Evening Will Come: A Monthly Journal of Poetics (Issue 67, April 2017)

Jon Riccio
Chaos Control: Persona and Received Form in Patricia Smith’s Blood Dazzler

Hurricane Katrina appeared halfway through a decade that saw immediacy as a language of uploads and crawls. These platforms served constant notice while levees buckled and lives drowned, photojournalism compounding the impact, material from which a travesty poetics formed. “I didn’t see Katrina as purely a regional event, but a human one,” Smith says in a forthcoming interview with this writer on The Volta Blog. “The disaster made it all too clear just what our country is capable of — the blatant dismissal of poor, mostly brown people in a time of crisis.” She wasn’t alone, as various poets wrote responses to and collections based on the hurricane, including Andrei Codrescu and Raymond McDaniel, who alongside Smith released Katrina volumes in 2008. Of these, Smith’s Blood Dazzler received the most recognition when it was named a National Book Award finalist. Blood Dazzler presents a sectionless chronology over a series of news updates, voodoo incantations, and first–hand accounts of New Orleanians fleeing, dying, and deceased, in addition to commentary from Katrina herself.

It is through the dichotomy of victim and villainess that Blood Dazzler essays the hurricane and its aftermath using persona and received form. Smith reiterates a mass destruction during the information age, the poems’ speakers imparting data with a storyteller’s gleam. Her personification of Katrina as an actual woman offers an unexpected entry point, affording the storm “the ability to be vulnerable, fierce, remorseful, arrogant, weary, and vengeful,” Smith states. Blood Dazzler serves as a poetry landmark in which constraints transcend expectations through kinetic language and nuanced depths among a people whose walls are slithering with “Bayou spit,” casualties sipping breath “from that filthy ocean.”

                                                     Datum and Mask

In his article “Catching Holy Ghosts: The Diverse Manifestations of Black Persona Poetry,” Howard Rambsy II writes of Smith’s slam performances: “Smith presents an oratorical approach that draws on such vast expressive modes as black drama and sermonic tradition.” He categorizes her as an artist who imitates jazz, blues, and the amplified utterances of female parishioners possessed by the Holy Ghost. The last entry best applies to Smith’s reading style, the fervor of her words demonstrating Smith’s prowess in a genre often associated with its similes and sonic bravado. Smith writes of spirit–catching in her 1991 poem “Pretending the Ghost” (30) from Life According to Motown: “for the rest of the service/ she’d be rocking like The Temptations/ and whispering in some alien tongue. My mother no more, my mother still.” Church aside, Smith looked to Greek mythology and an America divided during her initial forays into persona, as seen in the poems “Medusa” (4) and “Skinhead” (Big Towns, Big Talk; 67).

“Medusa” offers a glimpse of the physical descriptions and empowerment ramifications that feature prevalently in Smith’s Katrina poems: “Now my feet are tangled with hair, my ears are gone./ My back is curving and my hips have grown numb./ My garden boy just shattered at my feet.” The gender act: one woman, Athena, punishing another. The transgression: “Poseidon was easier than most.” In “Skinhead,” Smith perfects her subject’s ability to self–depict: “They call me Skinhead, and I got my own beauty./ It is knife–scrawled across my back in sore, jagged letters,” the narrator missing three fingers due to a machinery accident, his origin–by–admission: “I’m your baby America, your boy,/ drunk on my own spit, I am goddamned fuckin’ beautiful.” Smith’s combination of body and backstory gives her speakers a fleshed–out credibility, the “I” assessing selfhood in ways second– and third–person cannot. The skinhead’s conviction “I was born to make things right” foreshadows Katrina’s rationale for the carnage she causes: “I/ have never heard a prayer/ that began with my name,/ gave me pause,” Smith’s personae infused with an assuredness that bombards the page.

