joseph & saving sinners”). All of which caused, before the tragic flooding, a derision of fears of a windy and watery death. The first poem provides background (a prologue) of how the poor folk of New Orleans dealt with hurricanes before Katrina:

Storm warnings rise like cream in café au lait
Folks don’t make no never mind about
Hurricane season starts, we
Joke about Hurricane Betsy whose waters flowed
Down streets like a parade with
Floating bodies of dogs, cats, people, shrimp, swollen stinky, we
Party, shake off the coat of fear with a DJ spinning Joe Jones’
                           “You talk too much, you worry me to death . . .”
           Dance like nobody’s there; dance like nobody’s there,
Gas up the car, pack emergency lights, shout
See you in the gumbo! See you in the gumbo!

The next poem “Sankofa NOLA” provides a sketch of the historical background of the multiethnic character of New Orleans, not only its European ethnic groups (English, Irish, French, German, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese) but also from Cuba, Haiti, and Central America, “to carve lives into New Orleans, Caribbean North, into neighborhoods / like Gentilly / Sugar Hill, Treme, Pallet Land . . .” as well as “Natives Choctaw, Houma, Natchez, and Alabama.” The poem ends with a statement of the unique healing aspects of New Orleans Creole culture. There was

Love always, committed to caring
One family, one block, one church, many Cubans, Haitians, Puerto Rican Creole
Cultures together celebrating each one’s crafts
Teaching each one’s generations grounded in this
Crescent City landscape of camellia, bougainvillea, hydrangea, iris in
‘Sippi & Pontchartrain clay, with swamp, ‘squitoes & sunshine.

Certainly, the clay, the swamp, mosquitoes, and sunshine remain. It’s not so certain that the post-2005 recomposition of New Orleans has the same creative qualities as it was before Katrina. In a manner, the rest of the book—filled with hope and belief in miracles, and political recognition of the significance of New Orleans—asserts that that Big Easy  can be reborn. But that hope might indeed be baseless in that politicians and investors (without grace) have ignored the negative impact of excluding its poor natives and discouraging old neighborhoods from resettlement. According to the 2010 census, the poverty rates have returned to the pre-2005 levels (28 percent in 1999 to 29 percent in 2012). Political decisions that caused the emptying of New Orleans of its poor has not effected the long-term economic opportunities necessary to sustain hope and prevent high crime rates such as those that are generated by violent drug trafficking, and other criminal pursuits taken by the poor for mere survival. Empting the Big Easy of its poor thus only had a temporary impact, that is, a poverty rate that dropped to 21 percent in 2007.

The third poem “Evacuation Blues: This is how we did it” dramatizes the poet’s exodus or path of escape from pre-Katrina New Orleans, and stops along the way.

We were bumper to bumper for hours, the
Sun high over our heads, we waving at cousins in caravan, other
Church folks in contraflow lanes, all traffic fanned akimbo from the
Crescent City praying for safe passage, affirming that
“Nothing can happen that God can’t handle.” Then we sing along with
94.5 FM, the Praise Station blasts Fred Hammond:
              “We shall mount up on wings
               Like an eagle and soar . . .
               They that wait on the Lord, wait on the Lord . . .”
Rows of traffic, cars, trucks, in lanes like ants to anywhere safe,
Stopping in lines unable to move 45 minutes at a time, then
Longer, Jasmine happy looking out of the picture window, then
Nightfall outside of Baton Rouge eight hours later, Miz Ruth & I
       Dancing in our seat, I
Call Cindy La . . .

Later in the 2nd section, “Requiem for the Crescent City” the poet speaks more in detail about the multiethnic cooperative character of and relationships in New Orleans in the poem “2 Friends”: Cindy Lou Levee, a middle class Jew from Uptown New Orleans contrasts to Saloy born to a Seventh Ward, downtown working class Catholic Creole father. Despite the differences, they’re for each other in crisis. This example (this kind) of friendship is one way Professor Saloy believes New Orleans can be better than it has been under the government response to the urban crises. The poem “August Landing & Katrina Hits” again sets the tone of persons working together for the common good, as she and her neighbor take refuge at the house of Cindy & her husband Terry in Baton Rouge. The poet as well renders a very vivid feel of the impact of the hurricane they endured through the night:

Winds wail through wee hours, bigger branches beat windows,
     Rooftops, and bomb doors like a war zone rattling shrapnel, then
     lights fail; the television blackens. . . .

