On What Cannot Be Written
Responses to Edward Sanders' Poems for New Orleans


Edward Sanders, investigative poetics pioneer, freedom fighter, founder & editor of Woodstock Journal, Guggenheim Fellowship recipient, American Book Award winner, and author of more than two dozen volumes of poetry, Ed Sanders recent publication of verse, Poems for New Orleans, is a book-length sequence on the history, past and present (Katrina and post-Katrina) of the great city of New Orleans. Paris Records has released a version with music produced by Mark Bingham.

Review by Megan Burns

Impossible to review this book of poems about my city, I stand too close to its emergence, to its history. I remember too clearly what it felt like to watch the news of New Orleans underwater and forgotten. In fact, I felt it again and anew reading the poems Ed Sanders wrote about the storm and its aftermath. The feeling has nothing to do with his poetry, but maybe everything to do with poetry.

Sanders' poems fill holes where I cannot wander. My fear and anger might blindside me if I were to speak and when I speak, and I do speak, my own language is colored with first-hand knowledge. Is it possible to step back from trauma, I wonder, and if so, would I ever stop stepping?

So his voice gives rise to others who have been silent up to now, silented. He is a better conduit, able to speak in more measured tones tales that would send me into a tailspin. Vague is what people say about the years following the storm, a blur, as though we were all spinning tops waiting for the inertia to break down. And this is not to say that there is not anger in these poems or their own amount of tears, but these are less poems about New Orleans than they are for New Orleans as the title tells us. For in our darkest hours, we need to be reminded not only where we come from but how far we have come.

I recall a woman saying that after the storm she could not recognize her face in the mirror, as if her own identity had been washed out. Reconstructing history is one way to solidify identity just as giving shape to pain creates edges, so we know how to tread carefully. Here is a map for you, New Orleans, so you know where to stand should the reflection falter. Before the storm, did we even question what it was to be heard? These poems call back, an echo from a cry begun three years ago: I am listening.

Remind us that Walt Whitman slept here. Dream for us that Blake walked these streets. Rage beside us in the face of ignorance and poverty and amid the abuses of politics. You think you know a thing, like a city, but when you really start looking you realize you know nothing at all. Or one day you wake up, and the world seems irreparably broken. Even words lose their effect; how do we ease our way back into our tongues? Are we called to language as we were after birth, by listening to what we need to know to survive?

The clichés are there: Voodoo priestesses, Mardi Gras, corrupt politicians and endless partying. We own these things as much as we own the dialect and the phrases that Sanders captures in his reconstruction of our citizens' stories. This is one person's intimate experience with this city stretching out in poems that cover centuries. From the lake to the river, this book is a love song that says in ugliness and disgrace; I still take you for these lyrics. Oh, to be wooed-isn't that what New Orleans needs most now?

Sanders calls New Orleans the "polis," a Greek term for "city-state", a government by the people effectively connecting New Orleans to a history beyond its own borders. What an apt definition in the wake of the flooding where citizens had to depend on each other, fighting to bring hope to their damaged neighborhoods. I often tell people had ordinary volunteers not come by the thousands, there would be no New Orleans. There is no government body that can replace the individual bodies that gutted homes and put back together lives with their generous and seemingly tireless hands. New Orleans is built mostly on generosity and all that is truly resilient and good in human beings.

In poems about water, Poseidon appears and other Greek entities speak for our city. In Sanders' poems New Orleans merges with myth, and the speaker's role is linked to the Homeric tradition giving voice to tales that must never be forgotten. Here, the poet claims, is history as precious as the story of a war or a hero's long return, here is the song of city reborn.

Megan Burns holds an MFA from Naropa University and edits the poetry magazine, Solid Quarter (solidquarter.blogspot.com). She has been most recently published in Callaloo, Constance Magazine, and YAWP: a Journal of Poetry & Art as well as online at horseless press, shampoo, trope_5, Exquisite Corpse and BigCityLit. Her book Memorial + Sight Lines was published in 2008 by Lavender Ink. She lives in New Orleans where she and her husband, poet Dave Brinks, run the weekly 17 Poets! reading series (www.17poets.com).