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Red Weather September 7, 2008

Posted by The Typist in Toulouse Street.
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“Only, here and there, an old sailor,
Drunk and asleep in his boots,
Catches Tigers
In red weather.”
–Disillusionment of 10 O’Clock
By Wallace Stevens

The houses are not haunted, as the opening of Steven’s poem says. Our’s is not the haunting of an ancient house or a lonely crossroads. The haunting is not out there somewhere in the dark. It is somewhere in here, in the dark, inside of us.

In August and September of 2005, something died deep inside of everyone who lived in or cared about New Orleans. It was an uneasy passing, like the troubled death of a suicide or a tragic young death. Some call this Post Traumatic Stress Disorder but it is not. There is no “post”, no after. We watch the pictures from Terrebonne and Lafourche Parish. We hear the stories of people abandoned, of promised aid gone awry. We see the houses collapsed or washed by the flood and we remember. The ghosts we keep trying to put away wake up and grab us by the heart.

I heard those ghosts, a low sound like a tone of voice, when the evacuees spoke of their grueling journey to safety, when they called this “their last hurricane”. I hear it in the voices of my friends in the NOLA Blogger community and my older cohort of Orleanians, the people I grew up with who sat out Betsy and sweated Camille. The rest of the country has moved on once the dramatic pictures of the floodwalls overwashed were replaced by something new. New Orleans, America thinks, has once again dodged the bullet: the city did not flood.

The floodwalls of concrete and steel held, but others did not. The chaos of evacuation, our leaders panicking on TV the night before many left; the pictures of water driven to the very top of the walls while ships and barges tore loose again in the canal; and now the chaos of the return, the stories from the towns at the end of the roads along the coast, the relief supplies promised but never delivered: all of this has breached through the scar tissue, the slow rebuilding we have all gone through deep inside. Down there, where the ghosts live, we are awash.

Homecoming should be a relief but it is not. There is too much residual anger at the politicians (we can’t call them leaders) in City Hall, in Baton Rouge and in Washington for their continuing ineptitude. There is too much damage to the east and south, and we must watch our neighbors painful re-enactment of the old story daily, perhaps for the months it will take just to restore them to some semblance of normal life. And now the weather forecasters tell us another storm is pointed at New Orleans.

We cannot know precisely what the poet meant by “red weather”. It is a perfect example of poetic language, something perfectly appropriate to the sound or stanza and to the image, and yet it is not like common language. That phrase is not a brick in the construction of a mundane paragraph. Instead those words are a door into the poem: we must find ourselves what precisely is meant by red weather to gain entry into the poetic moment.

The old saying goes both ways: red sky at night, sailor’s delight; red sky at morning, sailor’s take warning. Because the sailor “Catches Tigers in red weather”, I have always taken it to stand for both danger and excitement. Now that I live beneath the red and black hurricane flags, this poem and the phrase “red weather” comes back to me. I thought of it sitting on my porch in the calm of the evening, contemplating another storm, another evacuation. And for me, at least, it became clear.

Here on the hurricane coast, when the storms stir up the ghosts of the flood, we live in red weather.

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