Per the first poem’s timestamp (one in a sequence of five), Blood Dazzler begins at “5 P.M., Tuesday, August 23, 2005” (1). A four–line epigraph concerning low–pressure areas relayed by the National Hurricane Center links us to the crawl–speak popularized by media outlets. The storm’s origin commences with “A muted thread of gray light” widening “with the want of it.” She’s slow to embody, but Katrina’s thoughts reveal a praise requirement, an ocean icon given to manifestos letting it be known that “every woman begins as weather,” the book’s first salvo into gender — the choice of “woman” over “lady” (too refined) or “female” (too biological) anchoring this persona with the weight that word holds. Clichés about the right woman for the job and a woman scorned resonate with Smith’s earlier quote about her decision to gender Katrina. The poem closes with the storm’s less–than–enthused state causing none but the brine to shiver.

The epigraph in “11 A.M., Wednesday, August 24, 2005” (3) reveals Katrina’s name, this component paraded in a meteorological cotillion showcasing her power to grant death over life (“Now I can do/ my own choking.”). One could read this poem’s construction of a quatrain and three couplets as an amassment followed by disbursals, Katrina exhaling, her boredom supplanted by the grimness that awaits. Smith’s stanzas aid in the pacing as Katrina takes her first steps, a grown woman all of two days old. Similar to “Skinhead,” the formerly inchoate Katrina has found her life’s mission.

“5 P.M., Thursday, August 25, 2005” (4) pares its epigraph down to one–and–a–half lines, relaying the upgrade from tropical storm to hurricane. The “I” melds its declaratory tone with the observational: “My eye takes in so much —/ what it craves, what I never hoped to see,” Smith’s juxtaposition of the figurative ocular with the hurricane’s literal eye telescoping the detail. The first stanza (six lines) gives insight to the sociopathology of weather, the ego behind a woman set on the world’s unraveling, her reason driven by the single word of line seven: “hungers.” Smith’s verbs carry the poem in a calculated direction: craves, spies, hunt, Katrina the pursuer with her all–seeing eye, the weatherly/physical duality ripened in the last lines:

The eye

pushes my rumbling bulk forward,

urges me to see

what it sees.

There’s a visual element working between the paratactic and hypotactic line lengths, “rumbling bulk forward” snaggletoothing out to convey a sloppy, yet unrelenting momentum that gnaws into the fourth poem, “7 P.M., Thursday, August 25, 2005” (5), its epigraph scaled back to the six–word “Hurricane Katrina makes landfall in Florida.” The I/eye interplay continues over the space of 24 words divided into two columns, the left one devoted to a quartet of senses: see, taste, feel, and hear, the right one detailing Katrina’s first meal of soil and brick that forms an earthen opiate, leading to her declaration that she wants it all. Save for the words language and splintering, the poem is written entirely monosyllabic, the left–column’s verb “want” trumping scent, the sole “I” at the beginning. The single letter’s occupancy of the upper–left hand corner is made all the more ruthless by the columnar effect, Smith’s choice to forgo punctuation adding to the rapaciousness, as if a period would have any bearing on Katrina’s point of no return.

Her mythology explodes in “8 A.M., Sunday, August 28, 2005” (11), the epigraph disclosing Katrina’s Category 5 storm rating, the highest. Whatever sparseness existed in the poem prior, Smith obliterates with meatier stanzas and longer lines to announce Katrina’s attainment of star status. Stanza one is crafted with the jolting physicality of such verbs as crammed, dangled, and snapped, its last line returning to the importance of naming. Stanza two opens with Katrina musing on her place in the calamity–verse (“Could there be other weather,/ other divas stalking the cringing country/ with insistent eye?”), divas connoting a haughty sentience, the only word that fits Katrina’s self–perception. Not content to share the spotlight with other disasters, we see her ego fully developed with the transition into stanza three, a tercet of anticipation wondering if her praise day has come to fruition with “all my fists at once.” The fourth stanza marks the strongest gendering of the sequence, Katrina referring to herself as “officially a bitch.” She churns insult into rank while reflecting on her life before Category 5: “all I’ve ever been is starving, fluid, and noise” — infantile traits discarded for the ownership of bitch. The next line, “So I huff a huge sulk, thrust out my chest,” contrasts her feminine with the masculine, thrust a mimicry of manhood, our aggressor usurping the body language of male dominance, though the words huff and sulk allow Katrina a shimmer of divadom that enjoys the best of both binaries. Note the reversion to the feminine in the last two lines: “Scarlet glare fixed on the trembling crescent,/ I fly.” Flight, possibly conflated with witchcraft in a locale approaching New Orleans, known for its voodoo priestesses, the adjective scarlet traditionally a female–associated color (scarlet lips, Hester Prynne’s scarlet letter), the word’s earlier appearance in Blood Dazzler’s prologue describing a drag queen’s shoe.

