I Am New Orleans
Copyright © by SuZi, 7/28/11
New Orleans will ever be on the conscience of America: a shameful show of overt brutality, a legacy of prevarication (the storm was the long-awaited for opportunity, believe not the propaganda), and now an era for profiteering that is, alas, somewhat abetted by the diaspora of her denizens. In the latter decades of the twentieth century—after the petro-chem industry mutilated the fragile delta ecosystem—New Orleans was an adult amusement park, and media portrayals always included the obligatory strip-of-bars versus wetland settings with maybe a zydecajun musical accompaniment, but woefully ignored was any real understanding of a distinctive culture that is now on the verge of extinction. The colonization and generic-clone replacement of local culture is not new in our America, as every hamlet has its historic district ringed with the nightmare of franchise ghettoes; however, in few circumstances has this colonization taken place on as many corpses as those of New Orleans, and of those piles of corpses, these have been publicly viewed, and are fairly recent. In an ineligible image from an egregious example of cultural appropriation, the soap opera Treme showed a vast covey of reefer trucks used to house unclaimed New Orleans corpses. Thus, the extermination of the populace of this American city is plated and served to our citizens, who are jaded from viewing televised corpses for three generations, at least. That New Orleans is technically a part of America both fuels its colonization (fuels the desire to erase its distinctiveness while making a covert fortune), and fuels the habitual discomfort of American society towards the culture of New Orleans itself, towards its obvious difference. Cultural differences in New Orleans may be demonstrable by the determined traditions of Mardi Gras, Creole cooking, and superlative musical quality(live music is unknown is much of America now beyond the occasional bar-circuit cover band stumbling through their set list), but these manifestations are the edges of a culture that encompasses a way of being entirely foreign to the rest of the country.
Thus a book entitled My Name is New Orleans will posit some immediate difficulties for a reader; one being the discomfort of social shame brought about by the city in question, and the second relative to the book’s text/poems with an accompanying CD. For even those Americans, Kindle-besotted perchance or not, who read, poetry presents problems. Ironically, the sensitive citizen ashamed of their passive-yet-tacit collusion in the war against New Orleans suffers the same shame at their difficulties in reading poetry; they have forgotten, as Charles Bernstein says, that reading poetry is ‘an intimate relation”(5), and can be” a long-term aesthetic experience” that he calls “fulfilling”(5).
In actuality, Arthur Pfister’s book, My Name Is New Orleans, is a collection of six chapbook-length sections that positions itself as the lifework of the author, although the thought arises about the author’s present circumstances as being one of the exiles of the city and what was lost. Nonetheless, the surviving author presents this surviving work, and the text is the testimony. Those habituated to reading poetry are in for a cultural shock not dissimilar to that felt by visitors to the city that forms the theme of most of the book’s text: Pfister’s work is distinctive and closer to that un-academic genre called street (paraphrase Formento) or, alternately, spoken word. Unlike many performance-oriented poets, Pfister is not a young gun working the Mark Twain trope (Henry Rollins back when), and the work is wise in the ways of literary devices. Of these, Pfister uses enumeration in a way that’s just as trance-inducing and mystical as Ginsberg, except that Pfister’s enumeration is of New Orleans dialect, and thus becomes a didactic catalogue of culturally linguistic significance:
Men who say “ The Farm” (insteada “Angola”)
Men who say “The Plantation” (insteada “SUNO”)
Men who say “The Lil’ Plantation” (insteada “McDonough 28”)
Men who say “Kinnygawdin”(insteada ‘kindergarten”)
Men who say ‘Pell Mell (insteada “Pall Mall”)
Men who say “sitcheeashun” (insteada “situation’)
Men who say “physical year” (insteada “fiscal year”)
Men who say “Mee-row” ( insteada “Miro”)
“Poem for Our Fathers”
Despite Pfister’s art joke in the last quoted line (and the text overall has moments of sly, wry humor), the catalogue provides the insider’s view that is the function of dialect, the specific perspective that dialect affords (paraphrase Lucas). Those invested in the assault will be hard pressed not to find themselves wearing their midnight sheets when taking umbrage at certain turns of dialect, but other phrases reference the state prison, or the names of schools, that will bewilder those who insist on a tourist posture. By cataloging both place names in local tongue, and pronunciations, Pfister curates characteristics of his poems’ topics with anthropological finesse.