No one sleeps. Storm surges sound sprays, breaks windows nearby,
Windows pained by pressure.
We pray in Creole, English, and Hebrew. Papa nou. Our father
Too scared to talk anymore, silence sends sleep.

Probably the most powerful of these requiem poems is titled “On not being able to write a post-Katrina poem about New Orleans.” Though shorter than and less militant than the notorious “Somebody Blew Up America” by Amiri Baraka, Professor Saloy knows the cause of the flood disaster: the incompetence and corruption of government officials. One possibly may also even speak with conviction of a conspiracy to “bring in new blood” and expel the old, a curative bleeding like pre-20th century medicine. She writes:

It wasn’t Katrina you see
It was the levees
One levee crumbled under Pontchartrain water surges
One levee broke by barge, the one not supposed to park near Ninth
         Ward streets
One levee overflowed under Pontchartrain water pressure
We paid for a 17-foot levee but
We got 10-foot levees, so
Who got all that money—the hundred of thousands
Earmarked for the people’s protection . . .

With the tragic sufferings and horrors of the black poor vivid for all to see, the public masquerade of innocence and government lack of responsibility are challenged. Outraged Saloy compares post-Katrina events to the brutality and cruelty that occurred during the eras of the Atlantic slave trade, slavery, and Jim Crow brought with callous self-interest into the Republic by slaveholding White Fathers, like Tom Jefferson, who had no respect for the human worth of black life:

Our poor who without cars cling to interstate ramps like buoys
Our young mothers starving stealing diapers and bottles of baby food
Our families spread as ashes to the wind after cremation
Our brothers our sisters our aunts our uncles our mothers our fathers lost
Stranded like slaves in the Middle Passages
Pressed like sardines, in the Superdome, like in slave ships.

Though there’s no mystery about those responsible for the flooding of New Orleans 2005, the poet ends the poem with a barrage of probing questions how the post-Katrina tragedy could be allowed to happen. After reviewing the bitter images of neglect for the least of us, the Invisible made visible by a media hungry for sensationalized black life they are questions whose answers are filled with mockery, scorn, and sarcasm:

Where is Benjamin Franklin when we need him?
Did we not work hard, pay our taxes, vote our leaders into office?
What happened to life, liberty, and the pursuit of the good?
Oh say. Can you see us America?
Is our bright burning disappointment visible six months later?
Is all we get the baked-on sludge of putrid water, your empty promises?
Where are you America?

Saloy also recalls the barriers—material, legal, and spiritual—preventing residents returning home to New Orleans. The poem “September 2005, New Orleans” begins with the lines: “They said only businesses could come into the city, / First, then residents by zip code. New Orleans is all / Our business, so I went by rent-a-car . . . / Traffic slowed stacked, like toys, past Causeway / At the 610 Interstate split. Armed GIs in fatigues say: / ‘State your business’.” But even worst to the spirit

Once in the neighborhood, the smell of death
Laced streets, covered in debris along the sidewalks,
Enough room to pass, with some live wires popping,
No sign of anything alive, no birds chirping, no
‘squitoes buzzing, no cats crossing, no dogs running,
No people here, downtown, no cars either, just empty
Silence, so loud, like the dead ghost towns of the Old West.

Still there was a star of hope at Bullet’s Bar on A.P. Tureaud, which provided ice, food and drinks for those drudging and digging their homes out from the debris and muck. With such poems in this section, Saloy begins to reassure her audience that there is a path forward, as in “New Orleans in January”: “Angel trumpets and night jasmine fragrance dusk / When the moon rises in eastern skies smiling.”

