On Words That Matter #3: Patricia Smith’s Blood Dazzler

I promised to write about books by poets of color I most admired, so it seems only right that on this fifteenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s ransacking of New Orleans, while we watch Hurricane Laura bear down and wreak her own havoc on the Louisiana coastline, I would reread Patricia Smith’s incredible collection of poems, Blood Dazzler, which is actually all about Hurricane Katrina. In this collection, Smith does an astonishing thing, a risky thing. She embodies an entire cast caught in the vortex of Katrina. As she counts down Katrina’s growth and progression through daily forecasts from August 23 to August 28, she uses the forecasts to launch the voices of those most effected by Katrina’s destruction: from the failing politicians to the dogs chained to doorsteps, from the homeless folks to those folks trapped in the attics of their homes, from those dying in the heat to Katrina herself as she whips a frenzy across the land. It is a tour de force, what Smith does with these voices, and it moves me still—her elegant cadence getting just right the desperate authenticity and truth-telling while still nodding toward the formal elements of poetry. She uses this formality to create both a structure to the poems while also giving a sense of incantation to each character. Hers is the wail and wily of humanity as it is caught in the throes of a natural disaster that showcased (again) the social injustices that are still alive in this world. These are poems that grip me still, that enliven the wind and help me understand how it is rising even now in this line: The sound was purple/throbbing like a new-torn wound/ under August drape.

Patricia Smith has published a dozen collections, has been a slam champion and performance artist, and has more awards than I can count.