***Review originally appeared at Feminist Review & can be found via GoodReads.
In a world full of tragedy, it is easy to feel removed from it, to see it as a distant echo. Patricia Smith’s collection of poems, Blood Dazzler, breaks through this apathy to bring the full weight of Hurricane Katrina’s impact front and center. These poems track the storm from its origins to its eventual transformation into a Category 5 storm. However, Smith doesn’t shy away from the aftermath; she is in the muck of this storm from its very start and right on through to its heartbreaking aftermath.
This book is more than a marker for the dead. The people in this book don’t die; they live on well past the rotting of their bodies. I dare you to read Smith’s poems about Luther B, a dog left tied up during Katrina, without feeling goose bumps. Smith allows everyone the chance to speak past the images that still haunt us. She writes about the stories we don’t always see or experience: Ethel Freeman, a woman whose body was left to rot in her wheelchair; the thirty-four bodies of the men and women left to drown in St. Rita’s Nursing Home; and the nameless who talk about what it’s like to leave one’s life behind.
Smith paints Hurricane Katrina as the black sheep of hurricanes. “Siblings” is a witty alphabet poem that strolls through history’s hurricanes and talks about their characteristics. The poem ends with Katrina and how “none of them talked about Katrina/she was their odd sister/the blood dazzler.” As Hurricane Betsy says to Katrina, “No nuance. Got no whisper/in you, do you girl?/The idea was not/to stomp it flat, ‘trina,/all you had to do was kiss the land…Instead, you roared through like/a goddamned man, all biceps… .” The very hurricanes that threaten the land have a chance to speak, have a chance to swing their hips. The hurricanes become as much a part of this place as the people and the land itself. Smith leaves no rock unturned, no perspective untouched.
Smith destroys the idea that tragedy happens to those who are Other, to those who are far away echoes. This poet brings the effects of Katrina right up to the reader’s nose and blows the sweetest and most sour music towards our hearts. To read these poems and not be affected is impossible. You will be seared by the grit and spirit of these people, the landscape, and the true force of nature. The men and women of New Orleans do not lose their fire, or their humor. The rain falls and the people of this world continue to spin their memories and sing from their rooftops while they wait for help that may never come. These poems are a true force of nature.