Monday, August 30, 2010

There are a lot of places I like, but I like New Orleans better.

Five years ago, I was in Oxfordtown waiting out the storm.

Sitting back in my house in New Orleans, all this time later, I still feel lucky to be here. From where I sit, I see four cypress doors with old rim locks, brown and white porcelain knobs, and transoms above, an old river clay brick fire place that used to provide heat when this room, now my office, was the back of a slave quarters, and a double hung window looking out to a Japanese magnolia, a mimosa tree, and endless cat's claw vine consuming everything in its path beneath a blue sky. It is an unexceptional New Orleans room but better than any room anywhere else.

From Bob Dylan's Chronicles, Volume 1:

I showed up in New Orleans in early spring, moved into a large rented house near Audubon Park, a comfortable place, all the rooms fair sized, furnished quite simply, wardrobe cupboards in just about every room. We couldn’t have come to a better place for me. It was really perfect. You could work slow here. They were waiting at the studio, but I didn’t feel like jumping into anything. Sooner or later I’d have to get to the point but I could try it on another day. I brought a lot of the songs with me, I was pretty sure they would hold up veil.

Right now, I strolled into the dusk. The air was murky and intoxicating. At the corner of the block, a giant, gaunt cat crouched on a concrete ledge. I got up close to it and stopped and the cat didn’t move. I wished I had a jug of milk. My eyes and ears were open, my consciousness fully alive. The first thing you notice about New Orleans are the burying grounds - the cemeteries - and they're a cold proposition, one of the best things there are here. Going by, you try to be as quiet as possible, better to let them sleep. Greek, Roman, sepulchres- palatial mausoleums made to order, phantomesque, signs and symbols of hidden decay - ghosts of women and men who have sinned and who've died and are now living in tombs. The past doesn't pass away so quickly here. You could be dead for a long time.

The ghosts race towards the light, you can almost hear the heavy breathing spirits, all determined to get somewhere. New Orleans, unlike a lot of those places you go back to and that don't have the magic anymore, still has got it. Night can swallow you up, yet none of it touches you. Around any corner, there's a promise of something daring and ideal and things are just getting going. There's something obscenely joyful behind every door, either that or somebody crying with their head in their hands. A lazy rhythm looms in the dreamy air and the atmosphere pulsates with bygone duels, past-life romance, comrades requesting comrades to aid them in some way. You can't see it, but you know it's here. Somebody is always sinking. Everyone seems to be from some very old Southern families. Either that or a foreigner. I like the way it is.

There are a lot of places I like, but I like New Orleans better. There's a thousand different angles at any moment. At any time you could run into a ritual honoring some vaguely known queen. Bluebloods, titled persons like crazy drunks, lean weakly against the walls and drag themselves through the gutter. Even they seem to have insights you might want to listen to. No action seems inappropriate here. The city is one very long poem. Gardens full of pansies, pink petunias, opiates. Flower-bedecked shrines, white myrtles, bougainvillea and purple oleander stimulate your senses, make you feel cool and clear inside.

Everything in New Orleans is a good idea. Bijou temple-type cottages and lyric cathedrals side by side. Houses and mansions, structures of wild grace. Italianate, Gothic, Romanesque, Greek Revival standing in a long line in the rain. Roman Catholic art. Sweeping front porches, turrets, cast-iron balconies, colonnades- 30-foot columns, gloriously beautiful- double pitched roofs, all the architecture of the whole wide world and it doesn't move. All that and a town square where public executions took place. In New Orleans you could almost see other dimensions. There's only one day at a time here, then it's tonight and then tomorrow will be today again. Chronic melancholia hanging from the trees. You never get tired of it. After a while you start to feel like a ghost from one of the tombs, like you're in a wax museum below crimson clouds. Spirit empire. Wealthy empire. One of Napoleon's generals, Lallemaud, was said to have come here to check it out, looking for a place for his commander to seek refuge after Waterloo. He scouted around and left, said that here the devil is damned, just like everybody else, only worse. The devil comes here and sighs. New Orleans. Exquisite, old-fashioned. A great place to live vicariously. Nothing makes any difference and you never feel hurt, a great place to really hit on things. Somebody puts something in front of you here and you might as well drink it. Great place to be intimate or do nothing. A place to come and hope you'll get smart - to feed pigeons looking for handouts.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

If God Is Willing and da Creek Don't Rise

An essay I wrote for Salon about Spike Lee's new documentary and New Orleans five years after Hurricane Katrina.

"If God Is Willing and da Creek Don't Rise": Spike Lee's riveting look at New Orleans, now

The filmmaker's new documentary argues that the troubled, extraordinary city holds the key to our redemption

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

death i think is no parenthesis

Earlier this month we stayed in a pleasant little cottage on Peaks Island in Maine. The house had belonged to a somewhat recently deceased woman for many years and her things - her white furniture, artwork, photographs, and books - kept the place Christina's Cottage, which is what everyone called it. While the home was unmistakeably her's and left a strong impression of her as a person, we felt comfortable there and had some vague sense that we liked her from her house, her things, and the impression it left about how she lived her life.

The first night we were there, when Nikki had fallen asleep upstairs, I picked out an anthology of poems from the bookcase and went to a dogeared page. I imagined that Christina had read the poem years earlier, that it had moved her, and that she marked the page to remember it. I too was moved, thought of my wife upstairs and the woman and her children who had lived there.

I read it to Nikki in the morning. She said that it was her favorite E.E. Cummings poem, which she hadn't read in years, and that it reminded her of her sister, who passed away years earlier.

since feeling is first

E.E. Cummings

since feeling is first
who pays any attention
to the syntax of things
will never wholly kiss you;
wholly to be a fool
while Spring is in the world

my blood approves,
and kisses are a better fate
than wisdom
lady i swear by all flowers. Don't cry
—the best gesture of my brain is less than
your eyelids' flutter which says

we are for each other: then
laugh, leaning back in my arms
for life's not a paragraph

And death i think is no parenthesis