Though the loss remains prominent and grief subsides, it “scratches your skin / Till it bleeds all the bottled-/ Up hurt.” In response, Saloy evokes a  martial tone in several poems, including one of her two grief poems, “Black faces” are  “Still at war with American justice / Just us / Still thirst for peace / And a home.” In her “New Orleans Broken Not Dead,” a free sonnet, she invokes Harlem Renaissance poet Claude McKay’s “If We Must Die.” Her poem ends with the couplet: “Like men and women, bold, we make our pact, / Pressed to our knees, held down but kicking back!” One would be blind not to acknowledge the role Race plays in our political decisions. Saloy points out the “Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis / Crushed into crumbs / Their neighborhoods smashed, / Artifacts of humanity looted / Like the lives of young and old. / The sea is painted with their blood” (“Iraq by the Numbers”).

Back home in the States, “racism, prejudice, / Walking while Black, / Glass ceilings, / Brick walls, Emmett Till, / 41 bullets shot at Diallo in NYC / . . . Deflated dreams of equality, and / The fact that African Americans still / Scrape for crumbs of the American pie” (“My Race”).  Though still living with hope of equity, justice, and progress, Saloy knows that “New Orleans still lies broken”: gas bills are four times higher, and “rentals four times too” (“Meanwhile, Back in America”). What may be worst for community is the generational differences: the carelessness, lack of respect of wayward youth, those hopeless and dispossessed of chances for the American Dream: “I wouldn’t be so shocked to find my 100-year-old cypress doors & windows destroyed, / My cement and bricks—formed by Creole craftsmen—broken like rotten teeth,” as they slither away (“For the New Young Bloods on my Porch”). Repression of the black poor not only has an egregious impact on white fears but also on those of the black middle-classes. All have been disappointed by black elected officials and their lack of effectiveness in providing an economy and a social atmosphere that works for the poor. Too often they have worked for self-interest. That is, the poor have gotten “black faces in white places”: “Former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin was sentenced . . .  to 10 years in prison for bribery, money laundering and other corruption that spanned his two terms as mayor—including the chaotic years after Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005” (Kevin McGill, “10 year sentence for ex-New Orleans Mayor Nagin”).

Section 3 “La Vie Crĉole & Étoufĉe Talk” contains eleven poems: 2 about Creole foods, e.g., breads and beans; and the rest about family and neighbors. There are several about Saloy’s Creole dad; and several about her mom. Both parents have passed—her mom when she was sixteen. One of those poems is fairly dense. It reports personal difficulties of her Creole father and his other two wives, the third and last DD. “Some say she drank herself to death, some say / DD had bourbon with a Coke back for breakfast most days. Still, / I know better. Grief. / Grief got hold of her like the left side of bad luck and / Never let go, Finally, / She has peace.” Hope and grief are locked hand in hand. DD’s “last daughter” was killed on her way to her senior prom. Like Saloy, she “wanted college.” (“Creole Daddy Ways”). When her Creole daddy’s second wife, “Deep, dark chocolate, tall like me, 5’8”, heavy boned, a / Black beauty” [when her mom] died, Saloy reveals, “my world” was “crushed like smashed pecans.” That’s a lot of hurt.

Imaginative thinking like poetry writing, indeed, is a special way of discovering the spiritual beauty in hurt and loss, e.g., courage and endurance. Such is evident in Saloy’s other poems about her deceased mother and father. Both are connected to that hundred-year-old Creole house that was lost and that lovely neighborhood “soaked in the stench of death” (“December 2005 at Stephanie’s House”). But a house is not a home, which is a place in which people live—talk, laugh, cry, and all the other acts that fill life with humor and tragedy. Saloy is the first poet I know to write two Alzheimer’s poems, or even one such poem. And she does it well and compassionately: it matches observations of my grandmother’s behavior during her last post-90 years. The poet in “The Day Alzheimer’s Showed,” recalls her father’s early stages when he confuses TV reality (“The Young and Restless”) with everyday street reality. In “Alzheimer’s, Day Two,” she paints a lovely portrait of her father (in his 80s) in mental decline: “Bebé, get the door. / Can’t you hear that damned doorbell ringing?’ / This Creole crazy man / is my daddy, the / First man I loved, At whose feet I read the funnies, the dictionary, / At whose side we read all the jokes in The Reader’s Digest, / At whose table we searched the / American Peoples Encyclopedia / . . . His eyes are gunmetal grey today, and / Stare with questions bouncing eye to eye. / ‘I don’t know who that is, Shut the door’.”

