An Underlying Sadness: Mary C. Johansen on City of Refuge by Tom Piazza

City of Refuge, Tom Piazza, Harper


The two families at the heart of Tom Piazza’s novel, City of Refuge, reflect the racial and economic diversity of most American cities. What separates them from other Americans is the city they live in. New Orleans, in all its beauty—and devastation after Hurricane Katrina struck—is the soul of the story. Anyone who has read Why New Orleans Matters, a book length essay that Tom Piazza wrote a few months after the hurricane, knows that Piazza loves the Big Easy. Although his love is not blind, it is in evidence from the first pages of City of Refuge, which describe a spontaneous parade marching through the Lower Ninth Ward, to the last pages depicting the first straggly Mardi Gras celebrated after the levees broke and the city was flooded. In comparison to the detail and emotional tenor that Tom Piazza gives to New Orleans in the novel, the story of the Williams’ and Donaldson’s and their separate sagas before, during and after the storm seems almost incidental.

The story begins on the Friday before the hurricane hit. We first meet SJ Williams, a black, working class carpenter living in the Lower Ninth Ward; his sister Lucy, an on-again, off-again drug user and Lucy’s son, Wesley who is on the brink of becoming a criminal. We catch a glimpse the of Williams’s life during the weekend that precedes the storm. It is a fairly typical life, touched by drugs and crime, of many in the poorer areas of the city.

Craig Donaldson lives in a leafy suburb near the Tulane University campus with his wife, Alice and their two young children, Annie and Malcolm. He is the editor of Gumbo, an alternative city newspaper, and he makes enough money for Alice to be a stay-at-home mom. Craig and Alice are planning Malcolm’s birthday party when we meet them. Alice is the epitome of white middle class urban angst. She complains about raising her children in the heart of New Orleans. The school system is hobbled by crumbling buildings and lack of adequate funding. The whole city is hobbled by an antiquated infrastructure. Crime is rampant. Craig, originally from the mid West, is passionate about New Orleans, its culture, its music, its food. The last thing on his mind is leaving. Yet, Alice’s discomfort is an almost constant background noise in their marriage. And in the background of these first chapters, like white noise, are the weather reports which become more and more dire as the weekend wears on.

Hurricane Katrina seems like it will pose no more of a problem than some of the bigger hurricanes that have struck New Orleans in the recent past—some flooding, loss of electricity, damaged homes and a few days of disruption in normal activity. But, as the storm gathers strength during the weekend, evacuation becomes less and less of an option and more of a necessity. Unfortunately, evacuation is feasible only for those who have both the financial resources and a car. Craig and Alice wait until it becomes clear that the storm will cause major damage before they evacuate with tens of thousands of others. The Donaldson’s can’t.

What follows are the divergent paths that each family takes in order to regain some semblance of normalcy. Craig and his family endure ten hours of traffic jams only to find gasoline supplies drying up along the major routes and motels hopelessly overcrowded. They end up in Elkton, a suburb of Chicago, staying with Alice’s aunt and uncle. A far worse fate befalls SJ and his family. They experience Hurricane Katrina in all its wrath. The major breach of the levees occurred along the Lower Ninth Ward. Over ten feet of water flooded SJ’s house. Like so many other nameless heroes, SJ spends the day after the storm rescuing people who are trapped in a river filled with dangerous debris. His family is scattered after the hurricane. Wesley ends up in Albany, a place that might as well be another planet to him, with a couple of empty nesters who have volunteered to take displaced hurricane victims in. Wesley’s attempt to understand and communicate with the elderly couple creates the most emotionally charged interactions of the book. In comparison, the description of Lucy’s stay in one of many camps set up by volunteer organizations is stilted. SJ finds himself in Houston staying with his cousins, in shock and suffering from severe depression. The family is reunited in the suburbs of Houston feeling out-of-place and lonely in this land of cars and malls.

As each family grapples with long-term relocation and whether to return to the crippled city, we learn, through Craig’s and SJ’s trips back to New Orleans, of the damage that brought the city to its knees. Piazza’s prose comes alive in his descriptions of the horror and devastation in the city he loves. The work “toxic” appears routinely. The devastated city is a place of sour smells, sickening mold growing profusely on indoor walls, decaying bodies and a brownish sludge that covers everything the flood waters touched.

As everyone begins to adapt to their new lives, there is an underlying sadness in the realization that many families will not return to New Orleans, and those that do return will find a city that remains dysfunctional in so many ways. Tom Piazza has written a touching narrative steeped in the history of what has to be some of the darkest days America will ever encounter. It is fitting that we are left wondering whether the Williams’ and the Donaldson’s will find happiness in their new lives. After all, three years after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans still remains on it knees. And the rest of the world is wondering too.

