New Orleans taught me to write New Orleans.
August: It looked like 1925, and William Faulkner.
I was sojourning on the Treme side of North Rampart Street. I was trying to find the voice for a novel.
Every morning, I passed the Royal Pharmacy, corner of Ursulines and Royal. Every morning, I looked up at that fabulous old sign.
Routine is all, for me:
I got up in the dark and inhaled the night jasmine and in the early dim, I sketched the galangal flowers of the ginger plant. The voice was out there in the unspoken thick.
Then I walked down Ursulines towards the Mississippi. Boats----ships, more accurately,---- sat above the street, which made my eyes walking already feel zany, as if the empty burning heat wasn't doing it already, by 7-ish in the morning.
The ships sat up high, and I walked down below sea level on the narrow sidewalk which abutted the stoops so closely that if someone sat outside for some cooler heat on their top step and left the door to their house open, I could see the edge of their bedspread at the doorway, and see into their room, at the door.
The bottom step of the two step, three steps brick stoops came right to the sidewalk. Some stoops had high sides like stone thrones out of which human legs stuck. I could brush the edge of a man's pyjama leg as I walked down the street.
The heat sucked me wet, and I could hear the machinery of my own synapses. Breath pauses began to meet me at street corners as I walked down Ursulines the street of nuns towards the big river, the rosary of North Rampart, Burgundy, Dauphine, Bourbon, Royal, Chartres, Decatur, the Mississippi, heat induced aaaahs and uuuuhs, stutter-stepping and second-lining, elongated and hiccuped, sounds stepping out of the sharp shadows to remind me of the very sound of syllables, the ring of verbs, how nouns could be animals barely asleep with verb power, the verve of language, a still life which moved.
I inhaled the city of New Orleans, the city came in me by osmosis. Surely, the South was all about the base creation of language.
Surely in time and especially in summer, you could inhale your own heart.
Down the neat grid of streets pushing my chubby stubs through air water. My legs were the colossal pedal extremities Fats Waller boogie-woogied about. "Your feet's too big," was the least of it, my feet were the home for the bite which began back of my knee and now was a boil for the ages, a happy three-chord homestead for the bebop of no-see-um vermin.
Back up the heat grid to beat 9 a.m. My head began to buzz. I began to write things down in a little notebook as I walked. Back to North Rampart Street, back through the narrow passageway beside the Day of the Dead store, next to the tattoo parlour, up the wooden rickety stairs to my cafe table sized balcony, where the poison glory Datura plant trumpets' white and lemon hypnotic scent in the rain wait thick hot mornings bloomed to skyscraper cumulonimbus puffed reached and the sky was low and my personal hopes high for literature.
Who comes to New Orleans in August? Crazy people. Who comes again and again? Certifiables. Hello my brain, are you crazy don't answer. Man. Lord, have Mercy.
I hit a heat wall. I stopped thinking. The less I thought, the more I heard my narrator. I lay around a lot listening to local radio: blues, R & B, jazz. I loved radio, I'd worked in radio, behind the glass, and as the voice you heard when you lay around a lot. Yeah, I surrendered to August heat in the South.
This was Morgue of Hades heat, before the drawer closes.
This was mongrel heat.
This was the thick soup of the mutt.
This was the river blurring with the sky, everything low, everything mixed up, paint mixing on houses as I walked by.
This was haunted hot.
This was the haunted heat of Faulkner.
New Orleans in August was not a place name with a month name, I realized. New Orleans in August was a state of being, in which the name of a place was a nice ornament and the name of a month a nice progressive conceit.
Then, words began to come for real, like a birth. My Northern cool armour fell away. I had been reconsidered by mysterious forces. I had been found worthy by nothing I was in charge of.
I had somehow cleared from inside me the impediment of endless dreaming of writing a novel, which had clogged me like a righteous hoard, for the releasing freedom of sweat equity, for actual art labouring.
Now my morning walk became a kind of a kinetic ventriloquism. If it walks like a book, if it talks like a book, if it quacks like a book, maybe it is a walking talking----something. Now I was infused with a push pull slow motion vamped up feeling, I could hear my narrator chatting away as I swam the city grid down past the Royal Pharmacy sign towards the Mississippi Styx. Now the pharmacy sign was a sign and a symbol. I stuck out brain sloth and I was a prisoner of the love of words.
I looked like a dog, I felt like a dog, the Dog Star Sirius was my watchdog, I felt furry and panting, but I was in disguise, I was working by letting everything get to work on me. Optimism? Pessimism? Philosophy? Political Position? Have some mercy. I was Dead Dog Walking, drooling saliva and syllables.
Words spawned, seeded, blew in the wind, rained down, grew, crawled, words were things, words were being, syllables had heft requiring demonstrable attention. Vowels had entire empires which enveloped me. Meditation? You're kidding me. The river and the air made me lose any vim I had and re-up to just be. I recited sounds to myself, sounds I had been told in a creation rumour, as I inhaled smotheration at sun creep.
Adjectives piled up in mental 22-car crashes as if the beginning of Faulkner's "Absalom Absalom" was a stealth instructor, insisting a kind of parking in place insistence to get it right and blow note upon note in words just adjectively. All word bets were on. Faites vos joues. Haga sus apuestos.
Rivers of the Underworld: Styx, Lethe, Phlegethon, Acheron, Cocytus, Eridanos, Alpheus.... I could hear my narrator now more clearly. She, ----and it was a she,---- had to have a voice as low and slow and droll and death-knowing as the river. Only August in her voice would do.
She told me her name. She told me I was an idiot, I had been saying her name out loud multiple times a day, I just did not see it. Her name was Mercy. She told me I had been living on the title of my novel, and I did not even see it. Idiot. I had been living on Love Street, which was the original true name for North Rampart Street. She told me she was Miss Mercy, broadcasting on Radio Love Street.
It's not a voice in your head. It's music in your inner ear, hot vocalic static. Your heart is in your anvil and your hammer. Your job is to put your ear and your heart on the page.
Meantime, the big river was biding and time was the river.
Yeah, it looked like 1925 and William Faulkner.
But it was 1995 and Bill Faulkner all the way.
In the hot unsafe riparian humid thick muddy mire still dark unborn unsparing wide hypnotic ratful rung down sick murderous autumnal dog star dead September days to come, Katrina would hit and punch, blindsiding the heat city.
(Alcohol mutt breath)
(The eye forms)
(Photo by Susan)