This five–poem sequence surpasses its introductory function, its stake in the ground a heralding of weather womanhood, the torrential word acoustics accompanying the hurricane’s description not unlike the wails of Rambsy’s churchwomen. Katrina emerges from a crèche of Doppler data to create a mythology far more demanding than Mother Nature, that personification an archetype, itself parodied in the 1970s Chiffon Margarine commercials warning the viewer “it’s not wise to fool Mother Nature.” In Katrina, Smith relinquishes all traces of the maternal, her persona an Athena sprung from oceanic depths, though not without Pandora–like moments of curiosity: “Could there be other rain . . . ” followed by ferocity to remind us who’s in power: “. . . laced with the slick flick of electric/ and my own pissed boom?” Katrina’s I/eye is as hungry as it is expansive. “I knew no one would expect to hear a storm speak, and I needed her to help make sense of the chaos,” Smith says. Unlike Medusa who is confined by her monstrosity, and the skinhead who terrorizes under “the stark circle of a streetlight,” Katrina traverses the land, sea, and air, a fatale of FEMA proportions, all pretense and catching dropped when a woman makes her own ghosts.

Katrina later addresses us in “Their Savior Was Me” (58), a rebuttal to victims who cried out to the wrong deity, choosing Him over her. Steeped in opprobrium (“Now, everything that breathes/ knows my given name, the full of it.”), Katrina’s reached a level of omnipotence capable of discerning the beseeched. Breaking from her destructor mantle, one of the only times she does so, Katrina confesses there are moments where she’ll show mercy, but immediately repeats her penchant for death, lest we think she’s softened her mask. Katrina retells her origin, the Doppler incubator dropped for a new parentage of “a bluesman and an ocean.” The persona consumes reinvention, identity experiments are how she passes her non–killing time. This tendency to origin–switch would grow tiresome in the hands of a lesser poet, though Smith sustains Katrina’s twists through contrasts in poem length, weather descriptions, gender–play, and moments of revelation, different than admission. To be feared or worshipped — Katrina has her doubts as to which guarantees the longevity she craves. Smith delves into the lyric ego through monologues of brutal ascent, the hurricane’s trial run at goddesshood measured in corpses, the notion of anonymity aberrant in a poetry that threads the wanton with the intricacies of an “I” that “strives to know waltz, hesitation,/ small changes in sun.”

Smith’s “I” is strongest in multi–stanza works which give the impression of trying to contain the narrator, an impossible task, the alternating line lengths like twigs Katrina could easily snap. Chaos overtook uniformity as of “5 P.M., Tuesday, August 23, 2005.” Symmetry of persona never stood a chance. We encounter this jagged lineation in other Katrina–related persona poems by Smith’s contemporaries, including Andrei Codrescu’s “the coffee house philosophers” (Jealous Witness; 30), a punctuation–free, stanzaless work about the middle class vanished in Katrina’s wake (“we sit in coffee houses telling our stories over’ n’ over/ like crickets in the summer grass/ we’ll flee from you like bees from dying clover”). Christine Rhein’s similarly stanzaless “Imagining Her Letter” (Wild Flight; 69) is in the voice of a woman who survived eight days afloat on a mattress, gratitude moving her to pen a letter to the president of Stearns and Foster, their extra–firm model having withstood Katrina’s wrath. These survivors reflect on loss in the bodies of unbroken poems, the only intactness they’ll know for months and years to come. Smith is the sole poet who speaks for Katrina, her willingness to push the boundaries of persona resulting in an “I” that succeeds in its suspension of disbelief.

