By NIYI OSUNDARE
It is five years now since Hurricane Katrina swept through the Gulf Coast with a near-apocalyptic ferocity, inflicting sundry losses and countless bereavements. The catastrophe wrought by this storm changed many lives for ever: the child who lost an only parent; the painter who lost his favourite work; the pianist who lost a piano passed down from many generations; the professor who lost her library; the writer who lost his manuscripts; the businessman who lost his factory; the singer who lost her voice (literally and figuratively); a city which (nearly) lost its niche; a people who lost their dignity. . . .
The intervening years seem to have erased the immensity of this catastrophe as public interest appears to have receded with the flood. The common belief now is that New Orleans has been rebuilt or is being rebuilt at a fast and even pace – a partial myth that is a reflection of the partiality in the recovery pattern of the city itself.
For while the business districts have sprung back to power and tourism is back on the bloom, while neighbourhoods belonging to the rich and well-connected have bounced back with their well laundered lawns and glittering fences, those parts owned and/or inhabited by most Black and poor people are still in a state of shocking blight and neglect…
Katrina’s wounds run deep; its pains are still red and stubbornly raw. As one of those gruesomely afflicted by its devastation, I remember what it meant to stand in front of my class in January 2006, a professor without books, a writer whose manuscripts and professional documents had been washed away, a ‘Katrina returnee’ without a place to lay his head.
I waited in vain for a genuine institutional interest in and concern about the specific depth and range of my loss/pain, for a demonstration of empathy and care beyond political platitudes, official bulletins, and media sound bites which only ended up as a mockery of my pain. None came. Alas, in the mass grave to which the city’s woes had been consigned, there was hardly any room for a consideration of the agonizing specificity of individual loss.
Back in New Orleans, I became, to borrow the words of the Nigerian poet Chritopher Okigbo, ‘the sole witness of my homecoming’; the invisible carrier of my own cross. . . The relentless, excruciating pain of the disaster appears to have been privatised and driven into the domain of personal angst, accorded political mention only during media-hyped anniversaries and commemorations……
But who is there to listen to the deep, personal cry of the sorely afflicted, the chilling fears and anxieties of someone suddenly confronted with a future without a purpose, the silence of those whose dreams have transmogrified into nightmares? Who has the eye to see the colour of pain?
Here, again, face to face with the anonymity of loss, the invisibility of pain. The bereaved, the dispossessed, the terribly traumatized have been largely left to lick their wounds; urged to pull up themselves by their boot straps (even when those boots have been taken away by the ravaging flood); inveigled into accepting responsibility for a catastrophe that was not their own making. We have been asked to get all up and move on. Does anyone care about the relative state of our legs?. . . .
The poems in this volume have been long in coming. (Deep tragedy hardly lends itself to instant messaging). If they do not come across as pretty to some readers, it is because the events which provoked them are far from pretty. Indeed, Katrina’s devastations are the type that cut straight to the bones, necessitating a testimony that transcends trivial versification and verbal placebos.
These poems insist on breaking the silence precipitated by the combined forces of anonymity and invisibility which often stand between the needy cry and the listening world.
These are the words of someone right in the eye of the storm, written by himself, not ‘gathered’ by an unappointed spokesperson or ventriloquised from ‘reliable sources’ by a privileged and distant secondary source. For, although Katrina may have taken all I had away, it never succeeded in taking away my tongue – and sense of proportion and justice. It has never taken away the necessity for the telling of a truth that never rests until it has been told.. . .
In many ways, the poems in this book are a kind of ‘thank you song’ for the hundreds of people here in the United States and other parts of the world who reached out to me and my family with inspiring love, generosity, and compassion. They brought a new, urgent resonance and poignancy to that famous Yoruba saying, Enia lasoo mi (People are my clothes). It was they, indeed, who made sure that Katrina never had the last word.
These poems are also a tribute to New Orleans, our city: its fertile energy, its irrepressible vitality, its rainbow vernacular, its music and magic, the unsinkable humanity in the core of its being. Yes, New Orleans is still there, busy getting fat every Mardi Gras, and penitently lean the day after.
The Mississippi flows on in its muddy majesty, even as the pelican jazzes up the sky with the riff and rhyme of its glide. I sing of a city which insists on its own right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, earnestly hoping that the levees will one day be as strong as they ought to be, the floodwalls as enduring; a city restored to glory through equitable recovery and lasting justice.