Poems for New Orleans. Edward Sanders. North Atlantic Books. Berkeley, California. 2008.
Edward (Ed) Sanders is our third favourite Sanders in the world. Pharoah Sanders will always win that race and Bernie Sanders is an ace example of how the best of us comes to live in one hard working soul. Third place doesn't sound like much of a prize but Today's book of poetry has long admired Mr. Edward Sanders, the poet.
Edward Sanders wears a lot of hats. You've probably heard of his culture crashing musical group The Fugs. Sanders opened the famous Peace Eye Bookstore in New York, and was on the ground in San Francisco when Beat met Hippie. His bibliography is longer than my arm.
So I was disappointed when Milo came back from the stacks with only one Edward Sanders collection. Today's book of poetry has a first printing of Sanders first publication, Poem From Jail (A City Lights Publication, 1963), but that was it. Milo, our head tech and book scout, has been tasked with filling in those huge Sanders gaps in our library.
Poems for New Orleans continues Sanders long history of investigative poetry and it is a Katrina induced HOWL. Poems for New Orleans is full of Sanders encyclopedic research and tempered by a lengthy residence in situ in the Big Easy.
Today's book of poetry thinks we should all agree that pound for pound, there may be no more famous town on earth. New Orleans is a town that has inflamed the imaginations and compelled discovery for generations. From a swamp-stop-tent-town to a modern metropolis. And into that Sanders brings William Blake for a look around, has Mark Twain twang and Lee Harvey take a stroll, mourns the loss of a beloved Magnolia tree, hates FEMA and sings wildly into the chorus we all know, songs for the everyman.
Marie Lebage and Huey Long
Her name was Marie Lebage
She was a school teacher
and she worked in the campaign of Huey Long
At first she didn't really know why
but then she just got swept up
She was the great granddaughter of Lemoine Lebage
who fought alongside Andy Jackson in the Battle of New Orleans
Marie had young kids
and the State of Louisiana charged money for textbooks
but when Huey Long became governor
he not only made the textbooks free
he started giving black teachers the same money as whites
Could it be that Huey was a savior?
She was sick of the generations of
post-slaver whites who always had one tune to sing:
"Don't give those black folk, not a dime
That will come another time"
It's hard to pick a fight with greed
when greed is such a seed
but in the middle of the Depression
she watched the right wing
rise up with hatchets of hatred
as only the right can do
Ask the Gracchi of ancient Rome
Marie already knew about hatred
She'd faced up the klan
ever after they put death fliers
on her porch in the Lower 9th
But the slavers really hated Huey
They snarled he was a pawn of Marx
but Marie Lebarge was totally certain
that Huey Long's slogan "Share Our Wealth"
came from the sermons of Jesus
and Jefferson's love of revolution.
She took the bus to Baton Rouge
on a stark September day of '35
She was part of a choral group that was singing
the anthem Huey had written
"Every Man a King"
by the front steps of the capitol
when the Kingfish was gunned to the stone
even though he was surrounded by bodyguards
A dead savior is a dead savior
and nothing was left but a cash-starved machine
and a president headed for war
It's hard to pick a fight with greed
When greed is such a seed
for Greed loves bullets
like water loves pullets
and down dives luck and pluck
like a Pontchartrain duck
Poems for New Orleans offers up some alternative views as to what the true history of the magic town could be. Sanders is willing to imagine a different and a better future for New Orleans but sometimes he needs fantasy to do it.
Edward Sanders has a honed, hair-trigger sense of humour, a sense of duty in honouring history, and a bigger sense of responsibility than most about the hubris of those responsible for the human tragedy during and after Katrina. That's a lot to put into one book of poems and Sanders knows it. But clearly Sanders has paid the price of admission, spent double-time on his homework.
Today's book of poetry was never quite able to figure out the lyrics to the Tragically Hip song "New Orleans is Sinking" but I thought we should play it on the morning rotation along with Don McLean's "American Pie." McLean knew about the levies and more. Arlo Guthrie sang about "The City of New Orleans" so he had to be included as well.
Then we thought Dixieland, then Zydeco, then all hell broke loose. Kathryn, our Jr. Editor, and Maggie, our new intern, were both dancing with Milo. Max opened his office door and a blue wall of what looked like a heavy fog rolled out behind him, he waltzed over to the gyrating threesome and put down some John Travolta moves that jaw-dropped the room. Then, he spun around, returned to his office murmuring something about emptying the swamps, history of evil, alligators not being the worst beast that slithered, and his door shut with a blue wisp halo around the edges of his office door.
Echoes of Heraclitus
Four days I sat in the attic
with 27 cans of beans
we were going to use on Labor Day
and some coca cola I drank very slowly
to make it last
Finally I bashed and bashed
with a can
till I created enough of a breach
to pry open the smallest slit in the roof
O my God!
one of my neighbors was floating with
her hair entangled in a tree limb
A helicopter flew me away
I wound up in Utah
where I'm waiting for Jesus
to help me home.
That's what my mother always said:
The rivers always pours toward poverty
You can't lose the same house twice
but once you get to heaven
the water makes God's bread to leaven.
Our morning read here at Today's book of poetry was tempered by my poor sleep last night. Today's book of poetry's biggest fan and supporter is in Montreal for a few days and the place feels empty without her. But the crew gave Poems for New Orleans a good rally around the flag and that cheered me immensely. Sanders encouraged a vibrant reading with his splendid narratives and tender heart.
Today's book of poetry would be remiss if we didn't extend an extreme bow to Edward Sanders along with a "Thank You Sir" in the robust and genuine style of one of Rob McLennan. Sanders has been on the poetry beat for a long, long time and his poetry still feels fresh, immediate and necessary.
They took a picture of Gandhi's personal possessions
at the time of his killing
a pair of glasses, a robe, sandals
& maybe a water jar
Not much more.
I feel the same way most of the time now
that all my stuff has washed away in the flood
I'm Free of those toilsome burdens
free of my doormouse diaries
free of my kitchen cabinet
& its ancient hippie tea from 1969
but I can't help it—
I miss my ironing board
and the letters you used to send me
after we were beaten in Selma
Edward Sanders has been publishing his brand of anarchy and beauty to appreciative audiences for over half a century. It hasn't gotten old yet.
Today's book of poetry is proud to introduce Sanders to some of you younger readers. For any of you old enough to remember "I Love Lucy" Sanders will be a poet you know like an old friend you can depend on. Edward Sanders was present back in the day, he remains a vibrant people's poet, a necessary voice.
Back in the day.
ABOUT THE AUTHOREdward Sanders was a founding member of the seminal bohemian rock band The Fugs and a prominent figure in the 60s counterculture. He is the author of numerous books of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction, including the bestselling study of Charles Manson, The Family. The winner of a number of writing awards, including a Guggenheim and an NEA fellowship, he lives in Woodstock, NY.