Katrina’s farewell is a nine–line poem bearing her namesake (76), a confession offered as justification for her actions: “I was a rudderless woman in full tantrum,/ throwing my body against worlds I wanted,/ I never saw harm in lending that ache.” Katrina’s raison d'être is an ambition that grew out of hand, each facet built on the bedrock of transgression, her final elasticizing of mythology “Kept to oceans, feeding only on salted water,” as if she were a kraken spun into legend by pre–sonar man. Katrina’s parting words may be her closest inkling of contrition: “All I ever wanted to be/ was a wet, gorgeous mistake,/ a reason to crave shelter,” gorgeousness in the hurricane eye’s beholder. Shelter, one of the three basic necessities, is a word that denotes safety, stability, a tonal shift among the aspirant/destructor duality throughout the book, this monologue — occurring before the last poem, aptly titled “Voodoo VIII: Spiritual Cleansing & Blessing” — one of pseudo–vulnerability that leaves no room for saline in the mask.

                                                 A Widened Reception

“Form is a device in my toolbox, accessible to me when it’s needed. Chaos becomes something other when it’s controlled,” Smith says of the constraints that populate Blood Dazzler’s ghazal, tankas sequence, sestina, and abecedarian poem. Received form is nothing new to Smith, her first sonnet “Reconstruction (For Rodney King)” featured in 1993’s Close to Death (its volta “Let’s rejoice as human returns to human” a haunted pivot when one considers the dedicatee), followed by the sparser sonnet “Little Poetry” in Teahouse of the Almighty (2006). We find another formal entry, “Hip–Hop Ghazal,” in the July/August 2007 issue of Poetry, republished in Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah, a collection that closes with a “Motown Crown” of sonnets.

Timing, as they say, is everything. The formal poems in Blood Dazzler, Smith’s thesis at Stonecoast, could easily be attributed to the fact that, by her own admission, the M.F.A. was focused on “mastering the language and form of metrics.” Today’s coursework is tomorrow’s manuscript; form, another outlet by which the storyteller excels. There is a larger notion put forth in Elizabeth Alexander’s article “New Ideas About Black Experimental Poetry” that the increased visibility of form in black writers’ work stems from the collective, albeit unspoken, decision to break down the barriers of “received forms that have not included us,” to “wrestle with them and make them our own and new,” a call to join the mantle held by white writers, meeting and innovating on language’s terms. Alexander knows of what she speaks, her sonnet–driven Miss Crandall’s School of Young Ladies and Little Misses of Color co–written with Marilyn Nelson in 2007, a year before Blood Dazzler’s release. Alexander’s theory gains momentum on examination of books by black poets post–Blood Dazzler. Evie Shockley’s the new black (2011) contains ten formal poems, a gigan, acrostic, and bop among them, before concluding on a near–sonnet crown. The second section of A. Van Jordan’s The Cineaste (2013) consists of a 39–page sonnet sequence titled “The Homesteader” (47). Perhaps it took a launch pad like Blood Dazzler, in formalist conversation with such poets as Alexander and Afaa Michal Weaver (creator of the bop), to widen the reception of “received,” Smith adding to the collections built on form’s latticework.

An eight–couplet iteration of the Arabian form of the same name, Smith’s “Ghazal” (16) is a tableau of Katrina’s effect on the lives of B–boys, mothers, children, and those whose storm–inspired transportation consists of cardboard boxes. Each group reacts in their own way: the inaugural trickle causes the boys to cancel their basketball game, the younger children treat it as a welcome distraction at first. Only when Smith writes the ghazal’s adults do we encounter Katrina the weather–monger, as mothers desperately gather their families to rooftops, weeping out of terror and loss. The less fortunate, evicted by floodwaters, become a recurrent sight on television screens. “Hear” in the opening couplet’s refrain “hear rain” is rhymed with near, fear, shear, clear, mere, tear, and disappeared, the homophonic substitution of “reign” appearing in couplet five. Faithful to her meter, Smith sustains the 14/14 syllable count through each couplet. Alternating between verb tenses, she allows the reader to zoom in and out as each scene unfolds, the ghazal’s adherence to “rain” an inescapable consistency, much like the hurricane itself. Smith’s weather ranges from slapping to lush, its air dancing wrong, water pummeling those who would giggle and swoon. Chaos reigns over the city by poem’s end, soggy wreckage all that remains of the B–boys’ court.