In two other poems, Saloy’s mother meditations are prompted by a “Sepia photo circa 1943.” The poem “She was not a queen, but . . .” focuses on her mother’s “smooth skin, / Burnt chocolate brown” which was in great contrast to that of her Creole dad, who appears white in a rescued black-and white photo. The poem ends reflectively with the line, “I wipe the mold carefully, / Caress her eyes with mine / Thankful her photo survives.” In a world that praises “whiteness,” Saloy suggests that her Creole dad Louie boosted her mother’s self-confidence regarding her dark complexion. The poet plays on that image—“he was in love, gave her the first taste of chocolate, the / Color of her cheeks” were a “frame” for the whiteness of her smile. The poet again returns to her mother’s eyes, “she liked to wink at me, and I / Melted each time, warmed over with / Her narrow brown eyes, the color of raw almonds.” In her “Missing Mother” poem, there’s sadness and reconciliation. Only “two weeks past 16,” Saloy recalls, “she left me / Shriveled up like a blue prune, and / Left this life without saying goodbye.” Maternally abandoned, the poet now realizes she herself is “older than her last day.” The poet’s personal endurance and victories have brought some understanding to her mother’s view of the world and her own mother’s hurt, which resonates as taking her mother’s advice given during the poet’s childhood: “Today, from now on, I’m sitting and standing erect / Thankful for the dream of days and / Mother’s wisdom packed in my pocket.”

The fourth section “Hurricanes & Hallelujahs” presents a newly developed attitude by post-Katrina New Orleanians with respect to hurricanes and the hurricane season. The tragic consequences of the flooding of New Orleans and the barriers set up against the return of its natives brought an end to an era that might be referred to as “Laissez le bontemps rouler” (“Let the good times roll”), when the folks “dance like nobody’s there” (“See You in the Gumbo”). The lost of over 100,000 residents, the break up of families and neighborhoods, the federal neglect, the economic disregard, and an unkind racial petulance grown wild among the white middle-classes during the post-80s era flaming monotonously in the 21st century set chains on black optimism. The readily apparent negation of its black poor, in short, brought on a reticence and a watchful attentiveness toward the warning months of the hurricane season, in which the people and the city were on the “hit-list target.” In the interim (2006 to 2012), the Crescent City was threatened near and far by Gustav, Isaac, Irene, and then Sandy. The poet concludes, “We give thanks for such / Reminders, what’s important / Being here” (“Hurricane Days”).  The people have been forced to learn truth-telling lessons about callous cruelty. In the poem “Hurricane Lessons: Isaac September & Sandy October,” Saloy reminds her readers of the nation’s forgetful sense of history and appreciation:

Post-Katrina flooding was an unnatural disaster to a
Beautiful city below sea level, a city whose typography
Scoops are the neighborhoods making culture almost four
Centuries old and still warming the world with wonder.

But from all reports, governments near and far from New Orleans have not learned to be generous to “beautiful” people who became victims of natural and “unnatural” disasters. On the whole rather what we have noted is a most stringent lack of generosity to people who embraced the Big Easy, and suffered a mean-spirited denial of humanity.    

I am uncertain what to make of the fifth section, “Presidential Poems,” other than they were written in the post-Katrina period, sometime between 2006 and 2012. I am almost certain these five poems are peripheral to the consequences of the “unnatural” flooding of the Big Easy. They indeed may provide a lighter, balancing tone to the main narrative of this poetic memoir. Of these five praise poems, three poems are about Mr. Obama’s success in the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections. One poem is about Mr. Lincoln’s two visits to learn “horror firsthand” (“Lincoln in New Orleans, 1831”). Of course, Louisiana was not the only slave state or even the worst of the slave states. Mr. Lincoln may have made the visit like millions of others subsequently for the unique pleasures the Crescent City offers compared to other American cities. “We, a Poem” written for George H.W. Bush and William J. Clinton honors their work abroad as presidents. 

