Monday, June 1, 2015

Poetry Monday: Poems for the First Day of Hurricane Season

June 1 marks the beginning of hurricane season.  I've spent much of my adult life in places that are periodically affected by hurricanes, and not once, but twice, I've moved to a place scarred by hurricanes a few years before I got there.

It will likely come as no surprise to find out that I find lots of metaphorical possibilities in hurricanes.  Here's one of the earlier ones I wrote, somewhere around 1996 or 1998:

I think it still holds up relatively well:

Weather Wife

The hurricane flirts with us; like a reluctant
suitor, the storm cannot decide whether or not to commit
to us. It won’t even make a definitive date.
We watch it vacillate, wonder
if it might decide to court another.

Why do these storms always arrive at night?
They party with Caribbean island after island,
leaving the coastal wife watching the clock
and waiting for its arrival, keeping the lights
lit and the supper warm.

The storm should sneak in, with a whisper of wind,
A dozen roses of rain, leaving a bit of sleep
to the exhausted wife of a coastline.
Instead, the hurricane roars in, renouncing
all others to embrace us fully.

Like a battering spouse, it smacks
us again and again. Not content to just hit
until we back down, it smashes
us to unconsciousness and rips
our most beloved possessions to shreds.

We clean up the damage while we try to soothe
the little ones. We try to convince
ourselves that it won’t happen again. The weather woos
us with calm surf and skies full of sunshine.
We continue in this marriage. We cannot divorce
ourselves to head to the passionless calm
of a chillier climate.
Later, in the aftermath of Hurricane Wilma, in 2005, one of my favorite poems came to me.  But first, some background.
Our church at the time (we go to a different church now) was much more damaged than my house. Winds peeled back the flat roof over the educational wing. The sanctuary was also damaged--lots of water intrusion. Happily, the carpet was old, faded, and ugly. No one cared that we had to get rid of it.

No one cared, but few people showed up to help with the hard work of hauling it out of the building. To be fair, we were an older congregation--there were only about 10 of us capable of doing that work. And it took a long time for the streets to be passable. My spouse and I didn't live far away, so we could show up to work.

I remember the day that the Bishop appeared. I had been hauling wet carpet to the curb after ripping it out of the sanctuary. I was wet and dirty, with bloody hands, when two men came into the sanctuary. They must have been dressed in casual clothes, because I asked, "Are you the carpet guys?"

The assistant said, "This is the bishop."

Oops. Like I said, I'm fairly sure they were dressed in casual clothes. If the bishop had come wearing his purple shirt and his impressive cross, I'd have known he wasn't the carpet guy.

Somewhere there's a picture of me, dirty and wet, shaking hands with the Bishop.

The Bishop looked at our damage, took notes, and left us with a case of bottled water and some tarps.

At the time, I remember wishing for a bit more help with the physical labor, as I went back to ripping up carpet and hauling it to the curb.

But later, I got a great poem out of it. That poem was published by North American Review.

It's part of a series of poems that imagines what would happen if Jesus came back in our current world and moved amongst us today. Long ago, a Sunday School teacher asked us what we thought would happen if Jesus came back today (today being 1975). Little did she know that I'd still be playing with that question decades later:

Strange Communions

Jesus showed up at our church to help
with hurricane clean up.
“The Bishop was so busy,” he explained.
“But I had some time on my hands,
so I loaded the truck with tarps and water,
and came on down. What can I do?”

“Our roof needs a miracle,” I said.
“Do you know a good roofer?”

“I used to be a carpenter.
Of course, that’s getting to be a long time ago.
Let me see what I can do.”

I set to work ripping up the soaked
carpet in the sanctuary.
As I added a piece of dripping padding
to the pile, I noticed Christ across the street,
at the house with the fallen
tree that took out both cars and the porch.
He walked right up to the door to see
how the household was doing. I dragged
sopping carpet, trip after trip, while Jesus sat
on the porch and listened to the old woman’s sad
saga. The rough edges made my hands bleed.

Good smells made me wander down the dark
church hall to our scarcely used
kitchen, where I found Christ cooking.
“I found these odds and ends and decided
to make some lunch. Luckily, you’ve got a gas stove.”
I shrugged. “Why not? Otherwise, it’s just going to rot.”
How he made the delicious fish stew and homemade
bread out of the scraps he found
in our kitchen, I couldn’t explain.
We went out together to invite
the neighborhood in for a hot
meal, even though they weren’t church members.
We all spoke different languages,
but a hot lunch served by candlelight translates
across cultures.

I dragged drywall, black with mold, to our dumpster,
and noticed Christ walking by the cars in line
for the gas station on the corner.
When I got closer, I noticed he handed
out fresh-baked cookies and bottled water.
“Have some sweetness.
Life is hard when you can’t get necessities.”
Some drivers stared at him, like he was one of those predatory
scammers they’d been warned against.
“What’s the catch?” they growled.
“No catch,” he said with that convincing smile.
“Just a gift of grace, freely given. You’re free
to accept or refuse.” A strange communion.

Jesus left while there was still
much work to do: new carpet to be installed,
drywall to be hung, fencing to be constructed
around church grounds. I watch him drive
his empty truck, followed
by some of the neighbors, away from the church.

The next time it rained, I noticed
that the long, leaking roof had healed.
In South Florida, we haven't really suffered much from hurricanes since 2005, but that doesn't stop my brain from playing with images.  Paper Nautilus published my poem "What They Don't Tell You About Hurricanes," but I'm fairly sure that this title is not my original creation.  I'm almost sure there's an essay with the same title in the wonderful book Writing Creative Nonfiction.  The essay stays with me even now, the writer who bought his dream boat, only to see it destroyed by Hurricane Fran.  I'd look it up, except that I don't own it.

So, here's the poem, all of it true, except for the reference to an industrial wasteland.  I wouldn't have written it at all, except for the strange incident of weeping in the parking garage some 4 or 5 years after Hurricanes Katrina and Wilma.  The industrial wasteland is actually a water treatment plant, but I changed it for some dramatic impact.

 What They Don’t Tell You About Hurricanes

You expected the ache in your lazy
muscles, as you hauled debris
to the curb, day after day.

You expected your insurance
agent to treat
you like a lover spurned.

You expected to curse
your bad luck,
but then feel grateful
when you met someone suffering
an even more devastating loss.

You did not expect
that months, even years afterwards,
you would find yourself inexplicably
weeping in your car, parked
in a garage that overlooks
an industrial wasteland.
What will I write in the future?  I'm hoping to write about the change in the oceans' oscillations, in the surprisingly quiet period that came after the very active two decades from 1995-2005.

1 comment:

Patent Attorney said...

It's interesting to read poems in the second person, they don't seem to happen too much! This one is fantastically well observed though.