Chapter 16
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"Before the Flood: A Solo From New Orleans"

Diann Blakely, a graduate of both the University of the South and Vanderbilt University, is the author of three poetry collections. While still a work in progress, Cities of Flesh and the Dead, from which this poem is excerpted, won the Poetry Society of America’s Alice Fay Di Castagnola Award.

Before the Flood: A Solo From New Orleans

Crossing Lake Ponchartrain, vertiginous, my hands gripped the wheel,
       And—I’d have sworn it—
The bridge beneath me swayed as a dented maroon Buick passed,
       Radio blaring,
Back seat crammed with children, the Madonna stuck on its dashboard
       Clutching a horseshoe
Of roses. Homelife closing in, I’d scrimped for this day away,
       Not expecting haze,
Heat already swathing the smelly narrow streets, their beer joints

And souvenir shops selling masks half-price after Mardi Gras.
       And not expecting
A clerk’s “Don’t go past Dauphin, don’t go out alone at night” when
       I asked directions.
Wary at noon, I skittered down Bourbon, darting from strippers
       In round-the-clock bars,
Tassels swinging on their siliconed, sweat-beaded breasts, again
       When I saw a man
On his knees at the corner of St. Ann begging for mercy;

The same cry I heard at mass in St. Louis Cathedral, where
       A woman dusk-skinned
As Jeanne Duval sobbed the response, her accent thick as coffee,
       Which I sipped for lunch,
Skimming a secondhand Baudelaire. Such willing confusions
       Of love and disgust:
Ruby-like nipples, syphilis blooming inside her. Hooves clopped
       As a guide retold,
To couples lapsed in his buggy, the history of the conveny

And its nuns behind stucco walls—but I’d prayed already, purged
       To bone in shelter
And safety, and now zydeco percussed, delta blues wafted
       Around the statues
In Jackson Square; a young mother balancing a cherub-cheeked,
       Drooling baby dealt
Tarot cards and told my life-story so truly I tipped her
       Ten dollars with hands
That shook, then walked smack into two men swapping small envelopes,

Their knife-like stares no match for the Lady of Situations,
       Her stern-eyed blessing
From a card that explained a past, while confirming the future
       Was mine. “When I leave
This town. …,” but not yet, though the cathedral bell struck its hour;
       I reversed my steps
To sprawl on grass, sniff azaleas, watch a film-shoot. Humid skies
       Haloed the city;
A man asked me directions as if I lived there. “When I leave,”

“Cocaine, lady?,” “Want a good time, lil’ sister?”—if I answered,
       Would I remember
These swells and surges back home, allow them to transform a life
       I can’t bid farewell?
And how can we belong anywhere except by peeling shrimp
       And drinking cheap beer
Before divining the way back to our hotels, blurred copies
       Of Baudelaire’s poems?
Pigeons’ stupid cooing finally woke me; I rushed to make

The check-out time, filling two cracked glasses to rinse my parched mouth
       And throwing matches,
A sweaty nightgown in my duffle. Nearing the bridge, which looked
       More solid, somehow,
Than before, I pulled over, seeing a procession circle
       Raised white tombs then stop,
Jewelling one with flowers, and I joined a woman who opened
       Her throat to echo
And to celebrate loss in that city of flesh and the dead.