Lines and syllables govern the Japanese tanka, a quintain divided into patterns of 5/7/5/7/7. The form has gained considerable popularity with the rise of online journals devoted exclusively to it. There’s even a Tanka Society of America that operates under the name Ribbons. Smith bypasses the tanka’s original intent as a poem between lovers, reframing it as a vehicle for an entire family’s demise (“Tankas;” 38). “The tight control of the tanka is somewhat sleight–of–hand — it’s a taming of what refuses to be tamed,” she says. “Concentrating on the syllable count gave me a way to confront the body count.”

Her tankas sequence begins with the narrator’s relationship to weather. “And it calls, and it/ calls, a lamb to ax, I come.” The first death occurs in tanka two, a mother helpless to stop her third child from drowning (the other two, all that fit in her arms). Tanka three locates the narrator on a roof similar to the women in “Ghazal,” crooning off–key in hopes to stave the rising water. Her remaining children go unmentioned throughout the sequence, which begs the question whether they joined their sibling, the juxtaposition of ambiguity with the form’s precision cementing an otherworldliness in an environment whose physical structure has washed away. The fourth tanka reveals the death of our narrator’s sister and father, as well as her last–ditch effort to secure order, fingers wrapped around the barrel of a gun. Tanka five commences with her last breath. We can only assume she’s alone, without a plan of survival after the roof disintegrates, her address to us a plea against death’s recondite nature: “Oh, I wish I could tell you.”

Various online estimates place Katrina’s death toll between 1,245 and 1,836, these tankas as victim containers forestalling the inevitable, the odds never in a body’s favor in a situation of 31 syllables versus a Category 5 storm. Each tanka is a status update that provides the “I’s” unthinkable (choosing between children), its logical (survival instinct), and its severance between the physical and, for this narrator, the spiritual world. Tanka six tells us what it’s like to drown as God “takes back your name. Lifts you.” Here, a return to the importance of naming, the idea that namelessness is synonymous with death. This continues in tanka seven where we’re privy to the biological and frank act of bodily expiration: “I scan the street, then/ squeeze both of my dead eyes shut,/ teeter, shit on the sidewalk,” a corpse’s reality played out in alliterative Ss and Ts. The tanka’s rules lead to Smith’s reliance on one– and two–syllable words, her deviation being feverish, incredibly, and smothering, Smith’s death language as straightforward as possible, rather than running out of linear room.

Restraint of something so unrestrained is suited to the tanka form which favors word math over sonic length. Occasionally, a poet creates middle ground, as when Smith employs synesthesia to turn weather into a lover (tanka eight): “before the mud smells your skin/ and begins its swirl, its hug.” Lover turns abuser in tanka nine, its nipping and sucking replaced with bruises and bumps. It evolves into a predator with tanka ten, the “I” telling us how men examine her dead body “like its first rapist was rain,” the multitude of implications in that simile alone. “Can’t find my rhythm,/ can’t pinpoint that fleeting pulse,” we’re told in the final tanka. Note the interplay between Ps and Ts as Smith leans on the aural when loquacious won’t do. Syllable allotment their most retrievable data, these tankas play out over an indefinite amount of time, four (at the very least) people die, and weather garners a newer intimacy of killing, all in the space of 55 lines and 341 units of sound, the tanka form more than capable of multitasking life, death, and the “I.”

Inspiration is a two–way street. Take Blood Dazzler’s poems based on real people. George W. Bush appears in “The President Flies Over” (36), a work that opens “Aloft between heaven and them” and closes on “I understand that somewhere it has rained.” We’re treated to his concert on August 30 with country singer Mark Willis in “Gettin’ His Twang On” (22), W.’s do–nothing serenade occurring simultaneously as the Ninth Ward crumbles. Not to be outdone by her son, his mother Barbara’s words form the epigraph to “Thankful” (48), an account of the displaced in a Houston relief center: “And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this—this [chuckles slightly] is working very well for them.”

