Blood Dazzler, Patricia Smith, Coffee House Press
Patricia Smith’s collection Blood Dazzler is a voice rising from disaster. Taking on the perspectives of Hurricane Katrina victims, Katrina herself, other hurricanes, comments from the Bush administration, and internal government emails, the collection distills their meaning through its poetry. A 2008 National Book Award nominee, Blood Dazzler is a shining example of what poetry can do for a country, transcend the internal narrative (that many poets are so often concerned with) and speaks for others. Poetry over the centuries has been linked to battle cries for help, equality, and expression, but Smith’s book, by simultaneously documenting horrendous acts on behalf of the administration, and telling the stories of victims who would have otherwise been forgotten echoes bravery from voices like Gertrude Stein and Dr. King.
The collection has a crescendoing narrative, like the category five storm (the highest storm rating) itself. Various parts of the poetry recur throughout the narrative acting as focal points, or floodlights, and they feel like the quiet calm of the eye of the hurricane itself. Voodoo I-VII are placed meticulously within other repeating and weaving plot-lines, as we dip in and out of character and perspective. From the prologue, And Then She Owns You, we are—as the people of New Orleans were—devastated by Katrina as we see in the last line: “Gently, she leads you out into the darkness and makes you drink rain.” The collection is atmospheric and dreamy, waterlogged and starved, murderous and terrifying, and it is all this because of Smith’s ability to communicate her empathy, her ability to tell us what really happened.
From poem one, we are given information, date and time from the National Storm Center, we are watching the crisis mount, and we are doing it from the perspective of Katrina herself, “I will require praise, unbridled winds to define my body, a crime behind my teeth.” Smith has given the hurricane an actual gender, a voice, and like the storm herself, a mind of her own. We follow Katrina’s path through the Bahamas and into Florida and up the coast as the forms of poetry change throughout. From verse to prose poem to ghazal to sestina, the pit in our stomach churns as the dirty water rises relentlessly.
Narratives in the collection particularly hard to escape are that of Ethel Freeman and her son Herbert. Introduction to Ethel’s Sestina: Ethel Freeman’s body sat for days in her wheelchair outside the New Orleans Convention Center. Her son Herbert, who had assured his mother that help was on the way, was forced to leave her there once she died, “Gon’ be obedient in this here chair, gon’ bide my time, fanning against this sun. I ask my boy and all he says is Wait.”
At page twenty-two, in the mix of emails from the New Orleans Police Chief himself, Eddie Compass, “we had little babies in there,” and FEMA reports “hotels are kicking people out,” Smith brings us Getting His Twang On: George Bush plays air guitar with country singer Mark Willis; 2 p.m. August 30, 2005. Not, however, as damning as previous First Lady Barbara Bush’s comments, “…And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this -this [chuckles slightly] is working very well for them.”
But, this is all working toward 34, which is named for thirty-four bodies in the St. Rita’s nursing home found dead from drowning because they weren’t evacuated. What Smith then does in a numerically ordered list for each person is give us a perspective from moments during life, the storm, and moments during death. As the city will forever be changed from the devastation, I am forever changed for reading Smith’s words (partial quotes):
I believe Jesus is hugely who He says He is…
…Before the rain stung like silver, I had forgotten me…
…You will rinse me…
When help comes, it will be young men smelling like cigarettes and Chevys…to save us they will rub our gums with hard bread. They will offer us water…
I’m cold and I’m strapped to this country…
My name is Earline…
I have forgotten how to pray, cannot find my knees…I want somebody’s hand…
Patricia Smith has stood and spoken for victims of hurricane Katrina in a way that will forever be documented in time as honest, and as brutal as the reality the weather and combination of neglect from the government brought itself. The collection echoes terror, the grains of humanity and hope within the situation, and the simultaneous lack of communication, which added to the pain and devastation. She has defined poetry by communicating truth in Blood Dazzler. Smith is a champion for the dead, and the rest of us, the surviving.
Nicolle Elizabeth is is a writer, bike mechanic and loud mouth.