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Review: A Poetic Voice for New Orleans: Mona Lisa Saloy’s Second Line Home: New Orleans Poems. Truman State University Press, 2014.

I have visited New Orleans three or four times, and always briefly.  During my visits to the Crescent City, I have only seen those parts of the city always frequented by tourists and out-of-towners.  I have never stayed long enough to experience the true life-style, cultures and communities—of one of the most unique cities in the United States.  I was never there long enough to really get a flavor of what the city is really like. How can any tourist really get a feel of any place only after a few days? One cannot.  For many Americans who have never visited the city, unfortunately, their first look at New Orleans was when we all watched as this beautiful place became the center of Hurricane Katrina’s deadly destruction.  We outside of the city watched as people fled and attempted to flee New Orleans.  We watched as American citizens sat on their rooftops waiting for help which never came. We watched as bloated bodies floated down street-rivers amongst debris, cars, dead animals, trash. We watched as American citizens became stranded at the New Orleans Superdome, once again, waiting for help.  For some, help came too late.  While this city worked itself back from the brink getting help from the national government, many people from New Orleans had already relocated to other places including Texas and Austin—my state and my hometown.  I mention all of this to say that Mona Lisa Saloy’s Second Line Home: New Orleans Poems is a poetry collection that describes her city’s experience with the Hurricane. Yet, Second Line Home: New Orleans Poems is not only about Hurricane Katrina, even though it permeates much of the collection, it is also about community, family, faith, food, and ultimately, God’s grace.

Second Line Home: New Orleans Poems is divided into six sections not including Notes, Glossary, and biographical information about Ms. Saloy and the Cover Artist, Richard C. Thomas.  The Cover art Bring it back, bring it all back (The Mothers of New Orleans), immediately tells the reader that the cultural history of New Orleans is so important to understanding the people who live there.  The Cover art is a good beginning because throughout the collection, Saloy provides a native’s poetic view of her city. Her poetic descriptions of New Orleans are much different from how outsiders view the community.  Saloy’s love for her family, neighborhood, community and culture is a major theme throughout the collection. She rejoices in the familiarity between friends and neighbors and even strangers especially in times of need. Her strength as a poet comes through her use of allusion, metaphor, symbolism and New Orleans and Louisiana colloquiums. The poems are written in free form, and filled with figures of speech and cultural references to the Crescent City.

Much of Second Line Home: New Orleans Poems is based upon the poet’s own experiences.  For Saloy, home and community go beyond specific private spaces and geographical locations; they reach into the broader nation.  New Orleans is the United States and the United States is New Orleans.  The first section is See You in the Gumbo.   The first poem is “See You in the Gumbo.”  While the tone is somber throughout, it ends with hope.  The poet leads the reader along a journey where food comes to symbolize strength through friendship in times of need and necessity.  “Seeing you in the Gumbo” means “see you when all the trouble has passed and we can get together again”.  It is followed by the powerful “Evacuation Blues: This is how we did it” and is similar to “See You in the Gumbo” in tone.  While the title “Evacuation Blues” conveys the difficulty and stress of evacuating one’s home before the Hurricane hits, it really suggests something much more.

Saloy’s title “Evacuation Blues” is significant. Her use of “Evacuation” illustrates how people had to leave the city to escape danger.   Before leaving her home, she makes a “frantic 360 view of books, movies / Music on CDS, classic 33 rpms. Take what? Elder neighbor Ruth Barnes cries / ‘You said we’re staying,’ from her backyard”.  These beautiful lines convey to the reader how people must make quick decisions about what to take and what to leave behind among a lifetime of accumulating possessions. In the following stanza she transitions from the personal to the collective “we” when she describes how “we” had to leave New Orleans heading to places of safety.  Her use of “Blues” describes the despair of having to leave.  But blues is not only a metaphor describing how one feels; it is also a musical art form created in New Orleans. It was a new kind of music.  The Blues is a fusing together of harmony and structural devices and vocal techniques found in Southern work songs and African American spirituals.  The Blues is a secular form of music, which does not promise spiritual salvation, but rather a way of expressing earthly trials and tribulations while at the same time, hoping for better days in the future.  In this poem, Saloy describes the trials and tribulations brought about by the Hurricane, but through the welcoming arms of friends in her and her neighbor’s time of need, her belief in the goodness of friends is reaffirmed.

