Interview with Cynthia Hogue in this issue
Cynthia's introduction to H.D.'sThe Sword Went Out to Sea
Under Erasure as in:
By Cynthia Hogue
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?
Did not turn at the sound
(Don't see. Don't hear)
Asked at a newsstand, Where's Liberty
Street? Didn't know (No
Bought a bus map with (No
Looked then (back) at the
one hailing another
In Marine green
(sweater bulking underneath)
Everyone unseeing him
Walked back with change
Looked hard, said
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
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,
do you know, Jonathan,
God's gift, where Liberty
Street IS? Liberty, no, Street, no
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
Kept walking (criss-
crossed) Gold Street
Asked at last the police
who stared and stared:
2 blocks turn left
On Liberty Street (you know th)is:
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
Rows and rows of streets no longer lived
Rows and rows of drawers on the streets
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
wanted to go back
lost my home
not my life
You start to realize
support is in
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
I don't want to ------
drawers in the new -----,
What ------- now is
a ----unITy of --------it
Months before Katrina, I started having dreams
in flood water
over and over.
They were not bad dreams, not scary,
but in each dream I was chest deep
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,
is going to happen,
but it didn't so I don't
know if I would have done
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,
I didn't want to go.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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—
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
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.
(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
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.
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.