Six Cajun Poets
LE COURIR DE MARDI GRASM Early in the morning all the men of the grand courir line up behind our leader, dressed in passion's red. In cone and cape, looking like a lost marauder of another time, he takes us through the countryside where we dismount at every house, raising clouds of dust. Beating out the tune. It is all triangle ring and squeeze box strain. Sometimes, even early in the day, we take our brothers in our arms as we sing and dance, forgetting we wear masks. We get caught up in the act. We are fire and air. We will not remember until tomorrow our separateness, and that we are also earth. CAUCHEMAR The children say it is mostly young Blacks here who are still caught by her. When she rides them, they become all victim, without voice to call for help, without legs to flee. And most, they say, still struggle to free the right hand to loose her hold with the holy sign as she screams and clutches them tighter still. Even Aaron, who boasts he likes her and waits for her, who says he'd never sleep with scissors or sharpened knives under his matress, who says he'd never ring the floor around his bed with newspapers – the poor old girl spending the whole night reading on the floor like that and wanting him so – even Aaron, who boasts to the others he joins her in the ravishing and in the morning licks like homemade ice cream the white mark her sex makes around his mouth, even Aaron, says she leaves him, too, alone, in darknesses that never fade completely in the light of day. OLD WOMEN FISHING FROM BRIDGES There is something about dropping a line into the unseen. Fishing we usually call it here. A mother fishes for clues to her children’s secretive lives in the piles of clothes they relinquish to her for laundering. Another mother occupies herself with other thoughts―too risky this fishing. She might catch much more than she knows what to do with. A boy fishes for the signals that keep promising to add up to something. Another takes ends of strings, all too willing to be the fish in these scenes. He will let an Ariadne pull him out of the maze. Easy work. He has only to respond to tug and taut in string. Some fishermen don’t know the first thing about waters they fish in. Some girls fish with their eyes, use other body parts when eyes don’t work. The really bold cast into the openness of heart, mind even. Some girls, boys learn to fish in the wine market, others in pots on stoves. My father-in-law liked the idea of having me in a boat for whole afternoons. On the way out to les Fordoches he pointed out the water moccasins sunning themselves in the Spanish moss clusters overhead, thick black coils in delicate gray nests. He pointed them out on fallen trees lying in the coffee-colored shallows at the front of his boat, and the small alligators too sleeping in the mud flats near the banks on either side. I saw to it that he liked the idea only once. My mother sees fishing as the making of things. Her table is full. The platters are steaming. Her children are happy. My father and I filet our catches of sheephead, redfish and speckled trout. We gut foot tubs of sac-a-lait, bream. Fishing for my mother is an ichthyophagous dream. But old women fishing from bridges fish mostly just for fish.
HUNTING ROCKS AT RIVENDELL What makes a keeper? Regular shape (this smooth oval with its lunar translucence will ride home in the dark of my pocket) or irregular (the angle of this dark one’s bend gives itself generously into hand for hours of thoughtless caressing). Often it’s the glint that gets attention: we bend or squat, turn it slowly in the flowing beam that’s found its way through trees all the way down to this muttering meandering rock-bottom stream before we throw it clattering back as the eye already roves among its brothers. Design (tight, parallel waves of agate) or texture (pale scars of an old warrior). We must come to such a place in judgment but how, after all, do we judge? Something outside speaks, something inside answers and so we know (as we are known by) what we throw away and what we keep. NAMING IT In the beginning God’s face loomed upon the water wearing its discriminating look: you be nighttime, you day. Out of a confusion of green each suddenly appeared at the sound of its name: cypress, sycamore, sweet gum, oak... All God’s creatures up and lined before the two-legged tongue-wagger at his God-appointed task: “uhh, bison; uhh, boa…” A slide down the vortex of seasons, the dial turning till the tumbler falls and the heavy door slowly opens: autumn, Eneise and I are shrimping Timbalier Bay. As the engine idles, we drag the heavy trawl across the unseen floor. The boat dips with extraordinary weight. From under blanket, nightmares netted drip and squint in the blinding sun, unimaginable monsters spill into the trough, whipping, kicking and clicking like castanets. Like shooting fish in a barrel, we knock them down with their own names and wonder how we feel about it. Is this pity? Pride? Hunger? Glee? In a drugstore, a child at the counter licks and considers: so this is fudge walnut! So this is eight years old! Could this, it occurred to me once, as I strained against my father’s hand to have again at my brother, be rage? AFTER THE STORM There was no other choice so it stormed. Rain drove its nails into the mulch. The wind slapped and beat things down. It happened as it had to. And what seems disorder now— limbs and branches strewn, a cypress freshly riven and bleeding, sudden pools where mosquitoes are already breeding—this is really the perfect order. Each leaf torn from tree found the spot only it could inhabit, placed as carefully by a maniacal wind as by a hand. Mere chance is impossible without possibilities. Here there are none. The egret standing in the shallow bog decides nothing―not its silent whiteness, not its delicate neck like the letter “s,” not its sudden strike: the dark water torn with furious quickness, a sparkling fish whipping in its beak. And the fish and fox and bullfrog also, never a chance to be what they’re not except in death which we are all so carefully becoming.
