I of the Storm by Bill Lavender
(New Orleans: Trembling Pillow Press, 2006)
Review by William Allegrezza
Bill Lavender's I of the Storm starts and ends with very different tones. The beginning poems are gossipy, Southern story-styled poems that seem like a mix of the New York School, David Antin, and Ignatius J. Reilly. They have a quick pace and are filled with humor and commentary that starts off local and grows. The last two sections of the book dramatically change because they are a record of and response to Hurricane Katrina. They trace Lavender's experience of the hurricane from being in New Orleans when it hit, to fleeing the city, to worrying about friends, and finally to returning. The entire book has that raw type of Antin feel; the second poem in the book is even a meditation on Antin's writing and Lavender's poetics, but the end poems pull us from the raw meditation on average life in New Orleans to what happens when everything changes dramatically before your eyes so much so that in context simple lines become charged with meaning, such as
hard to believe
this is only the second night.
lying in bed
we hear the frogs
just like on the river.
It's easy to respond deeply to the Katarina poems in this collection, especially after reading the first part of the book, for in the first part we are welcomed as voyeurs spying over Lavender's shoulder at an active poetry scene in New Orleans before the hurricane hits. We hear the gossip--poets in the Quarter drinking and talking about poetry, lamenting over the poetry scene and complaining of jobs. We also overhear Lavender writing about his own past and of local issues in the city. One such issue that seems amplified is from the third poem in the book, a poem in which Lavender meditates on a new bar moving into his neighborhood, about how he was initially worried about the noise and nuisance but changes to liking the bar when it opens because it just seems like a great place to hang out. His meditations lead him to talk about the nature of fear in the neighborhood, about how having the bar brings people together, and about how the bar lets people bring dogs into it:
that set me wondering about the whole issue
with the hood like all this neighborhood watch
and crap like that's really nothing but saying no dogs
allowed in the bar so maybe the problem wasn't
the hood and what we needed wasn't a crime watch
but an attitude adjustment and then the bar seemed
just the thing for that.
On its own, this poem provides an interesting commentary on societal fear, but the poem becomes even more interesting in the context of the book because by the end, we realize that the nice urban scene that we read about, the bar with the dogs on the floor, might be gone, totally wiped away by the hurricane, and that all of the people we overhear in the beginning are scattered by the end. Seeing this first hand from Lavender's account strengthens our sense of loss. In the beginning poems we experience life in New Orleans; in the end poems we see Lavender at random moments shedding tears.
This collection is fascinating for its lyrical language and variety of subjects. Having lived near New Orleans for several years, I found the book very moving, but with Lavender's approach and welcoming style, this book should be of interest to anyone. The book points to the past vivacity of poetic New Orleans and hopefully to its future.
Musician, sailor, poet, critic--William Allegrezza teaches and writes from his base in Chicago. His poems, articles, and reviews have been published in several countries, including the U.S., Holland, Italy, Finland, the Czech Republic, and Australia, and are available in many online journals. Also, he is the editor of moria, a journal dedicated to experimental poetry and poetics, and the editor-in-chief of Cracked Slab Books. His e-books and books include The Vicious Bunny Translations, Covering Over, Temporal Nomads, Ladders in July, and In the Weaver's Valley. He occasionally posts random thoughts on his blog p-ramblings.