The Poetry of 1AK, CAConrad on Frank Sherlock & Brett Evans

Ready-To-Eat Individual
by Frank Sherlock & Brett Evans


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Book Review by CAConrad

Shamanism has the distinction in many ancient cultures as being the practice of Great Seers and healers. Shaman were those men and women who survived near death experiences or other tragic circumstances and came back with stories and visions from the abyss which in turn served the tribe. Surviving shifts the axis, remaps perspective, and awakens the senses as though they had never really been awake.

After hurricane Katrina devastated the much loved and celebrated city of New Orleans the city itself seemed near death before our eyes, and her citizens found themselves abused and neglected by their American superpower federal government, which shocked the world to see people left to suffer and die of exposure, and see African Americans seeking refuge in nearby towns held at gunpoint by white police officers to prevent them from leaving the connecting bridges to safety. Our modern day American race and class war was silent no more to those who had willed themselves into denial. Even president Bush’s own rich white mother made clear her contempt and complete lack of empathy for the suffering thousands who lost family, friends, homes and communities. No demon’s mask remained.

But like all Shaman, the city and many of her survivors took the brutal obstacles back to life, and some of that Olympic spiritual conquest is sung at perfect pitch in Ready-to-Eat Individual by poets Frank Sherlock and Brett Evans. A native of New Orleans, Evans stayed behind during the storm to protect his dogs and help friends. PhillySound poet Frank Sherlock went down to work with the activist collective Common Ground in the recovery work. Good friends for many years, Sherlock and Evans wrote this disturbing and BRILLIANT book during what they refer to as 1AK: Year One After Katrina. The book’s title is based on the laminated food pouches produced by the Defense Department with the same name. Ready-to-Eat Individuals were originally designed by the Space Program for astronauts, but were dropped on New Orleans after the storm and resulting flood.

         The post-apocalyptic mufaletta
         resembling a comeback city
         is seasoned w/ graffiti
         on abandoned refrigerators

These opening lines set the tone the title promises. 2008 New Orleans travel guide books make no mention of hurricane Katrina, nor the struggle the citizens of New Orleans continue to face. The best martinis and what kind of furniture to expect in your deluxe suite will be mentioned, but in order to discover what landmarks were destroyed by the storm you need to compare your 2008 guide with a 2005 edition and figure it out for yourself. To read the truth of pain and resurrection you will need to bring Ready-to-Eat Individual with you on the plane.

         & he said it best when he said
         I’ve learned there is Life
           even in the darkest of dark
           places I dance
          to escape from pacing

And later on the same page:

         at any moment it feels like this space
         where “to relax” we continue the Year of Magical
           could play host
             to a hold up….”

This makes reference to Joan Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking, her own memoir of inconsolable grief and madness, and learning to somehow rise and LIVE! Sherlock and Evans press against us an honesty which leaves its grill marks and shadows, but never an emptiness, and not the easy retreat from what they see.

         I appreciate the instructor
         deeply but I’ve already mastered
         the lessons of misunderstanding

         The city is too dirty
         for you     You’re right
         you might be too clean

         for me though my doubts
         are arousing     I want you dirty
         enough to be comfortable

         & relax     How did I get
         so at-home in
         the post-apocalypse?

In an age where we find ourselves at the mercy of all the neglect our elected governing bodies have been denying and spinning, and in an age where too many poets lack the loyalty to their own convictions and sidestep the courage it takes to take a stand with such passive statements as, “Oh, I don’t like overt political content in my poems,” THIS BOOK by THESE TWO POETS returns poetry to the center of poetry’s sharp edges to CARE about this world, and CARE to risk taking a stand!

         A trinity of medals conduct
                 this dull hum of energy     relics of a faith
                    you almost lost     Basta! then Basta!
                    Let us be this new city &
                    liberate ourselves     We can swear
                    ourselves into a parallel government
                    while the sun is coming up

                 I just want to act as your companion
              species since rulers are for losers
         This moment in the history of history

If Shamanism is a leadership procured through discovering the magic that bends the light of this world and blends its infinite chemical motors, then poets are Shamans, at least poets worth the salt in their veins. The storm is burning in effigy in these pages, and that really happened, and so did the storm despite editors and publishers of travel guide books. Forget the corporate publishing bullshit and give trust to Bill Lavender, publisher of Lavender Ink, and his pair of living Virgils — Sherlock and Evans — who lead us to our own ample declarations for the stark smells of love and survival.

CAConrad is the author of Deviant Propulsion (Soft Skull, 2006), The Book of Frank (Chax, 2008), (Soma)tic Midge (FAUX, 2008), and a collaboration with poet Frank Sherlock titled The City Real & Imagined: Philadelphia Poems (Factory School, 2008). He can be found at