Louisiana Swamp Poem
–for the Atchafalaya, for Greg Guirard
Your swamp’s not my swamp, he says, by which
he means a New Orleans swamp’s not the same
as a Cajun’s, that the way I sometimes use swamp
as metaphor for all that’s family-dark is not
what he sees when he looks into the waters
he calls home, water the color of tree trunks and sky,
of sun and clouds, moonlight and earth
and mud, of moss and flower, of crawfish and snake,
of frog and beaver and alligator, still waters
so radiant with stillness it almost doesn’t surprise
when osprey or heron or egret spread wing
and rise up out of it, like the swamp itself
has gathered into a body and lifted to sky for a time.
Cypress trees dressed in moss flare up like beacons
of god, lit with a wildness some will ever know.
He’s kind when he says it,
but I can see he doesn’t think much of a people
who don’t seem to care for their swamps, a people
who drink themselves to oblivion, who hang beads
on trees and stick pins in voodoo dolls, and that is why
he says my swamp’s not his.
Your swamp’s not my swamp, he’s thinking,
when he rescues the stranded kids in bright swim suits
who drank too much and ran out of gas in their jet boat.
We putter up in his boat, stinky with crawfish bait
and traps. He throws them a rope. Y’all from Lafayette?
—the closest city—he asks, and they smile,
how’d you know? They do not realize this is an insult,
that he’s thinking only someone from the city
would come out like this without enough gas,
only someone from the city would come out
not knowing where they’re going,
only someone from the city would not trouble to learn
how much water levels change here,
that channels and bayous disappear and reappear
like fingers opened in a wave or hidden into fists,
that giant logs and colossal rafts of hyacinths
can block the only way you might know;
only someone from the city wouldn’t know
the swamp has moods no printed map can show.
They’re happy to take his gas, the oldest boy
gives him a twenty, peeled off from a plump wallet
like it’s nothing, but they don’t listen to his instructions
about how to get out. They’re goin the wrong way,
he says as they speed off, folding the twenty carefully,
and we wonder together if they’ll make it back
to whatever swamp they come from
that’s not his.
Your swamp’s not my swamp, he says, and it’s true I wouldn’t take him on a tour of my swamp the way he’s done with me so many times. My city was built on a swamp our fathers drained, a swamp we spend every second of every day trying to keep from coming back. It’s mostly hidden, unlike his, though signs of it leak out everywhere: small thin swamps that line roads, ditches and canals that hem suburban houses like my mother’s, small bodies of urban waters filthy with whatever spills from sewage or the last big flood, disrupted communities of water and flora and fauna where sometimes it seems only rough angry things can live: lone snakes that look like they’re lost, tough-guy crawfish that grow too big to eat, roaches big as birds that can swim and fly, the ugliest, slimiest, Gollum-like fish I’ve ever seen.
I grew up with beads, not moss, on trees from parades that passed each spring—the air too bad for moss. To my mother the waters that surrounded us were dangerous; we were punished if we got too close. I grew up afraid of what was in water too dark to see the bottom of.
Swamps followed the roads from our house to the heart of the city, and sometimes brothers or sisters got drunk and drove into the swamp and had to be rescued because, while everyone learns to drink in my swamp, not everyone learns to swim. His swamp doesn’t follow a road, it is the road, another reason, he’d say, why his swamp is not mine.
Your swamp’s not my swamp, he says, but sometimes
I want to argue with him. It’s true he’s pure Cajun
and I’m only half, it’s true a Cajun gumbo’s
not the same as a New Orleans one,
its roux darker, its stock wilder with things
my mother might rather we not eat, it’s true
our music’s different, its true some of my people
think Cajuns are a bit backward, too conservative,
too Catholic, their music more like noise
than music, and it’s true that some Cajuns
hate the way we live in the city: the tourists,
the bars, the sex clubs, the drink, the muggings and killings.
