Review: Niyi Osundare's City Without People (Black Widow Press, 2011)
Note: This review was originally published in Entrepôt (Vol. 2, Oct 2011).
Dr. Niyi Osundare will be the featured reader Tuesday, March 6, 2012 at the 1718 Series held at the Columns Hotel. The series begins rather promptly at 7 and is usually SRO, so get there early for a seat. The readings are usually followed by a Q & A with the author.
City Without People: The Katrina Poems by Niyi Osundare
(Black Widow press, 2011) 137 Pgs.
Reviewed by Megan Burns
Niyi Osundare’s City Without People: The Katrina Poems is a narrative journey from the first moments that the water breached the levees to the traumatic experience of the author and his wife trapped in their attic to the slow journey back to some sense of normalcy. Instead of a straight shot chronologically though, these poems vacillate from the first terrible hours followed by the one year anniversary and then back to earlier experiences. In this way, they capture the way memory holds a seemingly endless amount of hours and experiences in a brief recollected interlude. This movement in time as well reflects the book’s attempt to capture the ebb and flow of fear and anger as well as passion and hope in the years following Katrina. These poems then are arranged strongly around the tone and the emotion expressed in each section. It allows the poet to not only examine the various reactions to this event, but it also plumbs the depths of the poet’s personal experience as survivor, evacuee, displaced professor, New Orleans citizen, and as part of a Nigerian community in New Orleans that is displaced after the storm. Osundare’s Nigerian background and cultural milieu allow him the opportunity to translate this event through his African heritage. In cultural signals and codes, Osundare brings his own particular blend of Nigerian influence to this historical New Orleans event. It’s this blending of cultures, this looking back to the familiar in the midst of chaos, that brings such a unique voice to this topic. In addition, Osundare’s ability to range from anger to quiet desperation amid heartbreaking images and then soar back to such heights of optimism and resilience makes this book one of the most important books to emerge from the Katrina debacle. Unlike earlier books, this collection benefits from the author’s deliberate need to process and collect his thoughts and responses. The reader receives not one overwhelming sense of raw or heated emotions, but instead passes through the ever-changing sense of response and recovery that takes years to really name and comprehend.
The initial section to this collection “WATER, WATER!...” opens with the subtle line, “It all began as a whisper among/ The leaves.” The poem titled “The Lake Came to My House” is just the beginning of several difficult poems in this section that recount the disastrous damage that the water inflicted upon the city of New Orleans. The poem ends with the same subtle tone that belies the vast trauma embedded within the lines: “The day the Lake came down my street/ And took my house away.” Osundare easily moves from narrative lyrics to stark lines that have imagistic overtones and then to more formally rhymed and metered lines. His penchant for song is evident in poems like “Katrina Anthem” which begins “Ka ka Katrina” and then continues out in quatrains composed of rhymed couplets beating out a rhythm as tense and pitched as the misery and distress that forms the subject:
Blood on your hands, skulls in your fridge
You swamp the river and swallow the bridge
In your crowded kitchen a foul fleshfeast
Fit for the monster and the hellish beast
In stark contrast to this melodic, albeit dark poem, is the poem that is the title piece for the book, “City Without People.” Here Osundare delivers a straight punch, no rhyme or song, but instead the bleak report from the voice of the witness: “The trees are dead/ The birds are gone/The grass is scorched” and later, the questions: “Tell me/ What do you call a house/ Without walls?” One of the powerful aspects of this book is Osundare’s ability to return again and again in various forms and tones to this subject. In one poem where the reader finds despair; there will be another that sings of rebirth. It’s an inconstancy that perfectly reflects the chaotic nature of responding and surviving a catastrophe. In the midst of resilience, the author finds himself angry and distraught and then in the next moment, “the sexy serenade of the sax-o-phone” rises breathing new hope into the lines.
Osundare’s poems as well cover vast topics brought about by the disaster from the negative response of outsiders who loudly criticized the city’s rebuilding to the “Katrina refugee” moniker to the disaster tours that descended into destroyed neighborhoods for tourists; this book in a sense becomes a catalogue, a reminder of not only the city’s event but the fallout from that event and how the nation responded. As the unacknowledged legislator, Osundare pokes fun of these notions while also cutting to the quick of the issue. In “Disastourism” he warns: “Careful now,/ Dear Tourist/ Mind the bristling bones/ Beneath your sole.” In other words, take care where you walk for in these empty hulls are the souls of a city, and what does it say of your own heart to drive by in a bus pointing a camera at this destruction. Osundare points out that to uncap the lens of our own view would mean accepting that this could have been prevented and that any region protected by levees could be another “New Orleans” story.
The book ends with a poignant interview between Niyi Osundare and Rebecca Antoine, which was collected in Antoine’s Voices Rising II: More Stories from the Katrina Narrative Project. It’s incredible after reading these poems, which attempt to encapsulate a series of swirling emotions and responses to disaster, to read this interview that clearly recounts Osunadare’s experience from the moment the levees broke to the point where he returns to New Orleans almost a year later. People from poems in the book acquire new depths as Osundare relates with wonder and appreciation all of the people who helped him and his family not only survive their harrowing entrapment in their flooded house but who continued to help them long after the water had receded and the city had become a fading news story. Osundare opens up a world interconnected by scholars and university colleagues who came to his aid as well as Nigerian community members and friends both here in America and in Africa who helped support him and his family at this time. Osudare’s ties to Nigeria and to the country of his childhood are largely represented in this book that talks of his new home. In song and in references, in the call and response and in the chant, there are, in the bones of these poems, beliefs in homes that span oceans and in communities not bound by geography. From the preface, Osundare says, “I sing of a city which insists on its own right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” This is a book about people: People filled with the need to raise their voices against the silence.