“Well Here We Are -- Best [Not] Forget That”:
Pictures from New Orleans --
The Wisdom of Ashes by Jonathan Kline and
Glyphs for New Orleans by Edward Sanders.
Both from Lavender Ink, 2013.
Kennis is 22-year-old homeless man in New Orleans who speaks fluent Latin which he learned from his mother, The Whore of Babylon, but only fragmentary (but deceptively wise) English. When Kennis is confronted with the numerous ugly realities of human cruelty, he says, “Best forget that,” and he follows his own advice, or he says simply, “Well, here we are,” and that’s the end of the conversation. In the tradition of literary “wise fools,” Kennis is the central voice of coping with the incomprehensible truths of New Orleans (and, of course, the whole of our modern world). He hardly knows anything, and yet he somehow knows more than the Old Poet or the young poet or the old man who liberated Dachau and now haunts the levee looking for the bodies of suicides or the psych ward nurse who becomes one of those suicides or his aunt, a nun whose father was the devil.
In forty-four short intertwined fragmentary portraits, most of which are less than two-pages long, Jonathan Kline “paints” a mosaic of New Orleans life that, all together, shouts, “Well, here we are!” and “Best NOT forget that!” Kline gives a bleak picture that is shot through with poignant but sad glimpses of human kindness amidst repeated acts of cruelty, absurdity both humorous and horrible, a kind of beautiful hopelessness. Like Dummy, the dog formerly known as Peppy, the characters take what kindness they find, endure the inescapable cruelties they must suffer, and finally succumb--either to their own hopelessness or to simple random bad luck. At least three characters make their way the edge of the river, fold their arms in baptism, fall back devoid of pain and pleasure, and are swept away. Dummy steps out in front of a car. Sam, the young poet Dummy follows around, gets his divorce papers the day Dummy is killed. The Old Poet contemplates (and shouts out) his intentions to commit suicide while really falling back into a different river devoid of pain and pleasure from which he washes up on his front porch recovering from another alcoholic blackout.
Kline’s pictures are vivid, often darkly humorous, even if they never really let us into the characters’ lives. Kline’s prose follows a super spare minimalist tradition, a la Raymond Carver and Frederick Barthelme, which vividly presents the surface of things and events and people but which eschews any explicit claim to “meaning.” We see Kline’s characters walk the streets, but we never can know them. That’s part of the point. They don’t even know themselves. The only wisdom here is “the wisdom of ashes”: the knowledge that the dead are all around us; the only hope is praying to Saint Dymphna, the patron saint of mental patients and sleepwalkers.
Edward Sanders is a goof! He is also the co-founder of the Fugs (if you remember them, you are showing your age--or your savvy of 60’s rock), a poet, a social activist, an environmentalist, an editor, and a publisher. His volume Thirsty for Peace in a Raging Century: Selected Poems, 1961-1985 won the American Book Award for poetry in 1988. His thin colorful volume Glyphs for New Orleans presents seventeen colorful doodle/poems drawn over the six days he spent in New Orleans when he came to deliver and talk at Loyola University in October, 2008. They are a small example of his larger “glyph” project which combines pictures vaguely reminiscent of Egyptian hieroglyphs and spare poems which are similarly more like minimalist symbols than poems and which represent Sanders’ ever-present concerns/commitments. The journal of which Sanders is the founder and editor and chief writer, The Woodstock Journal, proclaims its (his) aims thus: “working for an organic food supply, safe air, non-polluted water, a total end to poverty, national health care, personal freedom and fun.” That list of aims is all evident in these seventeen playful (yet also serious) poem/pictures.
The works respond to specific New Orleans locations -- St. Louis Cathedral, Jackson Square, the fountain at the Maison Dupuy Hotel, Marie Laveau’s crypt in St. Louis Cemetery, and the Lower 9th Ward -- and they sparingly evoke 19th-century history (Jackson and his indian and banking policies), competing religious visions (Old World Catholicism and its New Orleans new world manifestation along side William Blake and the Black Madonna all merged in “the Golden Rivers of Eternity”), the concept of perfection, riding a dolphin, the power of imagination, a flood-plain cyprus restoration project, the still present destruction of both humans and infrastructure in the Lower 9th, a call to social activism (“O America/ Let’s Go!”), and simple goofy joy (“Eating / Drinking / Eros / Music / Books / Domicile / No sharp words in front of the flicker / What else is there? / ....”).
Reviewed by Michael F. McClure
Michael McClure is an Associate Professor of English at Virginia State University. One of the editors of NOLA DIASPORA,he has edited a textbook on mythology and co-authored an apocalyptic novel, 2020, with Scott A. Leonard. Their nom de plume is Frank McArthur. He is currently at editing a collection of essays about surviving--and thriving in--academic careers.