Sunday, October 6, 2013

Desperation on St. Charles Avenue

Another tropical storm skittered past New Orleans this weekend.

I felt its fingertips on my back as I walked down St. Charles Avenue past a plaque commemorating the erstwhile St. Charles Theater. Built in 1835, it was home to a grand opera. The first opera performed at the St. Charles was Bellini's Norma, a tale of desperation if ever there was one.

Poydras Street, looking toward the site of the St. Charles Theater, 
in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina

There's a sweet desperation about New Orleans, the kind that leads lovers (all kinds of lovers) to sacrifice themselves for a lover, an ideal or an end to pain. It's the kind of desperation in which a poetic soul delights, a feeling that you are floating alone through life but will try to reach the world even if the world has not come looking for you. It's the kind of desire that pulls people to poetry, a desperate desire to express longings and hopes that could otherwise destroy them, that could fade away before brief lives conclude, and that will certainly fade away in the end. 

When Katrina hit and flooded eighty per cent of the city, the desperation that anyone with an eye and heart could see and feel in the vagrant clinging to his bottle in a doorway on Dauphine Street, or in the furious street tap of a little boy and a little girl from the other side of  Louis Armstrong Park for tourists' coins, or the tourists' hooch-fueled quest for exhilaration that could make them feel alive beyond their ordinary days, or the ecstatic, virtuosi performance of a jazz combo in an obscure bar on the far end of Bourbon Street, or the young poet's concentrated stare at her pad, on a bench in Washington Square off Esplanade--all of it came to a head in this city gone temporarily missing. 

In Hearing Sappho in New Orleans, her lyrical rumination on New Orleans poetry post-Katrina, Ruth Salvaggio proposes that 

Missing New Orleans means entering into desire. It means that we step into the long lyric call of poetry, because what goes missing is precisely what ignites the lyric voice of longing that keeps securing the bonds of our relations. The conundrum of desire is that what goes missing marks the limits of emptiness and fullness, severance and relation. We know what it means to miss New Orleans because we are creatures of longing.

I take the "we" to be all of us, anyone who has ever wanted to connect with someone else through the word, especially the word set to music as it has so often been in the Big Easy. 

Other cities coddle you. In San Francisco the warm sun soothes longing. On a recent trip there I could feel my worries, my longing, my desire to report on the emotional lives of human beings, evaporate in the gentle rays, wash away in the cool Pacific waves, be in fact pacified. The California sun can almost make you believe that you will never die. 

In New Orleans the sun drives you on, and even the remnant breezes of a merciful storm hit you with a thick sense that you've got to make some sort of noise before the heat or the river or the po' boys and pralines or the memories of pain put you under. You could be the frat boy crawling from pub to pub, the saxophonist from what used to be the Upper Ninth Ward, the jilted hipster dodging the unshaven men in dirty tee shirts and Saints caps on Canal, the family from Chicago in their Walmart-bought whites getting palms read in Jackson Squre, the hundred opposing intentions heading into the Quarter, the Creole aristocrat tossing pebbles into Bayou St. John, to count the decades gone, or the high school student riding the streetcar to the end of St. Charles, imagining something Uptown that once she discovers will make all this longing worthwhile. When you are here, you are desperate, and you find yourself inching toward desperate words. Poetry needs desperation, and desperation needs poetry. They live side by side here, as the city and its people will tell. 

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