Review by Ginny Kaczmarek
THE DIRTY SIDE OF THE STORM
by Martha Serpas
W.W. Norton & Company
500 Fifth Ave.
New York, NY 10110
2008, 89 pp., $13.95
Every hurricane season, those of us who live along the Gulf Coast are reminded of the fragility of this part of the country. Hurricanes Gustav and Ike blew through Louisiana and Texas this past August, bringing to mind the devastation wrought by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and underscoring how vulnerable we still are. In The Dirty Side of the Storm, Martha Serpas, a native of Galliano, Louisiana, artfully evokes the beauty and power of the Louisiana bayou, building a case for the survival of a landscape and culture in danger of being exterminated, not only by nature’s forces, but by human carelessness and greed.
Despite the book’s title, all but one of these poems were written before Hurricane Katrina and its resulting floods, which gives them an eerie prescience. The eponymous poem, for example, describes the relief and guilt that survivors experience each time a storm—or any disaster—approaches and passes by: “Death just misses you, its well-defined / eye and taut rotation land on /someone else.” As others get the brunt of the storm—“The Red Cross mobilizes elsewhere”—we realize that being physically removed from catastrophe doesn’t free us from it entirely:
Take a good look at those oak roots
from a calm doorstep and wait.
The sadness is a surge carrying
all its debris back to you, a flood
that shoves clods of ants and snakes
through your walls and then
sits in your house for days and days.
This is the dirty side of the storm.
Would that Death had blown straight through.
The “dirty side of the storm” is a term used to describe those areas outside of a storm’s immediate wrath but still affected by its wind and rain. In the case of this poem, it also describes those on the outside of any disaster, left behind to endure the surge of sadness that comes from watching others suffer, and how difficult carrying on in their stead can be. By titling her book “The Dirty Side of the Storm,” Serpas acknowledges that this collection of poems is intended to bear witness to tragedy. Serpas accepts her role as the observer who survived and finds herself responsible for recounting the specifics of a place and its people before they are gone forever.
Lest we think of the ground beneath our own feet as solid, Serpas reminds us that her specific loss is not isolated. In “A Corollary,” the speaker takes bitter comfort knowing that someone else “has suffered / your exact misfortune before you,” in this case, “the steady vanishing / of your birthplace before your eyes.” The poem references Centralia, Pennsylvania, where an abandoned coal mine caught fire and destroyed the town from underneath over the course of 46 years. For most of that time, the city’s leaders underplayed the extent of the problem until the ground began opening up in people’s backyards; in 2001, the town’s Zip code was finally revoked. Like Centralia, this speaker’s hometown is in danger of being swallowed: “The trees // stand dead but don’t fall. Veins in the Gulf will swell, too, // carrying grayed-out swirls—ghosts—/ to greed’s unbroken refrain.” The corollary between a town falling into fire and another falling into water is chilling: two natural elements reclaiming towns because of human greed and incompetence. In both cases, the poem argues, entire towns—homelands, birthrights—are lost to unnatural disasters.
Unlike Centralia, however, the bayous are not completely gone yet; with political and personal action, the wetlands might be saved and rebuilt. The poem “Tinsel” describes a unique attempt on the part of the Louisiana government to begin rectifying the vanishing wetlands. After every Christmas, special trucks gather discarded Christmas trees and bring them to the Gulf shore, “giving / a dead tree to save the dead marsh.” The hope is to build an organic wall that will prevent the shore from dissolving further, “holding / ashen oaks like gnarled tapers to the ground.” But this speaker decries the futility of this too-little too-late annual offering. Instead of representing the spiritual components of the season—generosity, goodwill, compassion—these Christmas trees “exhale the voices of their former rooms: // getting, getting, getting.” And when season is over,
…we hurl our righteous trees
on the city truck. Even the treacherous Gulf
can’t wash apostasy off their branches.
Instead of congratulating herself on putting trash to good use, the poem’s speaker takes her community to task for its misplaced, deserted faith. Whether it’s faith in the true meaning of Christmas or in the promise to rebuild the land that sustains them, this speaker sees her community turning away from real effort toward artificial stopgaps.
