When a hurricane turns a familiar place into ‘familiar debris’

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Alison Pelegrin has just released her latest collection of poems called "Waterlines." Photo by Bryan Davidson.

Alison Pelegrin has just released her latest collection of poems called “Waterlines.” Photo by Bryan Davidson.

Alison Pelegrin experienced “countless” hurricanes as a child.

“I’m almost ashamed to admit that back then it was something that was exciting to me. We always evacuated, so my brother and I had a great time packing up and missing school and having pancakes for dinner,” said Pelegrin, who was born and raised in New Orleans.

READ MORE: A poet’s history lesson on Brooklyn’s Bushwick neighborhood

By the time she was an adult, that excitement had been replaced with a healthy sense of fear. When she heard about Hurricane Katrina, she and her husband evacuated with their two young children to wait out the storm.

She says she was lucky. Living on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain, she missed the heavy flooding. But large pine trees in her yard had fallen, destroying their house. The homes of her mother and brother were also destroyed, so the three families ended up in a rental property for several months.

“(Hurricane Katrina) is the marker in my life. Everything is ‘before’ or ‘after’… I was born in that moment but I’m recovered. I wear the scars, but I’m able to go on.”

“I went from being a poet to being someone who was constantly on the phone or standing in line trying to get my life back to normal. All of my life I have carried a small notebook to dash off lines of poetry when they come to me, but the notebook abruptly changed to “to-do” lists and phone numbers.”

For months she said she couldn’t write and then suddenly “in a fevered dream” on an air mattress in the rental property a line came to her: “Big muddy river of stars.” She said the phrase referred to the beauty and destruction of the Mississippi River. It eventually would become the title of a collection of poems about the hurricane. Many of the poems are humorous, especially in the ones dealing with the small army of people who came to rebuild her house. Here is the first line of her tribute to those workers.

ODE TO CONTRACTORS POSSESSING
VARIOUS LEVELS OF EXPERTISE

This one’s a shout-out to the git-r-dones,
the crowd since Katrina most idolized and
sucked up to—seminude roofers,
hard hatters, electricians, tree doctors,
Ditch Witch pilots dwelling in tent cities
or, like our lumberjacks, the Dollar General
parking lot.

Pelegrin said that writing poetry helped her cope with the aftermath and put things into perspective. Still, she says, the hurricane is never far from her thoughts.

“It is the marker in my life. Everything is ‘before’ or ‘after.’ I’m changed permanently. I was born in that moment but I’m recovered. I wear the scars, but I’m able to go on.”

For Pelegrin, one of the worst aftereffects of Katrina is the forever-altered landscape and the sense of uneasiness that causes. It’s one of the themes of her poem “Debris.”

“We would take drives to the coast where I had been many, many times but nothing was recognizable because everything was gone. It was very unsettling to know where you were but not know at the same time.”

Pelegrin says her heart goes out to the people who have been affected by Hurricane Matthew. She says she knows it sounds glib, but her but her advice to them is to know they’ll get through it.

“They’ll be forever changed but they will survive.”

DEBRIS

I drive the Gulf Coast to get away,
but this Mississippi debris seems familiar.
What’s left is front steps leading nowhere,
the waterline, oak trees trimmed with car parts.

This Mississippi debris seems familiar.
Plywood everywhere. I need some time off
from waterlines and oak trees trimmed with car parts.
Debris shingles my memory lane.

Plywood everywhere. I need time off.
There’s a yellowed snapshot of me here.
Debris shingles my memory lane,
no landmarks left. Where am I again?

There’s a snapshot of me here, or close to here,
with a sea lion planting kisses on my cheek.
No landmarks left. Where am I again?
What happened to the Oceanarium?

Once, a sea lion kissed me on the cheek.
Dolphins rode out the storm in swimming pools.
What happened to the Oceanarium?
The storm surge clawed it out to sea?

Dolphins rode out the storm in swimming pools.
The gift shop, where dad bought me a jewelry box,
the storm surge clawed it out to sea.
On Sundays we used to picnic here.

Dad bought me a cedar jewelry box.
The air smells sweetly of hurricane debris.
On Sundays we used to picnic here,
landscape of front steps leading nowhere.

Reprinted courtesy LSU Press.


Alison Pelegrin is the author of five books of poetry, including “Big Muddy River of Stars”, which won the 2006 Akron Poetry Prize. Her latest collection, “Waterlines”, was published in August by LSU Press. Her poems have appeared in Poetry, The Southern Review, Ploughshares, Copper Nickel and Barn Owl Review. Pelegrin earned her MFA degree at the University of Arkansas, where she was the director of the Arkansas Writers in the Schools Program. She currently teaches English at Southeastern Louisiana University and lives in Covington, Louisiana, with her family.

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