Hanging out in New Orleans, one of the first life skills I learned was to make my groceries by Schwegmann’s. The Schwegmann’s where I shopped and bought my Night Train wine was on the corner of Piety and Burgundy. By 1999, I was living in Texas and the Schwegmann’s chain was gone. But I remember the “I’ve been to Schwegmann’s and Saved” paper bags, and the ninety-nine cent Night Train.
The first poem in Kayla Rodney’s first book, Swimming Home, takes me back to those days. “Making Groceries” begins and ends with a shopping list, two-day old French bread for pudding/chopped seasoning, and in between chimes with lyric descriptions of the city: -the bom-bom bom of open palms on congo drums (Congo Square) the bon temps, the jazz, the beignets covered with snow, but this list-qua-list poem is more than a catalogue. It is like reading the many names of the dead at a mass-murder memorial, a eulogy for a city that has undergone Noah’s flood:
–fish jump over fish jump over fish, jump over Mrs. Johnson’s little boy who
slipped off his roof and into “I heard a big boom, and then all
this water started rushing in.”
only to be ended by another, more hopeful shopping list:
-a pound of shrimp
-a cup of Community Coffee to wash it all down
And the scene is set for a native New Orleanian to rehearse the losses and joys of a community.
Swimming Home is awash everywhere. The poet’s “…house sits between swamp and Mississippi (Witness), where waves…breathe under pier planks. (Beach Glass) …hair swirls/a black sea foaming…” (Calypso’s Hair Salon). This book honors the watery world of the brown pelican in more than a half-dozen poems, father in heaven may we all be cleansed by the saving blood of the pelican. (Oh, Mighty Pelican) Water is witness for the poet, who plays in the rain, “sheets of humidity/I look up, stick out/ my tongue…(Calypso’s Hair Salon). Calypso, too, floods the book in “When Odysseus Sailed On” as well as in the hair salon. The nymph who imprisoned Odysseus for seven years with her charms waits for you to jump in/on a day when she//keeps calm at the surface/but the undercurrent swirls/round ‘til up is down. (Calypso).
Nymph magic and pelican-magic, (A Flap of Wings Brings Rain to the Crescent City, Calypso) seem here to shade into the power of weather in Hurricanes Rita, Isabel, Gustav, Cindy – A belch /of hurricanes/delivered/by Calypso. And then there was Katrina. Swimming Home jitters between the before, during, and after-times of that storm, that vexation of nature, that revenge of Calypso.
Katrina when folks screamed/ rolling around in the boil of the city. First the shrieks, then the clean-up, and if we are lucky, we will survive the “hurricanations” that are the center of this book reminding us, in this season of present losses and loss-to-be, that hurricanes aren’t the only perils faced by Rodney’s community. In “Black Holocaust,” the reader is reminded that, even in the midst of seemingly ordinary days, some folks are more at risk than others. Black mamas on their porches grease their daughter’s hair (Tenderheaded), and kids play in a park at the corner of Napoleon and Loyola, (Round About). But, when the park is dismantled for old age and rust, its loss is blamed on a child, …you know children they like a/scape goat.
Then and now there are questions:
How many dead black bodies bang around
In the back of your mind like wind chimes?
Are they loud?
But throughout Swimming Home, Rodney reminds us that disasters, human and natural, are conjoined with jazz and wine and good food and the joys of home. Despite risk and rumble, Rodney paints a delicious city, when…”we said good morning/ that drip in the air/our voices honey thick/pooled on sills/as we stirred our coffee/ dropped in one more spoon of sugar/ and stirred again, a city where The morning sun blushes through the curtains/ dancing on paisley wallpaper,” a city of “Magnolia” …with satellite/ sized petals. Each leaf a sail/ catching the wind…” a city where even the worn uses of our consumer culture can be revivified, “St Nick a’cross dey ba-you/ wit eigt ‘gator slinkin/ tru da duck weed…” (How I Learned About Christmas.) A city where the sensual world rules, and a hero “roll(s) over to feel your warmth/smell your ocean hair (Odyesseus to Calypso), where Music notes glide by on summer heat/ beat it with Scale’s Strawberry lenonade (Jazz Festin’) where my nails dig into your back searching for diamonds…. your tongue is an oyster rolling a pearl around its shell (Tangled).”
As we struggle with our own various weathers, we stop to appreciate the author’s journey, and splash along, as she returns to her “gumbo bowl hometown/ proud to swim, swim, swim, home.” (Promised Land).
Wendy Taylor Carlisle lives and writes in the Arkansas Ozarks. She is the author of five chapbooks and four books. Her work is widely available in print and on line. For more information, her website is www.wendytaylorcarlisle.com.