NYU Black Renaissance Noire Winter 2014 - Page 55

Already “whiplashed” points to a sudden jerk of the body and the lash of a whip. The phrase “sold-off,” used to describe the selling of the marshlands, also carries with it the memory of people being “sold-off” on the auction block at “slave” markets. The word “off” here also implies fragmentation and distance from the state or place of origin. “…whiplashed over the sold-off marshlands…” To me the phrase conjures the construction of the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet. The destruction of people and land for the sake of commerce, market, capital. The “salt-water” that erodes the marshlands, might also conjure the Middle Passage crossings. We remember, New Orleans was a critical port city during the trans-Atlantic “slave” trade and had the largest “slave” market in the domestic “slave” trade. And so, when we talk about water and New Orleans, the history of its people is always present and pulsing beneath the line’s ink horizon: This imagery establishes that the poem’s readers are also the viewers of this catastrophe, perhaps aligned with “the great turbulent eye” — surely connecting the eye of the Hurricane (that place of relative calm) to the eye or gaze of the poet and the readers. There is a complicated tension here between the documentation of disaster and the voyeuristic impulse. This tension implicates or, at least, troubles the calm or detachment of the reader. Its repetitions. The word “already” haunting line 13 and the last line, reminding us that “this” has happened before. In this case, the poem haunts, and is haunted by, the in-between space — the bodies and forms, unfurling. I think of the gauzy genitalia as potential for reproduction and pleasure, except that they are dangling from trees, which also insinuates death, the brutality of lynchings, strange fruit and the pastoral scene. The lines make me ask, Are we witnessing a creation story or a death story? And might these two stories be the same? Especially in this context of nation building as we know it. Later, in the poem’s last written lines (I say “last written lines” because the ellipses implies incompletion or language staggering at the white space of silence), we come to “the gauzy genitalia of Bacchus/ & Zulu left dangling from magnolias & raintrees/ already”. We realize we are reading ruins. Layers of architecture and the absented species of birds and song. Bad weather has exposed the history of the place. Then enters Bacchus, the liberator, the god of the ecstatic, of wine and music and dance. Son of Zeus and a mortal. Half-divine. Androgynous. Communicant between the living and the dead. Twice-born. Again, the straddling of worlds. + When we reach the phrase from line five, “the Crescent City was already shook down to her pilings”, we see that Komunyakaa is pointing to the catastrophe, violence, decay as a result of both Hurricane Katrina and governmental neglect of the place and violent disregard of its people. Not only this, though, Komunyakaa is also pointing readers to consider the material that created this place, its beginning, its infrastructure (“her floating ribs, her spleen & backbone”). The anatomy of the human is inextricable from the anatomy of the city. Both are vulnerable, splayed, publicly dying. 53 “for how long/ i was [x] between worlds” BLACK RENAISSANCE NOIRE To read the poem is to read the seam of history, a time between water and atmosphere. +