I used to dream of New Orleans
the birthplace of jazz
the humid, sinewy underarm of America
that place where the tide rolled in
corralling with it all the Devil’s rejects
the flotsam of continents
each wave rolling over the previous
that place where the soft syllabary of the Natchez
learned sharpness in the wind
and still claws through the cold blasts from the Mississippi
still angry, still bitter as hell
dragging its nails through the delta
from its rusted chains in abandoned Haitian slave forts
I used to dream of New Orleans all the time
that place where Morton jellyrolled and Fats stacked dominoes
and Bonham beat down the buttresses till they busted open
that place where sea wall shadowmaps and Sazerac swizzle sticks
tell you what time it is, and when it’s time to go home
and leave you on the same barstool the following morning
paralytic, trying to remember
where you left your bike
and what ward you live in
and why the delta conspired to make the air so sticky
and the ghosts so damn persistent
Don’t they know it’s past closing time?
Yeah, that’s the place I used to dream of
that is, of course, until the day it all got washed away
For ever, we all thought
No more Frenchmen Street
No more Preservation Hall
No more seductively mangled français
The Saints, we assumed, would not be coming back
not this time
in spite of the assurances of Irish rock stars and preprogrammed politicos
Is it not true that nothing is forever
even in this town?
But then the river receded
and the night watch came
not saints, just sinners with spray paint cans
mapping the city as they swarmed through the streets
tattooing the town
with the defiXiones
the X mark
haunted crosses everywhere that spoke with a thousand voices
We’re watching you.
We may be dispersed but we’re watching you.
We’re not done here.
Tonight New Orleans is clawing at my bones
she’s there in every neon-lit puddle
every misspelled word
every unapologetic wrong note in a pentatonic scale
she’s there in every empty glass
at the end of the long night
and she’s there in every X mark
no, nothing wrong, nothing incorrect
just a seething mass of humanity
wheezing like a Louisiana freighter
dragging us all back to life
even as we kick and scream for a safer, more logical abode
Yes, this is the place I used to dream of
the refuge of the reckless
the fortress of fools
where the city sees and the water saws
and Moldovan cabbies careen through Napoleonic alleyways
like they were somehow theirs to begin with
You’re not done with me yet, are you?
Sousaphones playing Pink Floyd – you’re not done with me yet
Scarlet corsets and scandalous bike rides – you’re not done with me yet
Tearful tunes percussed by distant freight trains – you’re definitely not done with me yet
Boys who fell asleep in the army only to wake up on a streetcorner with placards round their necks
selling jello shots and shitty advice – you’re not done with me yet either, are you?
Nope, the city with too many exes and not enough whys
haunts my dreams now more than ever.
And I have no reason to think she’ll stop
so I might as well get comfortable
Nouvelle Orléans, Bayou Sauvage
prends ce que tu veux de moi.
For unlike you
I truly am defenceless.
Why did you write this poem?
I attended a professional conference in New Orleans in February of this year, and was completely transfixed by the place. As a historian by background, I’ve always been fascinated by the city’s long and complicated history, but I hadn’t realized how truly haunted the place is. In New Orleans the ghosts don’t merely lurk – they sing and dance and keep you up all night. One of the sights that made the biggest impression on me is the X marks on houses left over from Hurricane Katrina, marks that most residents have kept visible (and even painted around) as badges of survival. I wrote this poem a couple of days after returning from my trip, after several nights of vivid dreams about a place I was sad to leave.
About Ben Freeland
Ben grew up on Vancouver Island and began his writing career while in grad school at Tokyo University of Foreign Studies. A Pushcart Prize nominee for non-fiction, Ben’s historical and travel essays have been published on both sides of the Pacific, in publications ranging from the Globe and Mail to Asia-Pacific airline in-flight magazines. A relative newcomer to poetry, Ben has written plays, short stories, song lyrics and even film subtitles, and once copy-edited a letter from the Japan Financial Services Agency addressed to Colonel Gaddafi. You can read more of his handiwork at www.brushtalk.blogspot.ca