Next is First Line: Requiem for the Crescent City.  Saloy includes two powerful poems here: “When I saw bodies” and “New Orleans: Broken Not Dead”.  “When I saw bodies” is told from the first person perspective describing the horror of seeing dead bodies left behind with no regard for their humanity. “When I see bodies bent to fold on cars / When I smell death across the lines of fence / Bodies rot so left to stink on bars / Whole families broken no recompense”.  Not only can the reader visualize dead bodies, but almost smell dead bodies.  With so much death all around perhaps all is lost. Yet, in “New Orleans: Broken Not Dead” Saloy writes a love poem—a sonnet—to her beleaguered city.  Still overwhelmed with grief “Our craftsmen carve and pour our iron our wood / In vain for months we search our loves our lost / Then build one wall one floor one door one roof / The stench the dead so long in the heat with us / Like men and women, bold, we make our pact, / Pressed to our knees, held down but kicking back!” In this poem, Saloy expresses a single sentiment—human perseverance.

The third section is called La Vie Créole & Étoufée Talk and includes poems about family.  Many of these poems describe family members long since gone, but brought to life through the poet’s skillful use of a particular word or phrase. She describes her Uncle Herbert as her “chocolate Creole-Crooning upright-piano-playing Uncle Herbert / Skunk” and her daddy as “this Creole crazy man / Is my daddy, the / First man I loved”, and her mother as “Deep, dark chocolate, tall like me, 5’8”, heavy boned, a / Black beauty he said often. She a PK, / Preacher’s Kid, the eldest, the rock of her family,” /.  Saloy’s descriptions of her relatives reflect her great love for them, but also the significant life lessons she learned from them such as faith, family and love.  What is most memorable about these poems is whatever storms the family faced their love for each other saw them through.  These poems continue the theme Saloy has been developing throughout her collection.  Storms may come and wreak havoc, but they do not destroy what is everlasting.

The fourth section is Hurricanes & Hallelujahs. The poem “Hurricane Lessons: Issac September & Sandy October” is typical of the poems in this group.  Saloy writes about how “Post-Katrina” is not only a particular time in the history of New Orleans, but a particular mindset.  The idea of “Post-Katrina” allows those who experienced the Hurricane firsthand to reflect on its devastation.  The poem also addresses the implications of climate change, which contributes to the increasing the number of hurricanes affecting the United States.  The poem is a lesson learned about their destructive power, and the need for human compassion and understanding whenever and wherever they strike.

The fifth section is Presidential Poems.  These poems are the most overtly political especially regarding the history of race in New Orleans and the United States.  In “Lincoln in New Orleans, 1831”, Saloy describes the important role New Orleans played regarding American slavery and race.  It tells of Abraham Lincoln’s second trip down the Mississippi River ending up in the Crescent city. “By 1831, Abe floated again to the Crescent City / His second flatboat trip down the ‘Sippi / Into Jackson Square, the St. Louis Cathedral / Standing in majesty, framing the river, like the / Auction block, where brown-eyed picaninnies cried / Being torn from mothers, dreaming of fathers for rescue, and/ Abe Lincoln learning horror firsthand.”  The future American president was able to see just how horrible American Slavery was, and eventually would realize it had to be addressed if the Union was to be saved. In terms of how American slavery, the peculiar institution based on race, continues to play out in terms of political apathy and economic neglect was made evident in the poem “On not being able to write a post-Katrina poem about New Orleans”, which is included in First Line: Requiem for the Crescent City.   During slavery, New Orleans became a center for taking children from their parents, and wives from their husbands.  In other words, the neglect of black bodies then became a precursor to a different kind of neglect one hundred and seventy-four years later.  As these two poems suggests, one’s race was an impediment in 1831 and 2005.  But in 2008, it seems to no longer be a major barrier to the highest political office in the land.  Saloy writes two poems dedicated to the first African American president of the United States: Barack Obama.  What is noteworthy is the placement of the two poems dedicated to President Obama.  They precede the poem about Abraham Lincoln.  It suggests to me that Saloy wants the reader understand just how far we have come as a nation regarding the issue of race in America.  Saloy sees President Obama as a symbol of this journey.

Another poem which stands out is “We”.  Throughout this poem Saloy references the Constitution of the United States of America, the National Anthem, and the Negro National Anthem.  She exclaims “Not you, not me, not he, not she, just us / We the people. We the brave./ We the heart. We the folk.”  Just like the Constitution, she focuses on the similarities among people regarding the civil rights and human rights of all Americans.  She continues “America! America! / God shed his grace on thee, / And crown thy good / with brotherhood….” Going beyond the civil rights and human rights which are guaranteed by the Constitution, and employing the National Anthem, Saloy recognizes the uniqueness of the United States because of God’s grace.  It was only through God’s grace the United States came into being as a democratic nation.  To fulfill her purpose of making “We” all inclusive, she quotes “Lift every voice and sing / Till earth and heaven ring / Ring with the harmonies / Of liberty….” The Negro National Anthem better known as Lift Every Voice and Sing was composed by James Weldon Johnson to reinforce the meaning of the National Anthem.  For Johnson and Saloy, the idea of America also includes African Americans.