LAI (à la manière de Marie de France) When we drank the herbal wine, we didn’t realize the danger. Haunted by shame and guilt, we fled to the woods for a while. There you trimmed branches and vines, while I wove my hair tendrils into your shirt. Birds sang words that only lovers knew. Time flew. The I returned to the city, to duty, and you went to a strange land, married the one with white hands whose name was the same as mine. But dreams interfered, you later told me. Dreams of hazel and woodbine. CHILDREN AND A GREAT AUNT We called her Tante Amenthe. We never knew who he was or why she married him and by the time I knew her she had lost her hair, wore a red wig, always askew as though she had no time for such things. He died, leaving her a farm with animals in the middle of town. She took care of them wearing muddy oversized boots, carrying a stick to prod them along. There was a parrot in the dining room whose one line was, “Where’s Joe?” She had no children. In her coffin, she wore the red wig and we wondered if the boots were in there too. CLOISTERED ANNIVERSARY The chapel, brightly lit with its mosiac Christ above the altar, is cheerful. Flowers everywhere. As Mass begins, voices behind iron grillwork sing, Veni, Creator, amori mi, reminding me of the not so flawless chanting of our childhood, when you, ripped seams on a white blouse, hunched over notes at the organ, while I tapped my foot, pulled tones from a stretched throat. As the service ends, I follow the group to a reception room, where you stand behind the squares, thinner, face almost transparent in black habit to the floor, wearing a garland of large roses you have grown: yellow, pink, red. When it is my turn to say Hi, your eyes widen, mouth rounds in an Oh! breaks into a smile, and our fingers touch briefly the bars.
MARIE’S FOOTSTEP RHYTHM They say I change men into roosters with charms from the bayou in exchange for an instant. I say change and change alone is constant. And I told them, told them, told them to hold back. They say I walk the quarters in search of my victims. I say all I want is to wallow all night long in rhythm forever with each one one at a time. MORE POTENT THAN ENGLISH IVY The fiddlers used to bow down to Jolie. Now it is her sister who makes the cock crow and singers dribble baby talk. Eyes dilated with envie, Jolie trembles in the mirror at l’œil mauvais. The eye leads her to the Vieux Carré, to The Shadowway Shop on Bourbon. The Shadow is an artist with the needle. Jolie’s lips the canvas for what feels like fire ants stinging ink. Her mirrored mouth eating yellow butterflies. Coiling round her pretty chin a cobra swallows a thorny stem winding greenly up her jawline to the black rose on one cheek. On the other a fighting cockhead flourishes red-orange feathers at a lizard crawling up her little nose, its tail a delicate curl of blue around one swollen nostril. Jolie’s eyes smile now sans envie even while the needle sparks a nerve— she’ll be the one to bind the singer’s tongue and spin the fiddler’s head around when she steps out with her sister. WAKING UP WITH YOU You fill up dawn’s first vision your naked back a giantsize closeup blocking out the room the light the world the north and south poles your wings shoulders folded back in an elbow stretch of feathers and I am lost in a beak-spur-wattle smell too sharp to be covered up with soap or washed away with water from the tap while somewhere under the bed the floor the equator a big gray hen with bloodshot eyes is calling you. I watch fast now to catch your blur— it circles the bed filling the room barefeet slapping earth to drumbeat soundwaves bouncing wall to wall your eyes arcing lodestone current so tall your comb scrapes the ceiling so big you fill up my horizons so fast you are gone and I wake up alone my skin struggling not to feather.
