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Interview with Cynthia Hogue in this issue

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Cynthia's introduction to H.D.'sThe Sword Went Out to Sea

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Contributors




Under Erasure as in: Sign (Silence)


Cynthia Hogue

By Cynthia Hogue



Jim

 

February in New York

Emerged from subway seeking the Floodwall 

(stacked across the Liberty Street Bridge in rows:

 

100 dRAWers)         from New ORleans         streetS: UNDERtaken

flood cleanup:          assembling detritus          of the forgotten

who in August         sWELTer  were               overtaken

 

Lost here.  Asked

on Fulton Street,

on Pearl Street,

on Water Street,

Where's Liberty Street?

 

A homeless vet called out

Did not turn at the sound

(Don't see.  Don't hear) 

Asked at a newsstand, Where's Liberty

Street?  Didn't know (No

idea)

Bought a bus map with (No

detail )

Looked then (back) at the

one hailing another

 

In Marine green

(sweater bulking underneath)

Everyone unseeing him

Walked back with change

Looked hard, said

Sorry sorrow

sorry cold

sorry snow

Bare head lifted

Bare hands reached

$5 clutched from wind

I, Jonathan, sent to

Beirut and Kuwait

the very edge of Iraq

 returned brok: en (giv:en

a dia:gnosis ( hear:d

voices, words – to:me –

           

bombs in my ears) Was traum: atized

Lost Job, was di:vorced

VA put in a shelter with

NO MONEY to wait

 TWO YEARS

My name is Jonathan

and my stuff was stolen

so left for THE STREET

 where it's colder but safe

 

On Front Street,

on Broad Street,

on Cedar Street,

on Broadway,

do you know, Jonathan,

God's gift, where Liberty

Street IS?  Liberty, no, Street, no 

No 

one

knows 

No one has heard TELL

Do YOU?  He towered

on the stoop Eyes afire with out-

rage but a-

LIVE and for company he had

the DEAD who knew no more

Beirut no more Liberty

            Street

 

Kept walking (criss-

crossed) Gold Street

Wall Street

            Maiden Lane

                        Church Street

 

Asked at last the police

who stared and stared:

2 blocks turn left 

There

was no

there

On Liberty Street (you know th)is:

Ground Zero


After the Flood

            after the artist of the assemblage work entitled “Floodwall,” Jana Napoli, who says:

            Floodwall speaks of what was lost to Katrina and what remains of New Orleans.”

 

*

 

Rows and rows of houses no longer lived

            in

Rows and rows of streets no longer lived

            on

Rows and rows of drawers on the streets

            of

“our Atlantis” (aerial view)

 

*

 

In front of 3166 ____________ (street unidentified)

            a chain link fence fractures the orange X

            spray-painted on the house (meaning:

            “checked for corpses”)

            7 dead stalks 1 dying live oak

            2 spindly plants near the road with

            tiny ochre flowers (yellow flax?

            floating primrose? tall marsh

            marigold?) opening toward sun but

not heliotrope (street view)

 

*

 

drawers: striated by mold        peeling shelf paper      bright green & yell-

ow & cherry red & o-              range carrots                lemons

daisies   (dazed days)              Painted moss               Laminate breaking

 

off from being underwater

knobs missing

Sides missing

(owners missing)

 

*

 

 

 

“I didn't

wanted to go back

Is hard”

“I didn't

lost my home

not my life

 “You start to realize

support is in

short supply”

 

*

 

Some of the drawers are solid wood, mahogany carved with fleur-de-lis,

inlaid brass knobs (tarnished wreaths), metal joints bent

 

Some of the drawers are

“treated plywood of  Southern Yellow Pine with surface burning characteristics”

 

Some of the drawers are in pieces: “The pieces are speaking their bro:

ken syllables” (LOL)

 

*

 

One drawer, whitewashed, with cards of saints (Mary? Teresa?) stuck to the bottom (all detail washed away but the form of women in robes with halos)

 

One drawer empty, shadows of objects: a cigar ring (pink).  a matchbook

(red).  A GUESS label with a 10 year warranty (run out, I guess)

 

One of the drawers, painted fuchsia, empty but for 5 purple, attached, plastic

figurines with smiley faces

 

*

 

 “The city as a whole”          “The city as a hole”         “Things fell apart here”

 “The water holds us”           “to its own time”              “Water's the world”

“we lived in”                       “What -----now is“           “a communITy of spirit”       

 

“I don't want to ------

drawers in the new -----,

 “What ------- now is

a ----unITy of --------it”

 


Jim's Story

            (artist)

 

1

 

Months before Katrina, I started having dreams

of being

in flood water

over and over.

They were not bad dreams, not scary,

but in each dream I was chest deep

in water

making my way to an exit

or an entrance to higher ground.

A lot of people were helping

each other get together

up to higher ground so

there was no fear.

