There is a poetry to New Orleans. It’s a rhythm. It’s odd, and it doesn’t make sense, its wandering and complex and it lies but gives you moments of the purest truth. It’s a lost and mischievous 17-year-old, who doesn’t know who he is or who he wants to be. New Orleans acts like a “troubled” adolescent - violence, alcohol, sex, imagination, creativity, clashes of ideas, the testing of limits - they all run wild here. It is a city with stories of murderers shuffling down the alleys and pirates crowding the bars, has a distinctive pride in its unique red light district of Storyville, and is home to a music that transcends all rules, even ones that it made for itself. The city rests on soil that asks for sickness and sinking, always on the verge of an outbreak or flood. A world with voodoo - pushing past the Catholic force or African “wildness” and allowing a humming religion of dance, spells, and pleasure.
Part 1: Rhyming Spirituality
The spirituality of New Orleans is lyrical, intertwined, expressive. It is not fastened, but rather like the West African and islander ceremonies brought to the Americas by people stolen from their homeland — it dances. An curiosity about the "magic" aspect of Catholicism was first sparked by the recent Met Gala's theme "Catholic Imagination," but New Orleans expanded my awareness and fascination. The French and Spanish descendants and dominant white class in Louisiana, Creoles, were Catholic. As slave masters and first class citizens, they tried to instill Catholicism into the Africans and islanders they enslaved. What happened, though, was some sort of spiritual, fascinating miracle - the Africans incorporated Catholicism into their animism and deities. When I first heard this, I struggled to understand how these two spiritual cultures could hold hands. I wondered how the black community would accept Catholic ideas into their culture while still maintaining their own so strongly, and why the Catholics did not entirely strip the slaves from their native religion like their Christian counterparts did in the rest of the country. That concept - it is part of the poetry of New Orleans, or that is the word I can find closest to it.
New Orleans helped me understand how different religions and spiritualities intertwine. "Catholics live in an enchanted world, a world of statues and holy water, stained glass and votive candles, saints and religious medals, rosary beads and holy pictures," I read. From this idea I could draw a thread into the magical theme of voodoo. For an example, “Papa Legba” is combined with Saint Peter. Other Catholic saints were used to represent spirits of similar domains. The African and island people continued using many aspects of their spiritual customs, like the dancing, dolls, chanting, potions, types of good luck charms called "gris gris" bags, and offerings associated with Louisiana voodoo today.
Part 2: Music Notes & Rhythm
Michael Ondaatje’s Coming Through Slaughter chronicles the life of a man who similarly lives for ecstasy. Buddy Bolden, the subject of Ondaatje’s book and a jazz legend, existed on a mental brink of the freedom of creativity and the flexibility of morals. It’s a “place” in the mind which invites the rush of adrenaline and eventual satisfaction. By day, he worked drunk with a razor at the neck of a sweating barbershop client and offered them spontaneous advice without merit. By night he seduced and overwhelmed music notes and women. He lives his life like a young man testing every limit he finds, just like New Orleans tests the limits on the definition of a city and its culture. Buddy Bolden’s mentality reflects the dualistic mentality of his hometown - the experience is weathered but its recklessness is youthful. He does not bend to the rules - rather, he skips over and under the rules, peeling back wallpaper to see what’s underneath, and skirting under the dresses of women who are not his. It is not only Buddy who commits such dramatic acts, but the people around him as well. His friend Bellocq sets himself on fire rather than reasons, his mother-in-law chooses the companion of a snake rather than a cat, and his wife and her sisters come from a past of prostitution.
Ondaatje writes in a style that conveys this wildness, exoticism, youthful recklessness that characterizes New Orleans. His sentences break classic structure, thoughts flow with unregulated consciousness. I thought it interesting that some of my classmates felt frustrated with this writing structure. They found it confusing, disorienting, and overly “flowery.” But this is exactly what I loved about it. The poetic personality of the storytelling gave the scenes a genuineness that I don’t believe can be captured when forced into the confines of structure. We don’t think, imagine, or reflect in clear or regulated manners. The purity of Ondaatje’s representation of memory and experience is palpably strong, and matches perfectly with the experience I’ve had in New Orleans. It doesn’t make total sense and you’re never sure what is genuine and ingenuine, you may even consider what your definition of “genuine” may be. Could “genuine” just be our attempt to steer real experience into the stereotypes we have collected and stored? Ondaatje uses Bolden’s relationship with music to further allude, purposefully or by happenstance, to New Orleans.
“We thought he was formless, but I think now he was tormented by order, what was outside it. He tore apart the plot - see his music was immediately on top of his own life. Echoing. As if, when he was playing he was lost and hunting for the right accidental notes.” Like Bolden’s music playing, New Orleans, and one’s experience in New Orleans, can feel “formless.” It is formed by the French, West Africans, Spain, colonial Americans, the Vietnamese, among other cultures. Therefore, its identity is impossible to pinpoint its cultural “form.” It “tears apart the plot” of a city’s history, particularly of an American city set specifically in the South. It approached typical racial hierarchies in alternative ways, decorated its neighborhoods with distinctly different architectures and lifestyles, and promoted a sense of chaos over the usual order of American cities. The “music” that sits on top of Buddy’s life is his jazz. New Orleans generated a new form of music, one that experiments with structure, instruments, cultural backgrounds, and emotion. The concept of this music echoes through the city - accidents are ecstasy and a sip of adrenaline.
Part 3: Poems on the Street
To turn an intangible feeling tangible, my feeling this city was some sort of poem, as Jenny and I wandered down Frenchman Street on a Saturday night we found a line of young men with battered typewriters.
Here is what I wrote, in a style inspired by Ondaatje, Sunday morning.
Just past midnight - a few men sitting in front of beat up typewriters, smelling of beer and a long day, shirts unbuttoned for their hairy chests and hanging necklace charms. What do you want it to be about, he asks, rolling his tongue inside to wash across the sip he took. His mind swims in alcohol but his eyes are deeply invested in mine, peering through any stupor. A flick of the corner of his mouth to offer a smile when I say “youth.”
New Orleans was the city where my grasp of poetry blossomed. I found it in Coming Through Slaughter, the lyrics and rhythm of a city known for its music, I observed it in its dynamic and stylized culture. What better place could there be to ask for a poem about youth, while I am in my youth - I hope I can capture its essence of fearlessness and imagination and magic as I write out my own life.