Noted Theologian Walter Brueggemann has used the poem “After Katrina” in his new book Reality, Grief, Hope: Three Urgent Prophetic Tasks. The poem, by Kevin Simmonds, was first published in the journal Callaloo, and was selected and published in the 2008 anthology After Shocks: The Poetry of Recovery for Life-Shattering Events .
Dr. Brueggemann’s new book presents parallel theological crises arising from two watershed historic events: the fall of Jerusalem in 587 B.C.E. and the destruction of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Both events raise questions about ideologies of “chosen-ness” held by those in power, denial that ideologies have failed, and despair when reality is faced. Dr. Brueggemann conducts a lengthy presentation of those historic ideologies, of grief and denial, and of hope as a counter to despair.
His book is available at Amazon.com Reality, Grief, Hope: Three Urgent Prophetic Tasks
Dr. Brueggemann chose “After Katrina” by Kevin Simmonds for his chapter “Grief Amid Denial” as an example of a lament that is voiced by the powerless in the face of events that they cannot control. He writes (page 84): We may pay attention to the rich legacy of contemporary laments that grieve over the failure of our “system” of well-being. Such laments arise among the excluded, powerless, and vulnerable—not the kind of people who constitute usual church voices. But these voices provide a script that we are able to echo, because such voices match and give freedom to our sadness….consider the following.
By Kevin Simmonds
There’s no Sabbath in this house
The black of garbage bags
yellow-cinched throats opening
to gloved hands
Black tombs along the road now
proof she knew to cherish
the passing things
even those muted before the water came
before the mold’s grotesquerie
and the wooden house choked on bones
My aunt wades through the wreckage failing
no matter how hard she tries
at letting go
I look on glad at her failing
her slow rites
fingering what she’d once been given to care for
The waistbands of her husband’s briefs
elastic as memory
the blank stare of rotted drawers
their irises of folded linen still
smelling of soap and wood
and clean hands
Daylight through the silent windows
and I’m sure now: Today is Sabbath
the work we do, prayer
I know what she releases into the garbage bags
shiny like wet skins of seals
beached on the shore of this house
Reprinted by permission of the poet.
"After Katrina" appeared in After Shocks: The Poetry of Recovery for Life-Shattering Events.
Walter Brueggemann is professor emeritus of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary, Decatur, Georgia. His many other books include A Social Reading of the Old Testament, The Threat of Life, Theology of the Old Testament, Truth Speaks to Power, and The Prophetic Imagination.
Interview with Poet Kevin Simmonds, who wrote “After Katrina”
How did you come to write “After Katrina”?
I wanted to create a poem about the experience of helping my Aunt Trina as she tried to salvage things from her home after the levees broke in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Or after the bombing of those levees. Those sloppily designed levees. I knew -- in the moments of wading through the mold and mess with her -- how important that time was. Not too long thereafter she died of cancer.
How did writing “After Katrina” affect your recovery?
The subject of the poem is literally about recovering objects that are imbued with memory. Objects are talismans for memory. Having those objects and the memories surrounding them alongside the poem, something that was created and then recovered in a sense, helps me go on. My mother also lost her home. Everything in it. With this poem, I retain the essence of what was lost in the physical sense.
Can you tell us something about your process of writing that helped “After Katrina” come to life?
This poem was different and came easily compared to other poems. I often fail at this but I want each poem to be an experience of discovery. Something without agenda or predetermined direction. This poem came from my love and admiration for my aunt. If there are resonances beyond my personal history, then it's because of love and admiration.
Who are your favorite poets or poets new to you whom you'd recommend to others?
What are you working on now?
My second collection, Bend to it , is out from Salmon Poetry, who also published my debut collection, Mad for Meat.
I'm at work on a new collection, tentatively titled Upright. At the same time, I’m processing Ota Benga, a river, a recent theatrical collaboration with Theatre of Yugen, an experimental Japanese Noh theatre here in San Francisco. I wrote the music and co-wrote the text. It was an eye-opening experience and I won’t soon forget the challenges of creating a work that draws from Japanese and African-American musical conventions.
Finally, I just wrapped up The Nudists , a short experimental documentary about the nudity ban in San Francisco. I collaborated with designer and artist Nori Hara to create a protest pamphlet about this in 2012, shortly before it became law in February 2013. I’m hoping some film festivals will pick it up.
Kevin Simmonds is a writer and musician originally from New Orleans. His books include Mad for Meat (Salmon Poetry) and the edited works Collective Brightness: LGBTIQ Poets on Faith, Religion & Spirituality (Sibling Rivalry Press) and Ota Benga Under my Mother’s Roof (University of South Carolina). He has composed numerous musical works for voice and chamber ensemble, as well as for stage productions such as Emmett Till, a river and the Emmy Award-winning documentary HOPE: Living and Loving with HIV in Jamaica. He started the first-ever poetry workshop at Singapore’s Changi Prison and founded Tono International Arts Association, an arts presenter in northern Japan. A recipient of fellowships and commissions from Cave Canem, Creative Work Fund, Fulbright, the Pulitzer Center, San Francisco Arts Commission and the Edward Stanley Award from Prairie Schooner, he divides his time between Japan and San Francisco.
Visit Kevin Simmonds web site.