Then I'd wake up.

Our dreams are so peculiar.

You're in this strange place

and wonder why you're there

but you go along with it.

I had the same dream many times. 

Started in May and went on until

late July or early August

and then it stopped.

I guess if I didn't get the message

by then I wasn't going to.

It never dawned on me

my dreams were telling me

something.  I've thought about

what if it registered, Uh-oh,

something dreadful

is going to happen,

but it didn't so I don't

know if I would have done

anything differently.

 


2

 

The day we evacuated,

the Sunday before Katrina,

I didn't want to leave

because every year there's a hurricane

going to come near New Orleans

and it never does.

It's hard to determine

the logic of weathermen,

to believe their predictions. 

That's how they make

their money, you know,

scaring us.

I didn't want to go.

Bob did.   

I stayed up Saturday night

and the weatherman said,

It's going to be a category 5.

I thought, That's scary.

But we'd heard it before. 

In the morning Bob wakes me up,

We've got to go, we've got to go. 

Yea, ok.   The neighbors came over,

We have to get out of here.

There were cops everywhere. 

It took four hours to leave

Orleans Parish, bumper to bumper.

We drove all the way to Memphis, 

the first place with open exits.

We were in the motel room

watching CNN and they were showing

all those people trying to get up to the I-10 overpass

and I said (you don't want this on tape),

Fuck.  I   just   don't    believe   it.

I'd had so many of those dreams

and then to see  

all that water pouring into the city

and people stuck there.

It was like watching a bad sci-fi movie,

and you think, This can't be real. 

Your mind tells you,

This can't be happening.


3

 

Earlier that year residents along the 17th St. Canal

had water welling up in their back yards.

They called the Levee Board, City Hall,

the Corps.  Nobody cared. 

Someone told them, A water main broke.

What it was

was the dirt levees

were crumbling.

New Orleans sits on a big sponge.

This disaster took 300 years to make.

We couldn't go back before October.

There was no power, no gas.

Our neighborhood looked okay—

Bywater is two or three feet higher

than the Lower Ninth Ward and that

made all the difference,

two or three feet—

but there were troops everywhere.

They'd wave to us with their guns.

It was all quite friendly and creepy.

We were anxious to get back

for our cats

which we'd left with food and water

enough for a week. 

They were mighty skinny. 

We will never know

how those cats survived.

The city is like a war zone.

Dark everywhere at night. 

Whole neighborhoods gone.

I saw a special—CNN

or Sixty Minutes—about the old New Orleans

but it was the myth, 

how it was one big party,

musicians on every street corner,

booze all the time.

I was so angry because

that city never existed.

That isn't the life we lost.


Mimi's Story

            (professor emerita)

1

 

The story that hasn't been told

is the destruction

of the middle class

of New Orleans.

All you heard was poor black people

and Barbara Bush saying

they're better off because

they didn't have anything anyway. 

So who cares?

That made me think,

The apple falleth

not far from the tree,

and we can see what

Mrs. Bush has raised and

we can see where

they got it from. 

The middle class, the middle class

residential neighborhoods all over the city—

Lakeview, Midcity, Gentilly,

Tremé New Orleans East—

were completely destroyed because of

the insurance situation.  The cap on flood

was $250,000 and prices had gone

well beyond that. 

McMansions were built

and people financed them to the hilt

and homeowners' insurance declared

that all the damage was flood

and refused to pay out.

People who paid through the nose

were left with way high

mortgages far beyond

their insurance sums

and so they're ruined.

 

 

*

 

We moved to Vista Park in Gentilly in 1990.  

There were 400 households of every sort of person—

white, black, creoles of color,

Southwest Asians, East Asians,

Hispanics, many university people. 

We lived right next to

the London Avenue Canal

where the floodwall breached.

One fellow had a three foot alligator in

his swimming pool.  That's how

destroyed the area was.

I saw the picture of this poor,

misbegotten alligator that got lost

being dragged out and relocated to a more

salubrious place for alligators. 

This story has not been told.

 

2

 

Many of us in New Orleans

had flood insurance, but thought coverage

came only from the government

which capped what

we could insure our structures for.

I did not know and few of us knew

that some companies underwrote

excess coverage.  I paid

flood insurance with my mortgage in escrow.

I never saw the paperwork annually.

I thought my agent was

raising my limit with inflation

because I told him to

but he didn't do diddly.

I was covered for one third

of the actual value of my home.

They hooed and hawed

but at last paid me that for flooding.

Homeowners insurance refused to pay

anything for the contents.

They said it was all flood damage

which they don't cover.  They said

there was no wind damage.

The water came

after the wind.

It was hard to tell

unambiguously what was wind

and what was water damage.

I had plenty of insurance but

like everyone else I

didn't get anything

to speak of. 

 

*

 

I did receive $4000 for

“alternative living expenses.”