Lacking a Bush–dynasty endorsement, the story of Ethel Freeman, a 91–year–old woman whose body went undisturbed for days outside the New Orleans Convention Center, is told in “Ethel’s Sestina” (45). The wheelchair–bound Freeman and her son Herbert were due to catch a bus out of the Big Easy and into evacuee existence. Dying and left behind, the image of Freeman shrouded in what looks to be a flannel blanket was imprinted on the media’s conscience, courtesy of the Associated Press, until the next symbol of human collateral found its way to the shutter.

Rooted in the texts of 12th century troubadours, the 39–line sestina form is a challenge of patterned repetition, six end–words recurring over an additional five stanzas, the ends rearranged in a different order per stanza only to reunite in the closing three–line envoi, likewise patterned. The constraints are a matter of word choice, whether there’ll be any variance (homophonic, tense, building onto the word or splitting it in two separate items, i.e. houseboat into house, boat). Smith’s end–words are the monosyllabic chair, sun, wait, sleep, son, and come, each line consisting of ten syllables, meter equanimity another of the sestina’s traditional rules. Already, we see the homophonic possibility closed off, based on the sun/son decision. In fact, Smith’s only word variation comes in the fourth and sixth stanzas when she substitutes sleepin’ and asleep for sleep. “I chose the form of sestina because it mirrored the way elderly black women speak, returning again and again to the same idea, the comfortable words,” Smith says in an interview with The Washington Post. Keeping with this idea, she drops the ending of several active verbs. Going becomes gon’, suffering suffrin’, et cetera. This preserves the syllable count while concretizing the narrator’s voice. Ethel is as much an observer as Katrina (“Lawd, some folks prayin’ for rain while they wait,/ forgetting what rain can do. When it come,”). Smith breaks the rules in stanza six, inserting the word come six times (each its own line) between lines three and four. This is Ethel’s earth–leave, her summons to Heaven based on the golden chair she receives in the envoi. Ethel’s death–by–sestina (giving up the ghost) is a stark contrast to the deaths depicted in “Tankas” (the body murdered into ghost).

The predictability of end–words gives the story a sonic familiarity, the inferences of those words changing the further we proceed. Chair: wheelchair evolving into a throne; sleep: nap into eternal rest; wait: first as a command, then part of an irrepressible urge (“Lawd knows I can’t wait.”); come: arrival (“help gon’ come”) into invitation. These transformations maximize the sestina’s narrative potential, demonstrating how the same sounds create different meanings within a new context. The words repeat, the tone does not. The tonal shifts are a convergence on and resolution to the abandonment that made Ethel a portrait of bureaucracy’s foible, or as Smith opines, “the people considered disposable in our society — forced to be most reliant upon what that society deems as ‘just.’” Predicament left Ethel stranded. All matter of infrastructures placed her there.

A form whose lines or stanzas begin with each successive letter of the alphabet, we have no less than Chaucer to thank for one of the earliest abecedarians. Written in Middle English and therefore lacking the J, U, and W, “An ABC” dates back to 1375, its emphasis on religion echoed 638 years later in Mary Szybist’s annunciation abecedarian “Girls Overheard While Assembling a Puzzle” (Incarnadine; 14), countless abecedarians written in between. Three notable works by women of color include Harryette Mullen’s onomatopoeia–fueled “Blah Blah” (Sleeping with the Dictionary; 12), Natalie Diaz’s no–holds–barred “Abecedarian Requiring Further Examination of Anglikan Seraphym Subjugation of a Wild Indian Rezervation” (When My Brother Was an Aztec; 5), and Smith’s modified abecedarian, Blood Dazzler’s “Siblings” (75).