If Pfister’s work can be seen as punching New Orleans culture further in America’s consciousness (perhaps as Hurston did, to document what is being eradicated), then his other hand fights with the tool of rhyme. Although our current culture(what of its few entertaining tokens that pass for culture) is quite familiar with rhyme, Pfister’s treatment is both more intense, and not concerned solely with curbside bravado, but with the genre of traded insults that is even documented in Shakespeare in the pre-battle parley between Antony and Brutus. In folktale retold in poem format:
I drink bat blood for breakfast, eat booty for lunch
For Christmas last year I ate the Brady Bunch
My name’s Stagolee; I shoots from the hip
My nickname ain’t “Stag”; I’m the ‘BIG MONEY GRIP’…
I’m a poo-poo spitter, money-gitter
nut cracker, pistol packer
city slicker, butt kicker
bar hoppa, poppa stoppa
wham-bamma,flim-flamma(thank you mamma)…
“Stagolee and Billy”
Whereas, the end rhyme uses inventive brag-metaphors, Pfister then speeds of the meter, so that the section employs both rhyme and the incantation of enumeration. That Pfister doubles the time speaks to the text’s overlying preoccupation: Jazz music. While the accompanying CD consists, at first play, of Pfister reciting the poems over a spare but effective musical background, the CD’s simplicity is a deceptive as the apparently simplicity of the poems in text-only format. Jazz-despite being overshadowed by its various musical children—is concerned with new ways of listening, and thus of new perceptions; a strong current in Pfister’s work. That the author overtly acknowledges the jazz element in the title of the book, and employs jazz as both consistent with the culture being both documented and eulogized as the aural partner in the CD, speaks to the eye (text) and ear( CD) to impress the vantage point firmly: New Orleans is a different way of hearing, of being.
The power of these elements reaches hurricane force in a number of poems in the text, both the title poem (two sections are represented on the CD), and the elegiac poems have a subtle but devastating impact. In the poem dedicated to Louis Armstrong, with the allusionary title “ Native Son”, Pfister’s rhyme, enumerative incantations and meter prove potent. The poem is in three sections detailing Armstrong’s, biography, the experience of his music, and a detail from his legacy—that of a small, almost innocuous scene set in the New Orleans park that bears his name(and once the home of TV-soap Treme highlighted, available-for-streaming, radio station WWOZ, ya’all). Pfister handles the research of Armstrong’s biography without compromise to his own style:
From the brothels and cribs and dance halls and dives
From physical and emotional deprivation
Miseducation, family devastation
(Sometimes I feel like a fatherless child) ( 56)
Also employing direct address:
Blow to the people
to the principals and teachers
and the players and the preachers
to the educated tools and uneducated fools
to the ministers, mayors, and sinister players
to whitecapped waters and redcapped porters
to the people of the streets (58)
While periodically repeating the phrase “Blow Louis Blow!” The poem is also on the CD, and the piece opens with a bass guitar as counterpoint to Pfister’s own natural baritone.
If Pfister’s work is difficult, it is because of a heritage denied: that WCWilliams sought realism in poetry is seen in classrooms as the logical lineage of Whitman, yet Pfister encompasses both their lessons. If Pfister is seen as difficult, the simplicity of his lists and rhymes dismissed by those who would strip Appalachian mountains and then set up a folk art museum to the decimated culture, it is because he wears suits insteada big chains and a young man’s baby face. Pfister is a griot, that most ancient of village holy people, the community historian called forth to report, who sings the memory, who is indispensable to the way of life.
Pfister, Arthur.My Name is New Orleans. Margaret Media. 2009.
Bernstein, Charles. Attack of the Difficult Poems. University of Chicago. 2011
Formento, Dennis. Telephone conversation, July 2011
Lucas, Loretta. Personal conversation. July 2011
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