In the last section, Saloy explains what “Second Lines” are not: “they are NOT the line behind musicians. The second line, as celebrated in New Orleans has its roots in West Africa, where folks still parade with parasols (umbrellas) and dance with handkerchiefs. In New Orleans, the Second Line is a practice that dates to before the city was founded. The First Line is the procession to the graveyard, accompanied by the dirge; the Second Line is the return from the burial and is a celebration of the life lived, a celebration that all of your loved one’s worries of this life are over and they are in a better place.  Such celebrating of the previous, earthly life completes the mourning, allowing folks to move on and begin new days of living.  This was particularly significant during slavery and jim crow, therefore Second Lines are charged with a spirit of joy.”  These poems are “charged with a spirit of joy”. They tell the real truth about what  New Orleans is—and not the picture imagined by tourists and outsiders; it is a city influenced by Catholicism, Spanish Architecture, love of family and neighborhood; the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina; and the next oncoming Hurricanes. But it is the last five poems of this section—“100 Thousand Poets for Change”, “From Lament to Hope”, “Blessed Be Us”, and “New Orleans, A Neighborhood Nation” and “New Orleans Matters”, which best illustrate Saloy’s hope for the world, nation, and her beloved city, New Orleans.

Being a poet herself, she knows the power of words to create change.  In “100 Thousand Poets for Change” she calls out poets from all over the world to change themselves, their block, their community, their city and their world.  In fact, the refrain throughout the poem is as follows: “Change yourself / Change your block / Change your city / Change your world”.  Poetry is the means by which the personal becomes the political and the political becomes the personal.  In “From Lament to Hope” Saloy once again describes that during her time of need while escaping Hurricane Katrina, her friends and neighbors came to her aid.  This poem is a metaphor for loss and hope.  After the storm clouds disappeared what remained were family and friends and community.  Throughout the work people of New Orleans were scattered throughout the country losing everything, but upon her return home she was “welcomed by dear friends & family able / To offer hospitality.” She is able to return to what are most important—relationships.  Though it all, what survives is hope.  “Blessed Be Us” is a sermon.  Its message is much like the “Gospel According to Saint Matthew” in the New Testament.   It is in Jesus Christ’s Sermon on the Mount, Chapter 5:3-11.  Jesus Christ teaches the multitudes about how humanity is to treat each other, and how to seek God.  In her sermon, she teaches her readers to cherish the relationships between mothers, fathers, sisters, and brothers.  She describes the histories between daughters and sons and to pass them on.  She admonishes kids who kill other kids but should still be loved. For Saloy, the greatest human attribute is forgiveness.  The poem is about the joy, love, forgiveness and togetherness between all people no matter their sins or shortcomings.  “New Orleans, A Neighborhood Nation” returns to Saloy’s love of New Orleans food, and how it represents the culture of the city.  I t is not just any kind of food, but New Orleans soul food.  Food is used to help identify time. It is to be used to help others in need.  The last poem is “New Orleans Matters”.   It is the culmination of all the other poems in the collection.  Here, Saloy returns to many of the themes she has already written about. She writes about how music—jazz,  R & B, blues, rock and roll—is the soundtrack of New Orleans and its survival through the post-Katrina years.  It is about how music allows the people of New Orleans to “live, celebrate lives in beats, songs, and dances”.   Music has helped New Orleans survive, thrive and live.  The music is an open invitation to visit the Crescent City.

Saloy is successful in creating a true picture of her city—its many traditions, its strength in the face of adversity, and its ability to overcome it by joining together families and communities.  Her powerful use of language conveys the strong ties that bind them together.  Her allusions and references to American history allows readers to see how the past continues to influence the present, but how the present can break apart from the past to create true change. The same is true for art.  No art stands on its own, but is a product of what has come before.  Art takes from the past, embodies what is needed to meet the demands of the present creating something new.  Her employment of African and African American vernacular traditions proves how creative art is always as one with what has come before, but is still new.  Saloy’s Second Line Home: New Orleans Poems takes its place among these traditions.   Mona Lisa Savoy is a poetic voice for New Orleans.  

Reviewed by Julie E. Hudson

Julie E. Hudson is an associate professor of English at Huston-Tillotson University in Austin, TX, where she advises the student literary journal.