You can get this sum for

a mandatory evacuation.

We had that, but my company,

the evil Travelers, said, No,

you left because of

a non-covered peril, a flood.

I said, No no no, no, no, no.

There was no flood.

There was a hurricane in the Gulf

and the flood did not occur

until after the hurricane passed.

Therefore you are on the hook

for my alternative living

expenses.  Please remit. 

I evacuated to Baton Rouge,

and knew my house was ruined

because I saw it on CNN under water.  

They showed that shot again and again.

The tanks from the Shell station

on the corner spread their iridescence

through that filthy water everywhere 

and I knew it was all over.

 

3

 

I didn't get back until Mardi Gras.

It took awhile to screw up my courage.

Edward and his wife came with me

to see what was what.

There was no salvage, so I thought, 

just take a look.  It was all gone—

yearbooks, diplomas, family pictures,

medieval manuscript pages, medieval coins

I collected of each of the medieval King Edwards

for my son, my mother's mid-century modern,

which is now getting collectible—

everything.  Everything.

The only thing I got back—

I hid my jewel box so well during the 1995 flood

I never found it again.

I called the Jewish Federation

to gut the house, and I said,

I'm an old lady, will you help me? 

And they said Yes,

but they cleared the house out,

said someone else would gut it.

Operation Noah called me to arrange to gut

            the house.  Then they asked, Are you born again?

                        And I said, Is this the Jewish Federation?

I thought I was dealing with the Jewish Federation.

No, they were Southern Baptists!  I said,

            I am not baptized.

                        I am not saved.

But they told me they would still gut my house,

so I said, Fine, whatever. 

Thank you.  Those Southern Baptists

walk the walk, I will say that.

They found my jewel box and did not steal it. 

So now I have my diamond again.

 

*

 

Mardi Gras was really quite nice.

Edward and his wife got into the spirit

quickly.  They dressed as

fucking ninja, that was their costume.

Elaine went to an adult toy store

to make nunchucks out of

two dildos and nipple clamps. 

They had their little black outfits on,

and Elaine took a video of herself

nunchucking

at Mardi Gras.

When I turned up Charlotte Drive to go home,

you know, a last time, I passed my next door neighbor,

the one closer to Fillmore than I. 

There was a big sign in front—

“This house sheltered a family for forty years”—

and when I saw it I cried.


Elizabeth's Story

            (home healthcare aide, nursing student)

 

We as New Orleanians

still don't have that truthfulness about the water. 

Everything has been sinking, getting worse.

But after hearing—what's his name—

who went to talk to Bush,

Farrakhan said to President Bush:

They blew up those levees

to keep the waters from

certain sections of the city. 

It's a question mark in my mind 

that's what's going on now.

This is my secret

to me that I believe

deep in my heart.

 

*

 

I was taking care of my mother

and my disabled son, Anthony,

whose legs are amputated.  I worked

12 hour overnight shifts weekends—

during the week I took nursing courses—

and the agency asked if I could stay 

with Dr. Drew and his wife.  I said, No,

I'm responsible for my family.  “We got

Inez to relieve you Sunday.”  So I said Ok. 

Sunday morning the agency called,

“Inez is running late.  Could you

stay with the Drews till she comes?”

Dr. Drew said, I'm so grateful

you're staying here with us, and

I knew then something was wrong. 

They're not like that. 

They're white and

they're prejudiced. 

You do your job

and that's that.  I called the agency back.

No answer.  No return call.  I found out later

they'd left, were calling me from New York! 

They'd messed me around. 

I phoned my sister—had to almost

curse her out—to go get our mother

and get on out just before,

as they say, all hell break loose.

At 5:45 p.m. my nightmare began.

The mayor said, We're fixin' to

lock the city down, so then I left

to get Tony, but they done closed

the bridge.  There was

a silence like I was all alone.

I thought, I'll just go home

and think—pick up my son

the next day—but if I'd

done that, I'd be dead.

My sister called, Liz, God just told me

you got to leave.  But I don't have Tony,

I cried.  You drive to the Superdome. 

I'm gonna talk to you until

you reach it.  It was 6:05. 

The wind is whipping and whipping

and I'm screaming and hollering

and my sister's praying and praying.

 

*

 

30,000 people at the Superdome.

I asked God, What am I supposed to do?

My son is alone in that high rise. 

A patient phoned me, Girl,

you're on my mind.

We're at a hotel near the casino. 

You drive on over and help us. 

All night I sat by the window listening

to a roar like trains outside.

 

Monday I wanted to get my son,

but was told if I left I couldn't return.

Tuesday, I thought I saw water

coming up but everyone said,

Aw, girl, it's in your mind. 

I couldn't think anymore.

Wednesday, the hotel called a meeting. 

