The worst part about driving in a storm
is trusting the taillights of the bagasse truck
crawling ten feet from your fender,
and when he exits and the clouds almost clear,
is the next squall line hitting full on,
its frantic body like a river undone
and when you reach the skinny bridge
over the bayou swollen to the embankment’s lip,
your leg aches, on the accelerator, trembling,
no railing, tires troubling old wood.
and through the wipers’ feeble sweep
no other side
We’ll never make it in time: you’re twelve,
riding west to see a corpse in a flood,
I’m your grandson at forty-two, riding east
to see my city’s flooded remains.
Gueydan to Port Arthur, Austin to New Orleans,
you in a pickup with your daddy and one brother,
another brother waiting in a funeral home,
laid out in somebody’s suit on a cooling board,
you trying to imagine that body past this rain,
me in a rental car with the music cranked,
trying not to think about stories that got snagged
in stories that failed to hold up, to hold
A haze hangs and shifts around the border,
starts around Orange, fades near Sulphur,
not smoke, not mist, pale acrid miles
like the landscape’s risen ghost
hovering over snapped trees and houses
smashed on their foundations, all broken
from the same direction: where I’m going
while you ride listening to your daddy
muttering had to die in a goddam flood,
the truck grinding slow against mud
and crushed shell, slurry slipping down
the soft bank of the swollen ditch—
Like that, the rain stops, the windshield clears
and you can see you’ve gotten nowhere
in all that time. Another squall line—
You came back from the war to your job at Texaco and bought a journal where you wrote down the only story you ever did write, the only one that mattered:
your brother died
there was a flood
you were too late to see him buried.
You wrote it down
and you told it to my father when he was a boy and my grandmother told it to me,
the telling a bridge back to that crossing,
and after you died my father found the journal in your bedroom
and kept it for me in his studio:
nine feet of lake water took it.
Somewhere in a landfill——
I’m writing this for you is what I thought when I started this,
now I can’t tell my way out
3. [notes for a ghost claim]
The Pontchartrain Blvd. neutral ground, heaped half a mile some days with dead trees uprooted, stacked two stories high,
other days what’s been gutted from houses
siding drywall pink insulation
clothes stuffed animals swing sets
every day shredded compacted hauled to the landfill
and the next day—
Walking through the lower 9th ward:
no other side
silence heavy as yes as a drowned city
I add nothing telling what I saw: it was there
at my feet, something shiny stuck in dried mud
only the shock of robbing anyone’s grave
stops my hand in time
Somewhere out there, your journal—
Knowing better, I go back to the newspaper’s website
and watch the animated story of the flood.
Blue arrows flash, red bursts blast—too much like dynamite—
at each fresh breach in the levees,
and blue pours in over gray, just following the timeline.
According to Zeno, Achilles never wins. That’s me
every time I click START and the wind
makes its simulated howl and the storm never stops
The undertaker is very sorry.
It was too hot. The ice wouldn’t keep him.
We buried him this morning, yonder.
Y’all been driving these whole two days?
This sure has been some flood.
Had to wear hip boots to dig that grave.
Your father fidgets as he listens,
twisting his hat in his hands.
Smaller than you’ve ever seen him.
Already somebody else’s body
laid out where your brother’s had been.
You walk up to the cooling board
and crouch to look under the drape
at a block of ice as big as you.
It looks cold enough. Gray-white like his feet
out there somewhere. Standing up, you watch
your daddy give the undertaker cash
and turn away, the man’s grasping hand unshaken.
The worst part of someone asking
what’s it like there now
is they don’t know what they’re asking
has too many broken answers:
Something shiny stuck in dried mud.
Somebody else’s body.
A tortoise nosing out a grub.
Smear of paint, rice powder, words—
Knowing better, I came home.
My Father’s Studio, 2005
As if browsing in a gallery,
I flip through canvases leaning against the wall
behind my father’s studio. A clear October day,
the air breezeless, birdless. Silence
still cloys like oily mud, two months
since the flood. The studio’s siding sags;
the back door won’t close. I look in:
heaps of clothes rotting, shelves of LPs,
their jackets fused, some swollen books,
and, further back in muck and shadow,
forty years of work my father made,
and catalogues, and slides, and reviews.
I step back into the sunlight,
look through the canvases again,
remember my father working on them,
and time unravels and I see myself
doing the things a ghost does,
shuffling inside the narrow frame
of a world of ruined images. Yes,
I remember these paintings.
They were good. And I remind myself:
he’s already repainting them.
They’re still good.
Stop acting like a ghost.
The Halloween Poem
When smoke still hovered around the skeletons of buildings. When we were still sifting through debris for identifiable body parts. When our president was still sticking pins in the map and saying Here is my enemy, and here, and here. You and I were out walking the dog, one evening just before Halloween. The traffic on the street was sparse and nervous: no one knew what _safe_ meant anymore. Yet the weather was gorgeous, crisp and clear, and the dog was happy we’d brought him out, sniffing excitedly at every bush and dropped paper bag. No one else was out walking, no one was sitting on the porches, yet we found evidence of other people trying to live normally: yards had been raked, leaves had been bagged and set out on the curb, and, for the silly holiday, houses were decorated: strings of plastic jack-o-lanterns strung in the trees, witches and ghosts hung from eaves, real carved pumpkins set out on stoops. All ready for ghoul-children in a day or two. The dog stopped to piss on an azalea, and you said _Look_, pointing to a porch. Someone had set flags in the crown of their jack-o-lantern. Next door, a flag waved from a witch’s broom. There, flags strung with a streamer of skulls. Flags flicking under the moon, pinned deep in our spines.
Brad Richard is the author of Habitations, published by Portals Press, and a chapbook, The Men in the Dark, from Lowlands Press. Chair of the creative writing program at Lusher Charter School, he is also a founder of the New Orleans New Writers Literary Festival, which brings established authors together with high school writers for readings and master classes.
Fata Morgana: Poems (Pitt Poetry Series) by Reginald Shepherd
Mulberry by Dan Beachy-Quick
Bear Country by Dana Sonnenschein