This sense of disposability—of trees, natural resources, even people—helped to create the problems that Serpas mourns throughout these poems. In “Bully Camp Road,” a monument to cast-off waste, a junkyard, becomes a place of strange beauty and reflection. Here in the junkyard, the human-made and the natural coexist: “A curl-tip of blackberry springs up / From a chrome gear shift, commanding // What’s left of this pickup’s interior.” Despite the sign of green life among twisted metal, the poem’s speaker instructs, “Don’t think hope, for / God’s sake. Think vulnerable.” Life is fragile in this environment, among the discards, as it is throughout the region. The poem continues in an almost stream-of consciousness vein to describe a truck without taillights, then taillights along a swamp road, and finally the blasé tragedy at the end of the poem:
…And this road is a long
One, all caked dust and oyster shells, past
The house of a boy who set off a shot-
Gun under his head, so that his tongue,
I’m sure, was the first to go, a collage
Of rote recitals, blunders, and dreams.
The junked cars bring to mind a junked life, an example of vulnerability rather than of hope. In this poem, human life is ephemeral; the lives we live or choose to end and even the things we make eventually become dust: “Echoes endure, chalky dust quiets, / almost settles, like this passenger cage, / Razed to a mound of glinting red powder.” The unexpected, violent image of a boy’s lost life brings an unsettling humanity to the piles of discarded cars. Dust to dust, yes, but what do we leave behind, “rote recitals, blunders, and dreams” or “glinting red powder”? Even in this snapshot of a place, echoes of humanity persist. Suddenly, even rusted metal seems vulnerable.
In the final poem of the book, Serpas asks her readers to bear witness as she has done. “Poem Found” is the only one written in direct reference to Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent levee breaches in New Orleans, and it serves as a kind of coda to the rest of the book. Using the language of Genesis, Serpas describes the Superdome during those horrific days in late August 2005:
…And God said, ‘Let there be a dome in the midst
of the waters’ and into the dome God put
the poor, the addicts, the blind, and the oppressed.
God put the unsightly sick and the crying young
into the dome and dry land did not appear.
With this Biblical conceit, Serpas forcefully counters arguments offered during and after the crisis that those who suffered somehow deserved their fate and were being punished by God. She points out the obvious: the Superdome was filled with “the unsightly sick and the crying young,” hardly the sinners portrayed by some. Instead, Serpas’s God “saw God’s own likeness in the shattered / tiles and the sweltering heat and the polluted rain.” God aligns himself with the poor and oppressed, not with “those who favored themselves // born in God’s image.” If there is a lesson to be learned from the tragedy at the Superdome, Serpas argues that it is one of awakening to the suffering of fellow human beings:
God held the dome up to the light
like an open locket and in every manner called
the others to look inside and those who saw
rested on that day and those who didn’t
went to and fro and walked up and down
the marsh until the loosened silt gave way
to a void, and darkness covered the faces with deep sleep.
In this poem, Serpas, channeling God, again asks the reader to witness the suffering of those most vulnerable among us in an attempt to understand, and ameliorate, the kind of suffering that left the poor, elderly, young, and hungry stranded in the country’s worst unnatural disaster. To Serpas, being awake, aware, and compassionate is vital, and those who refuse to see should be washed away like the marsh.
This book is an homage, a celebration, and a lament for a part of the world that is in danger. Without being preachy or overtly political, Serpas demonstrates her sorrow and hope for the fate of her homeland. These poems use clear, precise language to describe in haunting terms a specific geography, its inhabitants, and the threats to their survival. Along the way, Serpas reminds us of the interconnectedness of land, people, and spirit, instigating the reader to become part of the solution. If a reader, an outsider, can appreciate the wonder of such a place and its people, can that reader take action to help protect it from disappearing? Hurricane Katrina brought the Gulf Coast wetlands to national attention; here is hoping that The Dirty Side of the Storm, and other books like it, can continue to hold that attention long enough to rescue Serpas’s—and my—homeland.
Ginny Kaczmarek is a poet and critic with an MFA from the University of New Orleans. Her writing has appeared in The Oxford American, Measure, Literary Mama, and others. Awards for her work include a New Orleans Literary Institute KARES grant and an Academy of American Poets Andrea Saunders Gereighty Poetry Award. She (still) lives in New Orleans.