Years ago, when I began thinking I would write poems, I started recording in my journal the images that had stayed with me—even haunted me—from my childhood. Always in that list were images related to storms: my grandmother’s frightened prayers as we moved through the house, rain coming in from the roof; my cousin’s nightmare of the ditch around our house spilling a flood into the yard; the annual footage of Hurricane Camille on television; the kerosene lamps we kept atop the tall bookshelf in the den. Still, a long time passed before I realized what the prominence of these images in my notebooks meant. Indeed, they were evidence of the extent to which I, like many people from the Mississippi Gulf Coast, are haunted—even at the edges of consciousness—by the possibility of a natural disaster.
In 1991 I had written those words—Natural Disaster—at the top of a page in my journal, recalling a story I had heard as a child about Hurricane Camille. It was a cautionary tale my grandmother likely told me—the story of a rich man who lived by the water and who, despite the potential for loss, embedded a fortune in coins in the floor of his home, a transparent layer above them so that anyone standing in his foyer could see his wealth beneath their feet. In the story, Camille did away with that part of his fortune, and I imagined coins raining down into the Gulf during the hurricane’s heavy winds. Later those notes gave way to the poem “Providence,” which appears in my 2006 collection, Native Guard, and which appears again in these pages, this time serving to underscore the connection between environmental factors and the trajectory of development on the Mississippi coast—both of which are linked to the extent of the devastation wrought—and the lives of the people caught up in this history.
Oddly, not until after Katrina did I come to see that the history of one storm, Camille—and the ever-present possibility of others—helped to define my relationship to the place from which I come. And so Beyond Katrina begins as that other book began, with a journey home—my nostos. “Theories of Time and Space” is the first poem I completed for Native Guard. Writing it, nearly ten years ago, I was thinking figuratively, You can get there from here, though / there’s no going home.
Although I had intended to consider the impossibility of returning to those places we’ve come from—not because the places are gone or substantially different but because we are—by August of 2005, the poem had become quite literal: so much of what I’d known of my home was either gone or forever changed. After Katrina the words I had looked to for their figurative values gave way to the reality they came to represent. For me the poem no longer meant what it had before—even as the words remained the same. In this way, the poem undergoes a kind of revision as it appears here—not unlike the story of the Gulf Coast, which is being revised even now: rebuilding and recovery in the wake of devastation and erasure.
Often I mention this to audiences around the country when I read the poem. But before that, I ask them what they remember when they hear the words Hurricane Katrina. Almost all of them say “New Orleans,” recalling the footage beginning the day after landfall, when the levees broke. Almost never does anyone answer “the Mississippi Gulf Coast.”