Triumph of the Waters
A Review of Jerry W. Ward Jr.s' The Katrina Papers
by Reginald Martin
2007. UNO Press, 2007. (Paper, 234 pages, ISBN: 0-9728143-3-7)
"Make a living from your death, the old man cried."
-- Anne Sexton, The Death Notebooks, 1974
The structure of Jerry Ward's groundbreaking memoir is like a friendship, filled with furtive beginnings, a long middle of resolution in knowledge, tragedy, and then triumph via the bonds that make us survive together at all.
Ward's work opens mid-storm, on September 2, 2005, contemplating the social dysjunction that is being relegated from normalcy to the First Baptist Church Shelter "damn, the words don't want to come out of the pencil . . . that thousands of us have been abused by Nature and revenge is impossible." (11). Right away, Ward lets the reader know, that the existential for the displaced and traumatized exists in only one dyad: anger or suicide. Other acts-of-nature-spurred narratives come to mind, Camus' The Plague or Faulkner's The Wild Palms, but neither of these seminal works, I think, capture the complete and hopeless ennui of Ward's narrative. The very idea that the writer would begin working on the draft of this book-pieced together on scraps of notebook paper, napkins, any writeable surface he could find-during the very first full day of his confinement-for that is what it is, confinement by nature and the utter ineptness and malevolence of a "government" gone to Crawford, Texas-is a testimony not only to the strength of the writer, but to the strength of the structure of this eye-witness, self-lived horror script. By the time the reader gets to the "end" (for this horror is on-going for Ward, now, almost 3 ½ years after "the storm of the century") on August 29, 2006, the reader is as traumatized and weary as its narrator, desperately searching for answers to questions, questions of causation that cannot even be fully formed in such a situation-how could anyone ever have "answers"?
The Katrina Papers is more tactile than either Camus' fictional, origin-questioned plague, or Faulkner's response to the 1927 Delta flood, for Camus' malaise is merely metaphorical and Faulkner's narrative on real inundation pre-television. Thanks to television, we all lived the actual Katrina, again and again and again, with seemingly only one outsider, Sean Penn (a private citizen), willing to get in a boat and do all he could to influence the tragedy and not just "report" on it. "Reporting:" ghoulishly standing around with HD cameras doing nothing but talking and saying "Isn't this awful," is completely the opposite of the impetus of this lived-through narrative: Ward cannot report; he is the report, with his day-by-day, hour-by-hour, minute-by-minute first person experience:
"I. You Don't Know What It Means
Until Sunday, August 28, 2005
You defied Hurricane Ivan, but Hurricane Katrina makes you enter the I-10 contraflow traffic and flee New Orleans for Mississippi. Katrina is a 5, a force to retreat from. You hurriedly pack-vital documents, granola bars and water. [You did survive Vietnam], lock up the house and leave at 12:06 with a backward glance at John Scott's "Spirit House" on the corner of St. Bernard and Gentilly. Is Katrina a post-modern war goddess or God's agent come to punish New Orleans or Satan's gumbo, poisoning for Lake Ponchartrain? You don't clock the miles or the hours: New Orleans to I-55 North to MS 98 and Natchez ( no available rooms), Vicksburg (no rooms), Monroe, LA (not room), and back to a rest stop and fretful sleep after 15 hours of driving. Monday afternoon you find shelter, a much-needed hot shower, and food at the First Baptist Church Vicksburg. You had planned to teach Rousseau's The Social Contract this semester. You shall live it now as a "houseless" person among other displaced strangers . . . the Mississippi River looks like an attractive place to drown it all. Suicide becomes a preoccupation." (13)
The format choices scattered throughout Papers swirl like the hurricane 5 force that spawned them: letters, emails, disjointed journal entries, even poetry. The swirling almost contains the tragedy enough to appreciate just the efficacy of the text insertions-almost. Ward effortlessly floats from diary entry, to longer memoir, to letters, to poetic text, as though his battered psyche needs change to survive. Note this poem, composed in a larger paper from his fight to Grinell College at the height of the tragedy:
"After the Hurricanes"
Hope is not devoid of its deceit,
Nor immune to misleading into swamps.
Careful. Don't move left. Quicksand be there.
Don't move right. Gators will kiss you.
Learn from the fugitive enslaved.
Capture and coffle the cruel,
The arrogant, the mammon cold.
Send them on Middle Passages into the blues. (34)
The use of self-imposed distractions that Ward constructs for himself are the dead psychic giveaways of a personality in depression. The narrator-as-Ward rifts on movies he wants to see or is lucky enough to see; the music he would have listened to if his 3000 classic jazz and blues albums weren't covered with mold; things he should have done before the storm; the things he can never do afterward. Finally, distractions prove less than consoling, and the depression finally catches up to Ward after a night of casino visits fail him: he decides to commit suicide-by-police. He was, obviously, unsuccessful, but not completely: his tattered psyche, held together only by his worn body, is put into jail "overnight" for observation for attacking the police. The cure is worse than the disease: New Orleans' justice system in the wake of Katrina is non-functional, nonexistent, and an "overnight" stay turns into weeks in a post-Katrina jail cell where Ward quickly learns that the key linguistic choices of what is left of the New Orleans' populace are "motherfucker," "bitch," and . . . "wait."
One waits and waits in The Katrina Papers for some kind of expiation, some kind of resolution or redemption, but none of those come. Like FEMA, the deeply human, emotional expectations seem to exist for others, but not for our narrator. What does come at the end of The Katrina Papers is the logocentrically and stylistically derived belief in Ward as the most credible narrator of our most nationalistically revealing tragedy of the 21st century. What also comes at the end of The Katrina Papers is relief: that Ward lived and suffered category 5 for us, relief that it was not you.
Dr. Reginald Martin is Full Professor of Composition, Coordinator of African American Literature Programs, and Chair of Tenure and Promotion in the English Department at the University of Memphis. His most recent book is A Deeper Shade of Sex (Avalon, 2006)