PAPER BOAT As though we’d rehearsed it... our hands on the hairline of your forehead, the tips of your shoulders, your shins, ankles, the tops of your feet... With one ceremonial push, we launched you out the window, through the fog in the swamp, under the hidden moon. We urged you on, did not oppose the drift, as your breaths became labored and fewer then stopped. We let go of you, the way a small boy floats a paper boat in his back yard coulee, the space between the boat and him widening. MADAME GRANDS-DOIGTS ET LE ‘TIT CHRIST When I was a child in Louisiane, Mémère told me if I was rude, le ‘Tit Christ would weep. But if I was really wicked, Madame à grands bras à grandes mains à grands doigts would hold me in her gaunt grasp, pin my head on her lap, and scratch my eyes out. I never put such limits on Madame though, for I still see her long nails, like so many pitchforks, grating me forehead, breast, to toe, ripping my heart out on the way, and it looking like a big boulette with spaghetti dangling from it. When I had the fear of Madame in my soul, I always knew how dreadful it must have been for le ‘Tit Christ when He became a man, with those thorns and spikes drawing His blood. And it had to be something worse than the claw of Madame Grands-Doigts that pierced His side. THE BLUES CRYIN’ When snow covers the streets, the meadows, and the night is still, I hear the blues cryin’ all the way to spring. Yeah, hear the blues cryin’ all the way to spring. When I might just about dig a hole in the snow and bury myself alive, snow pounding over my body, I imagine the blues on my breast, with the brush of your tongue. Yeah, feel the blues, with the brush of your tongue. You know, it takes me off the freeway, the blues does, shoots me high, past the stars, to them planets, circlin’ ever so slow. Oh yeah! You know, I’m that Egytian goddess, my naked body stretched across the sky. [Stanza break] [Stanza break] And you, you that god flat on your back, callin’, callin’, but I don’t come down yet. No, I don’t come down yet. And then one day, like clockwork, our hands touch, and we burn through that snow. We are roots, running water, narcissus, black night, stars, planets, in one. Our solo builds up and when it ends, quiets down. Um hmm, when it ends, it just quiets down. Yeah, you know it quiets down. Um hmm, yeah!
CAJUN I want to take the word back into my body, back from the northern restaurants with their neon signs announcing it like a whore. I want it to be private again, I want to sink back into the swamps that are nothing like these clean restaurants, the swamps with their mud and jaws and eyes that float below the surface, the mud and jaws and eyes of food or death. I want to see my father's father's hands again, scarred with a life of netting and trapping, thick gunk of bayou under his fingernails, staining his cuticles, I want to remember the pride he took gutting and cleaning what he caught; his were nothing like the soft hands and clipped fingernails that serve us in these restaurants cemented in land, the restaurants nothing like the houses we lived and died in, anchored in water, trembling with every wind and flood. And what my father's mother knew: how to make alligator tail sweet, how to cut up muscled squirrel or rabbit, or wild duck, cook it till it was tender, spice it and mix it all up with rice that soaked up the spice and the game so that it all filled your mouth, thick and sticky, tasting like blood and cayenne. And when I see the signs on the restaurants, Cajun food served here, it's like a fish knife ripping my belly, and when I see them all eating the white meat of fat chickens and market cuts of steak or fish someone else has caught cooked cajun style, I feel it again, the word's been stolen, like me, gutted. SEARCHING FOR THE ANCESTORS Les parfums, les couleurs et les sons se répondent. —Charles Baudelaire I walk, almost lost on a tiny Black Mountain trail of a French summer, in this land ofOc, land of another way to say yes, land of Cathars and chestnuts, cassoulet and canard, land of grapes and wines that could pull me away from the path at any moment, bloody land of many wars, land of many dead, land of abandoned graves, land of ancestors, some of whom neither wrote nor read nor spoke my tongue. And yet, something stops me here. I, who am not religious, I who wish for faith but fail in it, I who trust logic above all though find no healing there, am struck by the whispering of something in the land itself— some sound of these cypress trees thousands of years old, these ghostly paths and crumbling stone fences, the perfume of this mountain air calling out, almost familiar, a voice of sound and color and smell— come, it says, soeur,cousine, filles de l’Amérique, bienvenue chez nous, welcome home. What else could I say to such a voice? I’m coming, I say. Oui, I say, Oc, I say, yes. From MIDNIGHT OIL how to speak of it this thing that doesn’t rhyme or pulse in iambs or move in predictable ways like lines or sentences how to find the syntax of this thing that rides the tides and moves with the tides and under the tides and through the tides and has an underbelly so deep and wide even our most powerful lights cannot illuminate its full body this is our soul shadow, that darkness we cannot own the form we cannot name and I can only write about it at night when my own shadow wakes me, when I can feel night covering every pore and hair follicle, entering eyes and ears, entering me like Zeus, a night I don’t want on me or in me, and I dream of giving birth to a rusty blob of a child who slithers out of me, out and out and won’t stop slithering, growing and darkening, spreading and pulsing between my legs darkening into the world . . . .