Each of us who lived through Katrina has a story. There are a million possible narratives of personal loss, anger, and grief. It seems ironic, then, that Ed Sanders, the Beat poet from New York City, author of Tales of Beatnik Glory and co-founder of the Fugs, who was not personally affected by the storm, would be the one to produce the epic spoken word CD, Poems for New Orleans.
These poems, read in Sanders’ mellifluous voice and accompanied by Mark Bingham’s musical score, lack what almost every other narrative of the city’s decimation has had: an “I.” The first person pronoun enters these poems only when Sanders assumes the voice of another, or of the city itself. But perhaps it is because Sanders has no personal Katrina experience to relate that he can tell the story as a tragedy of history, a tragedy of a city, a nation, and a people.
The first poem and longest piece tells the story of the Battle of New Orleans focusing on Lemoine Lebage, a Haitian émigré schooled in the ideals of the French Revolution who joined Andrew Jackson’s motley crew of militias for the battle. He was wounded and, according to the poem, treated on the battlefield by Marie Laveau. The poem fast forwards to Grace Lebage, “his great-great-great-great granddaughter” and her frustrated attempt to save the family home. Her struggle with the now familiar bureaucratic roadblocks and governmental callousness becomes the symbol of all of our struggles to bounce back from the storm.
Sanders’ tragedy has a classic tinge. He refers to the Greek tragedian Aeschylus, and the flood becomes the Waters of Poseidon. The redneck trucker who, on a drunken whim, drives to Hope, Arkansas and liberates a load of FEMA trailers from bureaucratic gridlock, has a Bull of Minos (the Minotaur) on the grill of his truck. Post-storm violence and rape invokes the myth of Ajax and Cassandra. These allusions lend the story a timelessness that reveals the tragedy in its true scope, so much larger than any individual’s place in it.
Still, the crowning achievement of the work may be Mark Bingham’s score. Spoken word often features musical accompaniment, but Bingham’s work on Poems for New Orleans surely sets a new standard for the hybrid genre. The composition seamlessly weaves in Dixieland, jazz, brass and even a Stravinsky-like orchestral theme that depicts the approach of the storm. Sanders’ work, in the tradition of the Beats, eschews regular meter and rhyme, but Bingham finds its irregular music at every turn, creating a fabric of New Orleanian musical motifs that seem, sometimes, filtered through a watery distortion. It is as if the city, on confronting the possibility of its end, sees its history pass by in a surreal pastiche.
It’s too bad that no New Orleans writer has produced a Katrina-related work of the scope of Poems for New Orleans. But, after the political and financial betrayal by the rest of the nation, it is gratifying to receive this homage from a poet of Sanders’ talent and stature. Poems for New Orleans is as heartfelt and ambitious a project as has come out of the storm, and perhaps those of us who have our own stories to tell can learn something from a poet who records, with empathy and sensitivity, the story of city and a culture, rather than an individual.