Abecedarians may well be poetry’s version of a Paganini caprice, affording the writer a display of creativity wrapped in aplomb. Like the sestina, word choice is of paramount importance, issues of pacing and line breaks hot on its heels. Weaker abecedarians risk a narrative–deprived goose chase (form overtaking content), awkward accommodations, the balance of pyrotechnics and gravitas in flux. One solution to the abecedarian’s shortcomings is to hybridize it with another form, specifically the list poem, which offers cataloging opportunities, as is the case with Smith’s creation. A roll call dedicated to the hurricane names of 2005, “Siblings” allocates one line/sentence per letter, omitting Q, U, X, Y, and Z, as no hurricane began with those letters that year. Having modified her already hybrid form, Smith revisits the concept of gendered weather, proceeding to describe the feminine and masculine actions of each hurricane: “Arlene learned to dance in heels that were too high./ Bret prayed for a shaggy mustache made of mud and hair.” — the names solidifying multiple mythologies via attributes. Knowing the pattern cannot extend past the letter W, Smith, who’s saved Katrina for last (likewise omitting a line that begins with K), ends on arguably the book’s most ominous tercet: “None of them talked about Katrina./ She was their odd sister,/ the blood dazzler.” Smith admits those words were originally used as placeholders, though over time they “bellowed and mystified. It was darkness and sparkle . . . the memory of a clear, untroubled sky.” One appreciates the miniscule alliteration of Ls and Ds, two quick syllables the blood (da–dum) springing into dazzler, the title’s origin myth explained. Though it went unused in Blood Dazzler, three of Andrei Codrescu’s Katrina poems from Jealous Witness are cast in the sonnet form: “did something miss new orleans” (23), its identity claimed in the first line (“what do you call this this catastrophe sonnet”); “that fema check” (39), a catching–up with the relocated as commerce, that great forgetful, plunges us into the holiday shopping season; and “crepuscular (the family tomb)” (40), a commentary on race and the deceased, the deaths in “Tankas” many–times removed (“is that my body in the flood/ no cause I’m not poor and black”). Codrescu operates in a theatre of the honest–sardonic, the brevity of his sonnets coming attractions to Smith’s reel of form.


“There is no redemption in the Hurricane Katrina story,” Anis Shivani writes in his review of Blood Dazzler where he places Smith in the realm of social confessionalism, bestows the title “The New Poetry of Lament” on responses to Katrina’s decimation. Apart from geographies and lives, were there any redeemable qualities to begin with? Smith personifies Katrina as a devouring goddess, a killer by any other storm’s name. She uncovers timelines and inner thoughts under the guise of a mask. Her gift to persona is a chaos archive three years after the fact, a glossary for an America still grasping at dialogues on disparity, Katrina re–enforcing how ill–equipped attempts at this conversation have been.

Howard Rambsy’s article traced the evolution of Black persona poetry to its earliest subjects, the runagate (fugitive slave) and those who endured the Middle Passage. Might Blood Dazzler’s victims and victimizer be the newest additions to this list? Smith’s “I” and use of form gives us ground zero and the ground zero maker. Her reportage transcends the news camera’s pan, rectifies the old media adage “if it bleeds it leads” — the blood spilled in a book of poetry returned to and scrutinized through various schools of critical thought. Whether viewing it through Meta DuEwa Jones’s “sedimented rock of race” or Elizabeth Alexander’s experiments in the container of form, Blood Dazzler pulls at the prevailing strings of a relatable “I.” How best to understand a force of nature? Through gender and monologue. How to convey dying, submergence, and the tragedy also–rans of 2005? Through repetition, meter, and list. Blood Dazzler is a magnification of poetic traditions set against weather’s grandeur. However, Shivani’s is the only published literature to–date that offers scholarly insight, though mention of Smith’s overall aesthetics continues to appear in articles, predominantly on Black poetry.

Blood Dazzler enters the conversation on canon successors as a Katrina book written by a woman of color. The danger lies in relegating it to only that, overlooking Smith’s reshaping of age–old conventions by virtue of the identities controlling them from the page. These identities re–embody their parameters through narrative circumstance, some fates as ineluctable as form’s constraints. Smith’s subjects pursue their avenues with word–demeanors bent on consumption, survival, and ascent. Heaven belongs to the deceased, all others under the mythology of Katrina’s domain, Blood Dazzler’s entry point the openness with which a hurricane’s eye will commence.

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Jones, Meta DuEwa. “Descent and Transcendence in African American Poetry: Identity,

           Experience, Form.” Rattle 31 (2009): 81-90. Print.

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Mullen, Harryette. Sleeping with the Dictionary. Berkeley: University of California

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           131-147. Print.

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Smith, Patricia. Big Towns, Big Talk. Hanover, NH: Zoland Books. 1992.

–––. Blood Dazzler. Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 2008.

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