Specifically, what work Saloy had in mind is rather fuzzy, as she speaks wondrously of American ideals. From my remembrances, I found both presidents a disappointment, especially the presidency of Bill Clinton, who ushered in “block grants” to states, rather than money set-asides that would go directly to decaying urban centers; the man who also reformed welfare, making life more difficult for poor black women and placing a target on the backs of black men. His “three strikes and you’re out“ expanded the prison industrial complex, overwhelmingly blackening jail cells nationally. In 2006 Ishmael Reed published this occasional poem, although other poets had declined the offer to compose for the Liberty Medal presentation.

It’s not that these are not good well-executed poems, expressing confidence and belief in American ideals. My problem is that I do not share the politics of these poems. Their sense of American history and their praise of American ideals, upon which Professor Saloy in other poems heaps scorn and disappointment contrasts are in contrast to my own critically complex views. My perspective is that America still makes and will continue to make war on the black poor, as well as its artists and writers. In short, my own optimism about American justice and the fulfilling of its ideals is much more measured, especially with regard to its black citizenry. In his Faces at the Bottom of the Well, Derrick Bell expresses more cogently my own political perspective:

"I want to set forth this proposition, which will be easier to reject than refute: Black people will never gain full equality in this country. Even those herculean efforts we hail as successful will produce no more than temporary 'peaks of progress,' short-lived victories that slide into irrelevance as racial patterns adapt in ways that maintain white dominance. This is a hard-to-accept fact that all history verifies. We must acknowledge it, not as a sign of submission, but as an act of ultimate defiance" (p.12, 1992).

Thus I cannot sing sentimental praise songs of American progress and racial reforms as beautifully as Professor Saloy.

Many on the left (black and white) are inclined to think of our black president as a war criminal with respect to his use of drones in the assassination of two American citizens. Then there is his dismantling of the government of Libya and his targeted assassination of Gaddafi. And much more such acts in Afghanistan. Though his elections, noteworthy historical events, ones in which I cast votes for him, Mr. Obama did not generate within me the emotional response that Professor Saloy experienced. I did not in either instance cheer or cry. Professor Saloy, however, confesses, “I cried for joy . . . for the first time in my life” (“The Night America Elected the First Black President”). As a journalist I have not only been a critic of his foreign policies but also critic of his domestic policies. Too often in his public rhetoric has spouted the patronizing attitude of white liberals and conservatives who blame the victims for their own oppression. In short, he has failed to address the problems and issues that most affect poor black men in their powerlessness. By the larger society, they have too often been viewed as criminal, less than human, available to be verbally abused, beaten and gunned down in the streets.

Unlike Saloy, I do not see the elections of Mr. Obama or other black politicians as a means to bring “America back to democracy” (“God Bless President Obama & the United States of America”). Curiously Ms. Saloy believes that Mr. Obama gave America “historic free health care” (“Four More Years for President Obama”). But we know there is nothing free in this country, which justifies profit at any cost. While billionaires stash their profits abroad to avoid paying taxes for the general welfare, pharmaceutical and insurance companies (the general medical industry), banks, energy and food industries gouge the poor and the middle-classes. Though personal achievements, the successful elections of Barack Obama and other black politicians do not and did not and can not balance the books for the horrors visited on the Big Easy. Barack’s elections were a corporate sick joke, a con job, a popular liberal self-delusion at the expense of the black poor. One might say his presidency has been more significant and had a greater impact for Latinos than for poor blacks who suffer universally about a 30 percent poverty rate in our most populous metropolitan centers. Recently, not concern about re-election, Mr. Obama has been more vocal about troubling injustice regarding violence of white police and private citizens and about the drug policies instituted by Bill Clinton during the 1990s.

