Imagine the overgrown back lot of a vast park in a city that sat for weeks underwater and then spent four years trying to absorb the damage and move forward. In that space on October 9, 2009 an audience gathered under the oaks in New Orleans as the sun rose and listened to a story of a man and a beast, a story part myth and part achingly real, a story about the very land the tale takes place on and an ominous prediction of more loss and sorrow. Moose Jackson’s cycle of poems that make up the text of The Loup Garou were intended to be intoned, performed, and howled outloud. Its history as a drama is told in the foreword by director Kathy Randels and by the author in the introduction. Nevertheless, the text of these poems has their own performance within the pages of this book, and it’s one that allows for an intimate exchange between the wolf and the reader. These 28 poems along with the prologue take the reader on a journey, a sacred transformation occurs analogous to the waxing and waning of the moon in the revelation of the main character’s desire to understand this sickness that he has acquired from his history and from his roots. The prologue opens with a murder and then sets up the idea of searching back to unfold the story, beginning at Day 1:
there’s a rhythm to this wrongness;
paced at intervals of 28 nights
but what day is this, what quarter o’ the moon?
how this song gonna begin?
gotta get back to day one…
And so the poem begins its cycle of Sebastian Couteau trying to make sense of these intervals where the beast takes over. The reader, familiar with the werewolf myth, will recognize aspects such as the full moon’s effect, the bite or injury that causes the curse as well as the silver bullet, but Jackson also complicates the traditional tale by weaving in the narrator’s personal history and his family’s tie to the land. This is a loup garou story, a Cajun twist on the traditional tale that sets the beast in the swamps and parishes of Louisiana. The Catholic Church and his family’s own dark history flesh out the personality and paint the tale of this cursed man. Day 1 begins in the monastery where he seeks refuge after he awakes confused from another episode, but only several days pass before he begins to recall his name and his childhood:
when I was a boy
I saw the loup garou
I stabbed him with my knife
and he showed me his true face
Jackson ties Cousteau’s story back to Quebec where the Cajun people lived before being forced from their land. He begins to draw a parallel between the wolf and the people; the wolf is a metaphor brought to the bayou just as their religion and their way of life travels south with them. The wolf embodies the darkness of these people, and it is a necessary chapter to their way of life. By Day 6, the tie between the wolf and the land begins to take shape:
Let them oilmen come to drink our blood
while the land
disappears beneath our feet?
This theme of the double bind of living off the land and also destroying the land mirrors Couteau’s life with the wolf. As much as Couteau is the wolf and therefore all the primal, murderous rage that it entails, so are the people of Louisiana a community that lives off the land and also the land’s worst enemy. The “oil men” offer money and jobs, and the people accept this offer even if it kills their home. This doubling is played out in the body of Couteau, the wolf is destroying him but to destroy the wolf means destroying himself. So too, the oil men invite the destruction of the very land that the people of Louisiana live on, but to deny them would mean a loss of jobs and food for families.
Jackson manages to embody his message in Couteau literally as we witness in the arc of poems his swaying indecision between revulsion and acceptance of what he is: “Yes, I have killed men/ I have eaten of their flesh/ why be ashamed?” he tells us and then he turns to survey the world around him: “I drift through a nightmare land/ refineries shooting infernal flames…past a parish piled with cheap construction/ oil spill corruption/ whole towns turned toxic by high water.” It’s hard to delineate where the nightmare begins and ends: in Couteau and in the land around him. Couteau travels in his search from St. Bernard to New Orleans and from Plaquemines Parish to Bayou la Fourche; he searches in places that are near extinction and in places that may soon pass into the land of myth much like the loup garou. His travels link Louisiana making it apparent that the sickness invades the whole state; the wolf uses byways, canals, and outlets to access this area highlighting how the water binds the land together. As the wolf, he is quite literally the bringer of death on these waters; but conversely the waters are being killed by the people who dredge and exploit them.
This parallel between the two drives home the intertwining story of the mythos of a people who are quite literally defined by and bounded by the land. The loup garou, like the Cajun people and other peoples of Louisiana, is defined by his land; if the land is destroyed then so are the people and their stories. There is no option here of a mass exodus; the land has become a vital organ that once stopped will shut down the entire body. There is no way that Moose Jackson could have predicted the oil rig explosion of 2010, but there is the prescient sense that it is alive in these pages. One could point to the role of the poet as seer, but more accurately the case should be made that the poet reveals what is right in front of us. In this case, Jackson has taken our gaze back to the primal, back to that which we fear and hope will fade with the night; he demands that we examine it unflinchingly and woe to those who try to ignore or silence the beast. The Gulf oil disaster is just one result of our misuse as Jackson reminds all of us: “This aint just about survival no more/ It’s about redemption./ You gotta get right with us/ The Wolf is at your door.” In the end, we have to examine our own faces and see where the wolf sneaks through: are we some poor monster howling in the night licking our wounds or are we linked to the land like any living thing who calls it home.
Megan Burns has a MFA from Naropa University and edits the poetry magazine, Solid Quarter (solidquarter.blogspot.com). She has been most recently published in Jacket Magazine, Callaloo, New Laurel Review, YAWP Journal, and the Big Bridge New Orleans Anthology. Her poetry and prose reviews have been published in Tarpaulin Sky, Gently Read Lit, Big Bridge, and Rain Taxi. Her book Memorial + Sight Lines was published in 2008 by Lavender Ink. She has two chapbooks, Frida Kahlo: I am the poem (2004) and Framing a Song (2010) from Trembling Pillow Press. She lives in New Orleans where she and her husband, poet Dave Brinks, run the weekly 17 Poets! reading series (www.17poets.com).