But it’s not that simple: we’ve intermarried
so much it’s not so much what you call yourself
anymore, Cajun or Creole, Yat or Coonass,
it’s more about where and how you live,
and some in the city care as deeply as he
about the swamps that surround us
while some in the swamp drink as much
as any in the city.
And more: his swamp’s health
is linked to my swamp’s health,
his swamp’s water bleeds into my swamp’s water,
his swamp’s trees protect my swamp’s people
from storms, cupping and staying the flood waters,
and I want to ask if maybe one day he can start seeing
his swamp and mine as one.
Your swamp’s not my swamp, he says, but it was Cajuns who came in hundreds of boats after Katrina—we called them the Cajun Navy—to save my swamp’s people when the city sunk back to swamp, and the names of some of those boatmen—Guidry, Boudreaux, Ancelet, Bourque, Savoie, Doucet, Fontenot, Thibodeaux—these are the names of my relatives, too, the names, too, of some who drowned or were lost in the waters or whose bodies gave up later of grief in this swamp where all our bloods are mixed.
We’re all from one swamp, I want to shout to him,
to his cypress and crawfish, his osprey and beavers,
his hyacinths and alligators, but I’m beginning to think
he knows this, otherwise he wouldn’t be taking a Yat
like me on his boat every time I ask, and even when I don’t—
you must need a shot of the swamp by now, he’ll say—
Everything I know about this swamp
is because of him, its sweet waters and bad,
its forests and graveyards, its hidden places
he reveals slowly, over time, the way
a woman might her mind, its wounds
and its ghosts, its demons and heroes—
it’s because of him I know what it needs
to survive and what we’re doing to kill it,
because of him I can imagine its waters
mingling with the waters of my ditches
and canals, because of him it enters my dreams,
because of him it asks I learn to navigate it myself—
I’m thinking, he said during my last visit,
running a hand through a head of grizzled gray,
I wouldn’t mind gettin a taste of what’s on the other side—
and I can’t imagine this swamp without him,
I think that when he dies the universe will contract
in some irrevocable way, and the swamp will howl
and mourn and go on like it always has,
although I will not, and he’s trying to warn me,
that I need to learn to come here alone,
and then much later with others
like he’s done with me, that I need to be ready
for the day he’s gone, like the giant cypress
logged here not so long ago almost to extinction,
the ones whose massive stumps still stand in the water
and will not decay—Dead Giants, he calls them.
And one day I’ll take you, dear reader,
to these giant stumps, and we’ll look into
their cavernous, ragged mouths and listen
for his voice, and I’ll tell you
he never really meant it
when he said your swamp’s not mine.
Poetry and the Oil Spill
How to speak of it , this thing that doesn’t rhyme, or pulse in iambs or move in predictable ways like lines or sentences, how to find the syntax of this thing that rides the tides and moves with the tides and under the tides and through the tides and has an underbelly so deep and wide even our most powerful lights cannot illuminate its full body? This is our soul shadow, that darkness we cannot own, the form we cannot name.
Let’s ask those responsible, and some of those are us, to walk deep out into the waters of this once beautiful place, the sky once populated by a rich diversity of birds, let’s ask them to walk far out into it, and then, when they are thick and covered with the stuff, when it’s in their hair and blinding them, stopping up their ears and mouths, when the goop is sticking to every pore in their body, then let them try to swim, then let them try to explain.
A native of New Orleans, Sheryl St. Germain currently directs the MFA program in Creative Writing at Chatham University. Her work has received several awards, including two NEA Fellowships, an NEH Fellowship, the Dobie-Paisano Fellowship, and most recently the William Faulkner Award for the personal essay.
Her poetry books include Going Home, The Mask of Medusa, Making Bread at Midnight, How Heavy the Breath of God, and The Journals of Scheherazade. She has also published a book of translations of the Cajun poet Jean Arceneaux, Je Suis Cadien. A book of lyric essays about growing up in Louisiana, Swamp Songs: the Making of an Unruly Woman, was published in 2003. Her most recent book is Let it Be a Dark Roux: New and Selected Poems, published by Autumn House Press in 2007.