Before the levees break, only the sound of the wind
relentless as a freight train, glass shatter, and the rain, always the rushing rain.
Before the levees break, you know water.
Here where you are born, raised to the river, scent of magnolias
the last lingering note of a jazz tune.
Here where you drink in this thickness
with your first gulp for gulf air, carry it rich in your blood.
Before the levees break you are getting prayed up,
prayed up to God, and God please, God please, God please.
You fill up your tub with tap water, as instructed.
Let me be a vessel.
When the levees break with a boom, boom, boom,
You think they may have been blown up by the army.
It has been done before and after all, if they can kill
a president, rig an election, or two, how hard
to drown a few thousand poor black people?
When the levee is breached by some hulking mass of barge,
an unexpected nightmare birth and water breaking
the levees break with water you climb
and pray, climb and pray higher:
your top step, your first floor window ledge, your attic, your roof.
your sign: The water is rising — help us please!
When the copters fly by you wave
a red flag, a white flag, your help us please.
When the levees break the holidaying rich find it ironic.
Humanity Street is flooded, and the Circle Food Store is underwater.
When the levees break your neighbour floats
for three days, strapped to some beer kegs.
You tell him to stay strong, he’ll make it,
try to pass him some food, but you can’t reach
can’t swim, and another body floats by.
When the levees break, not just the levees break1
The truth pulled taut and thin snaps, an over-stretched elastic band
skipping lies and rumours, across dark waters
like flat, sharp stones, lodging in the vigilante heart.
When the levees break, herded in the Superdome like cattle in
some floundering land-locked ark.
No food, no water, no medicine (no rape, no murder, no mayhem).
Only the spirit of the people clapping it up
Your song and praise, shining, This little light of mine
and the big lovin brother who leads the parade.
When the levees break with a boom, boom, boom in Algiers,
spitting out white fear, untruth, racism with the buckshot,
they are hunting young black men for sport, like pheasant.
When the levees break, you, a vessel in the water
with a tire, an old door, refrigerators, your cousin’s boat
pulling the people, up and out, up and out
You, who stayed with your grandparents, saving.
But too late for Eddy, the guy next door
a body floating by, swolled up
two times larger than life.
When the levees break, you got nowhere to go
Stranded on an overpass, passed over, turned away at gunpoint.
Everywhere water: too much and not enough–
the tub you filled, washed away with your house–
And anything for a drop of rain on the tongue, a drop
of water that never comes.
When the levees break in Algiers
they are shooting young black men for sport, like pheasant.
When the levees break, not just the levees break
Your disappointed question, Where is my government?
Shopping, tasting, on the ranch: Gourmands Gone Fishing.
The despicable Bush, despicably absent
tells jokes, plays air guitar, looks out the window.
And nothing from FEMA, no drop
of water from FEMA, Fuck FEMA.
After the levees break, the buses that never come:
folks lined up on the sidewalk, cracking in the sun
waiting for days and four days waiting.
Pinning a note with your name and number
to your Mama slumped
dead in her wheelchair, waiting.
Though you push her body aside
she will always be waiting
slumped beside you.
After the levees break, not just the levees break
The violence of your rescue, ripped in two, four, six
on the block, refugeed away from home.
You in Utah, Oklahoma, Texas, your sister in Colorado.
And your precious child, where is your precious child?
After the levees break, you don’t know where you’re at
which pile of rubble is your house, which row of piles your street,
the corner where the old men drank their beer.
The insurance company offer: more money for your shed than your home.
You take pills to turn off your dreams, but they don’t work.
How you will find yourself, weeping.
After the levees break, the mourning after, your return
Here to the slow side shuffle step
the jazz funeral dirge down debris’d streets
Here where the Hot 8 Brass Band danced
the 2nd line parade in joy.
Here to the beat of the Mardi-Gras Indian drum
your return, your rebuild, your revive2
Years later as I watch your levees break,
Dry on the screen, not just your levees break
Mine break too.
Let me be a vessel.
1 – See Not Just the Levees Broke: My Story During and After Hurricane Katrina, Phyllis Montana-Leblanc
2 – See When the Levees Broke, Spike Lee
By Daphne Paszterko, March 20, 2011.
I wrote this poem to process, and to recognize the images and stories of Katrina survivors (mostly as depicted in When the Levees Broke which I found to be a very powerful and disturbing film). I find that writing a poem can help me to express how I feel about a situation. I often have questions (as I do in this case) if a poem is always fitting, especially with a catastrophic event like Katrina. I also worry about appropriating voice, and the problems of trying to represent/capture someone else’s experience. So in the end this poem can only be incomplete, just me relating to others’ stories. – Daphne
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