They gave us a baloney sandwich,

a cup of coffee, took all our keys,

and put us out.  You know how

those people ended up at

the Convention Center?  We

were shoved.  And everybody

changed.  Hid food and water. 

I did not want to go there. 

I had a truck full of gas at the hotel, 

but my keys were on the 13th floor,

so I'm walking up, my heart pounding—

I have a bad heart—and had took

my last heart pill.  A guy coming down

was shaking so bad he bumped me. 

White guy.  Name was Steve Huff, 

a lawyer from Oklahoma.  Miss,

do you have a car?  Yes I do,

I said, if I can find my keys, but please,

tell the police I'm going back up.

On the 8th floor, I said, God,

I didn't ask for this.  I could have left

the city.  I was put in a position.

My inner voice told me, Elizabeth,

you are a missionary. 

You got to—WHOO!

you got to dig down

and call on the Lord, whatever happens. 

On the 9th floor, I cried, Lord, Just give me

a little water, please.  I feel like I'm going

my last mile.  As God is my witness,

on the 10th floor was a bottle of water!

On the 13th floor, I broke down

the door for my keys and in 30 minutes

found my truck.  I crawled in and

collapsed.  Then came on down. 

People were begging, pulling on the car. 

I took 5 out of the city.  Steve said,

You are my angel.  I have $30,000

in my pocket.  What do you need?

I'm not like that, I said.  Just give me somewhere

to rest myself.  I went into a motel. 

Was told me there was no room. 

Then Steve went in and

they gave him a room.

 

*

 

My son was trapped 7 days,

didn't know who he was

when they found him.  I listed him with

the Red Cross, all the Gospel channels,

and America's Most Wanted, 

for their database.  The Red Cross

asked for a DNA sample from me.  I said,

Ma'am, I know you're not supposed to,

but could you please look at those bodies

for me?  Baby, we have hundreds of bodies,

so decomposed, but a couple fit

your son's details.  I couldn't handle it. 

I was put on antidepressants—

most of us are—going

through the depths of grief.

I was trying to come to

grips that God took my son.  Spirit said,

You see that pole standing there? 

You lean on it because that pole

is Me. You place your trust

in My hands.  5:30 next morning,

I got a call, We have found your son.

A whole year?  Then I didn't know

for a week if he'd make it.  He was septic. 

The worst thing is

to lose your child. 

I lived that for a year.

The system failed us.  The disabled,

the elderly were left to fend

for themselves.  It's not right.

It's not right.  It's left a scar for life.

People ask, Will New Orleans

be New Orleans again, with the poor,

the kind-hearted, that jazzy lively

jazz?  The love we had was killed. 

The city is a ghost town

and each solitary voice

is a forgotten voice. 

 




* * *

Acknowledgments:

 

I thank the Katrina evacuees who have shared the stories of duress, courage, and survival with me: Jim Davidson, artist and expert in fine antique restoration, former resident of the Bywater district; Miriam Youngerman Miller, a retired professor of Medieval Studies from University of New Orleans, former resident of Gentilly; and Elizabeth Sutton, now a nursing student in Mesa and a former homecare aide and resident of Gentilly.  These are interview-poems and their words are used with permission.  I also thank the collage and sculpture artist, Jana Napoli, whose assemblage, FLOODWALL, the first two poems in this series describe looking for and finding.  A few of the quotations in the poem, “After the Flood,” are from her assemblage (permissions requested).  I'll thank the unknown vet who spoke to me in New York: your words haunt me, Jonathan.  I hope mine find you doing better.  And finally, I thank Jeannine Savard, Chris Burawa, and Barbara Cully who first read these poems and encouraged me to continue, and Maxine and Jonathan Marshall, whose endowed gift to Arizona State University made it possible for me to come to Tempe and to do this work.




***



Cynthia Hogue has published five collections of poetry, most recently The Incognito Body (Red Hen Press, 2006). She is the co-editor (with Elisabeth Frost) of Innovative Women Poets: An Anthology of Contemporary Poetry and Interviews (University of Iow Press, 2006), and (with Julie Vandivere) of the first edition of H.D.'s The Sword Went Out to Sea (Synthesis of a Dream), by Delia Alton (University Press of Florida, 2007). She has received Fulbright, NEA (poetry), and NEH (Summer Seminar) Fellowships. In 2005, she was awarded H.D. Fellowship at the Beinecke Library at Yale University. Hogue taught in the MFA program at the University of New Orleans before moving to Pennsylvania, where she directed the Stadler Center for Poetry at Bucknell University for eight years. While in Pennsylvania, she trained in conflict resolution with the Mennonites and became a trained mediator specializing in diversity issues in education. In 2003, she joined the Department of English at Arizona State University as the Maxine and Jonathan Marshall Chair in Modern and Contemporary Poetry. She lives in Phoenix with her husband, the French economist, Sylvain Gallais.