from The Burning of New Orleans

Crowds were gathering at every landing
far enough upriver from the bonfires
to be safe, while riverboats were loading
twice as many passengers as legal—
groups of children, women, and their servants,
each with his or her own rucksack.
As though they had practiced this migration
often, they were orderly and quiet,
boarding the boats systematically.
Telling me this, Bressie started crying:
“Like the others, I was hypnotized
by those clouds of smoke above the water
drifting from the north, by that red twilight
in the distance, glimmering, the stupor
of the panicked families and servants
edging to the landings where the steamers
one by one, received their lifeless cargo.
Where did we think we were going, David?”
After pausing, she continued, “Naked,
as we loaded on that steamer, naked.
Yet not caring what we seemed to strangers.
Horror tears one’s manners off, like clothing.
All was sauve qui peut. Yet not a child,
not a child made a sound—no crying,
no complaining—we were all too frightened,
too ashamed, too numb to take much notice.
Somewhere in our mass imagination
all of us had made this journey, felling
from the sanctuary of our houses
into nowhere . . .
I remember walking
what was an ordinary evening
maybe six months earlier, with Helen,
down St. Charles to the Tivoli.
It was breezy, not quite cool for October,
and the omnibus approached the circle
where fifteen or twenty people got off
to disperse. But suddenly the wind stirred,
knocking from the men and several women
their hats—bonnets of every description,
derbies, caps, and scarves—in all directions.
I held on to mine, but Helen’s blew off,
tumbling toward the gutter. She was outraged!
Funny, I remember all this better
than that night we left New Orleans.
Anyway, I watched the crowd in panic
lunge for hats and bonnets, desperately
like a flock of headless chickens, tripping
over curbstones, arms extended, grasping
at the empty air, as hats continued flying
wildly and free. I started chasing
any hat that blew near me, my body,
Helen’s body, all our bodies running
bare, as though the wind had ripped our clothes off,
not our hats alone. And we weren’t chasing,
we were dancing, we were marionettes
dangling mindlessly beneath the clouds
who tugged at us with their long strings. Diving
after some poor woman’s feathered bonnet,
I fell to the ground. My skirts went flying
like a flower blossom in the cold wind,
but I wasn’t injured. Then with both lips
I pressed lightly on the ground. I kissed it!
No one noticed, I don’t think, but after,
after, I got up and went to Helen,
after we’d chased down what hats we could
and returned home, I could not but wonder
why I hadn’t looked more closely at them,
all those undressed bodies, dancing, dancing
gloriously underneath that white sky.
Later, when I saw them on that steamer,
those same bodies, children now, and women,
but still naked strangers, I was thinking,
this is how it is when we’re together—
not quite visible, yet not quite nothing.
Were we not together, we’d be nothing,
yet together we remain in darkness.
How can we see who we are? I ask you,
how can we see who we are?”

I held her.
But I couldn’t understand her. Furies,
help me. Tear away my hat and clothes.
Tear from me this staid imagination.
Lift my arms and legs and break me, break me.
Memory, stay near and permeate me:
Like the puppeteer, you must create me,
let me dance with truth, confusion blindness,
histories, fidelities, and kindness.

John Gery
from his book Davenport’s Version
Portals Press, 2003
Used by permission of the poet.

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About John Gery

John Gery has a M.A. in English from Stanford and has been a professor at the University of New Orleans since 1979. He has written 8 books of poetry to date. His collection of poems, The Enemies of Leisure, received a Critic's Choice Award from the San Francisco Review of Books and was named a Best Book of 1995 in poetry by Publisher's Weekly.

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