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