Growing up in Mississippi, I heard stories about two kinds of natural disasters, floods from the big river to our west and hurricanes from the Gulf of Mexico to our south. The big storms didn’t even need identifiers. There was no need to label Andrew as a hurricane. We already knew. We were on a first name basis.
Flood, J. Bruce Fuller’s remarkable new poetry chapbook, is evenly divided into two parts. The first section concerns itself with the great flood of 1927. All the stories of floods from my childhood linked back to that one. The threat of the Mississippi River was always there, in the west, and the threat was only meaningful because people could say, “Back in ’27…” The second section of the book takes on Katrina, a storm that will, I think, be the defining disaster reference for my child as she grows up, here in Louisiana. As I moved through the poems, I found myself returning again and again to a pair of lines from Fuller’s poem “The River is in Us”:
the seasons of our lives
pull back and forth like the tides.
That movement through time is vital to the book, but it’s also vital to the way that we interact with the events that alter our lives.
From the very start, Fuller balances the need for the river with its darker potential, writing in the title poem:
If she dries up
we wilt and brown
And if she is angry
her belly constricted
by our levees
she will erupt
silt like ash
In that first section, writing about the great flood, often in the voices of those who experienced it, Fuller makes a character of the river. She is a part of the narrative, acting with and upon the people we encounter. It makes that distant event more vital, and in a movement that I’m not quite sure how to articulate, it makes the events depicted in the book both more complex and more easily understood. There is a simplicity to the inexplicable. When Fuller’s levee men say, “What water will come, will come,” we are stunned by the clarity but also floored by the intricacies of nature.
It is fitting that the second section feels more intensely personal for Fuller. There is an immediacy to it, an urgency of experience that is necessary for the rawness of the material. Katrina was less than 10 years ago. Katrina is not an anecdote yet; it is a present event, still hammering away at those who lived through it. When the narrator of “Dixie Taverne” says, “I thought this place would always be home / But the times done changed and now she’s gone,” the weight of loss reverberates and echoes. Throughout the section, pieces of lives are scattered out, left behind, ruined by the force of the storm, by the breach of the levees. In the final poem, “Aubade,” the narrator’s neighborhood is described as a landfill, though he notes, urgently:
The piles of debris are nameless
but this is more than our trash,
these were our things.
Fuller invests those lost things – homes, memories, lives – with startling, heartbreaking power. Flood is a book about how easily our lives can be washed away, about what we are left with when the waters recede. This is no anecdote, no cautionary tale. It is a lamentation. We are lucky to have a poet of Fuller’s caliber to sing us this song.
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