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In the Tradition: A Review of CITY WITHOUT PEOPLE
© by Professor Arturo, aka Arthur Pfister, Feb. 2012

REVIEW OF: Osundare, Niyi. City Without People: The Katrina Poems. Black Widow Press, 2011.

Niyi Osundare’s City Without People is a panoramic, Dickensian, first-hand account of the plight of those displaced U.S. citizens whose dreams were deferred following the more than terrible, swift sword that was Hurricane Katrina. Osundare relates a tale of two cities in that he recounts and reaffirms images of a city that care forgot but a tempest remembered. In the book’s preface he intones the soul of an antiquely unique city in the book’s preface using the farthest-flung of Jeffersonian terms:

I sing of a city which insists on its own right to life,
liberty, and the pursuit of happiness (p.10, Preface)

and brings to mind shadows of New Orleans' native son and master piano man Allen Toussaint’s “From a Whisper to a Scream" in a poem entitled “THE LAKE CAME TO MY HOUSE":

It all began as a whisper among
The leaves. The tree’s tangled tale
And the wanton narrative of the wind (p.13)

Despite a prevailing literary adherence throughout the volume, he resorts to name-calling in “KATRINA ANTHEM":

Ka ka Katrina, shameless witch (p.14)

while invoking the spirits of all being:

It (death) met Olosunta, Father of rocks
It met Oroole, Ruler of Lofty Heights
It met Esidale, Founder of Earth and sky
It met Ifa, source and Living Wisdom (p.25)

and, of course, he notes that transition to that all-embracing oneness that is the destiny of us all:

Death came calling
But it never met me at home. (p.25)

The work is especially reminiscent of the revered New Orleans poet Marcus Bruce Christian (1900 – 1976), the poet, folklorist, educator and author of the timeless “I Am New Orleans” an all-encompassing work that consecrates and celebrates the traditions, music, partying, praying, food, and voices of NOLA, especially those aspects of the African American community. Like Christian, Osundare remains true to a tradition of praising the enchantment of that city that only un-naive natives and well-settled transplants can fully understand. The rain “muddies the city’s magic” and dances on the graves of many dreams” (p.24). He even lauds the reprobate aspects of the city of the crescent in terms of “Sin City”, “Big Sleazy”, and “wingless Angels” (p.41)

The Beatles and Ray Charles, the highest of priests, are also alluded to by the poet when he dares to boldly raise the specter of Katrina as a nature-inspired holocaust and/or Biblical calamity in “THE FINAL SOLUTION”:

He was snatched
From the jaws of the flood

By a Good-Samaritan neighbour
And bussed off to a place beyond the map

One month and two weeks later
He was back

To find all he owned
Had gone with the wind…

The ground beneath his sole
Was an abyss of no return (p.45)

The poet allows the reader to share the insights of his razor-sharp eye in poems such as “THE WRECKER’S BALL”, which focuses on the tearing down of houses at the intersection of Paris and Mirabeau with a “swing swing swing” (p.50), and a poem actually called “INSIGHT” in which he examines “The cruel pangs of hunger”, a “bowl of sand”, and “a bevy of beads” (p.65)

His fellow poets, from New Orleans’ own Kalamu ya Salaam to Joyce Kilmer, are mentioned and/or alluded to as are the author’s personal friends and the Katrina-instigated Diaspora comprised of a motley membership of Southern flatlanders who were often amazed (after displacement) that mountain ranges in other states were actually real and not Hollywood backlot backdrops.

But the primary tableau of the volume is the stalwart voice it gives to a city on the rebound through rebuilding. Osundare recounts the efforts, large and small, of those who see the promise of a future, a new beginning, a sea turtle escaping from the belly of a shark that momentarily interrupted its progress -- as a haven for those whose generational veneration for the traditions of the most unique city on the continent makes them wanta let it all hang out and laissez les bons temps rouler!!!

Professor Arturo aka Arthur Pfister

Arthur Pfister is a New Orleans native. A prolific poet and short story writer, he specializes in spoken word and jazz collaborations. He is now teaching in Connecticut, but he enjoys a steady performance travel schedule that allows him to return to the Crescent City. Pfister's most recent book is My Name is New Orleans. His works, and an introduction to a new short fiction collection, will be featured in the Katrina 2012 issue of NOLADIASPORA.