The last section of Second Line Home contains eleven poems, mostly in praise of New Orleans, and what it has to offer the nation and the world by its example. One exception to this worthy praise is the poem “100 Thousand Poets for Change,” with the chant-like exhortation, “Change yourself / Change your block / Change your community / Change your city / Change the World,” first recited at New Orleans Café Istanbul 29 September 2012. And the other is “From Lament to Hope,” which returns to the narrative tone of the first four sections, which speaks again of her childhood home: “Now, a demolished 105-year-old / Treasure bought for $2,000 on the / GI Bill post-WWII by my / Creole Sergeant Daddy . . .  .” Unable to hold onto a family heirloom, Saloy had to replace it with “concrete and steel.” The section concludes with “New Orleans Matters,” a note of bravado:

We ain’t dying y’all; like roaches
We can’t be buried.
We rise after funerals!
Ever heard of a Second Line?
We live, celebrate lives in beats, songs, and dances.

But there are darker notes that are being song by the lovers of New Orleans, especially by artists and writers. Listen to how Jose Torres Tama, complained in 2006 what had happened as a result of real estate speculators and government officials:

“New Orleans of old as a creative cauldron of bohemian tolerances, street life, and ritualistic culture, which was known to rise up from the ground, is a sad postcard of itself.  I truly love this city, but in my twenty-two years of life here, I have never been at such a crossroads, singing the familiar rock-n-roll Clash anthem of ‘should I stay or should I go now?’  Even the local newspaper, The Times-Picayune, which has failed miserably in covering the rental crisis, has used this lyric as front-page headline to denote the mood of thousands caught in the same personal debate.

“The tragedy is that I may not have an economical choice to stay and forge a living when basic shelter is oppressively expensive.  New Orleans has been my poetic muse for half my life, but for numerous artists and working class residents, it is hard living in the ‘Big Easy’ with post-Katrina rents as high as the lingering water lines.”

Here is what I wrote in review of Professor Saloy’s first book, Red Beans and Ricely Yours (October 2005).

“The life rendered in these poems will never reconstitute itself after the 2005 Katrina flood. Thus Saloy’s poetic documentation makes the book exceedingly more precious, especially for those persons displaced who lived in such communities as the 7th Ward.”

I’m willing to admit that I may have under-estimated the resilient spirit of that which is New Orleans. With natives like Professor Saloy, just maybe, New Orleans can be revived and made into something just as wondrous as the Big Easy that was murdered September 2005 in cold blood. Just maybe the genius of its people can gather together all the pieces scattered like ashes nine years ago and create that which may amaze again and keep the fires of creativity stoked. Long Live the Big Easy!  See y’all in the Gumbo!

Related Readings

Bill Quigley, “Eighteen Months After Katrina” (February 27. 2007). First published in “Truthout.”

David Mildenberg “Census Finds Hurricane Katrina Left New Orleans Richer, Whiter, Emptier” (4 February 2011)

Jerry Ward, “Reckoning with Displacement”

Jose Torres Tama, “Hard Living in the Big Easy” (19 June 2006)
Kevin McGill, “10 year sentence for ex-New Orleans Mayor Nagin” (9 July 2014)

Rudolph Lewis, “Obama and the Hunger for a Black President” (3 September 2007)

Vicki Mack and Elaine Ortiz, “Who Lives in New Orleans and the Metro Now?”
(26 September 2013)

Author, folklorist, essayist, and poet, Dr. Mona Lisa Saloy is professor of English at Dillard University. She previously published Red Beans & Ricely Yours, which won the 2005 T. S. Eliot Prize and the PEN/Oakland Josephine Miles Prize in 2006. Saloy’s literary voice represents the African-American and the New Orleans Creole cultural experience.

Saloy’s work appears in many anthologies, journals. An active Educator and Scholar, Dr. Mona Lisa Saloy is a noted speaker and storyteller, who consults to the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities (LEH), the Louisiana Division of the Arts (LDOA), and is an active member of the Louisiana Folklore Society. Also, Saloy composed a praise song & performed for two presidents.