Winner of the 2013 PEN Center USA Award in Poetry, Amanda Auchter’s exquisite new collection The Wishing Tomb (Perugia Press, 2012) surveys the cultural history of New Orleans over three centuries, in poems that quiver and shake with music and surge with the violence of floods. End-notes provide background on the incidents that inspired each poem.
About those notes: At first I found it distracting to flip back and forth between the storyline unwinding in the lyric poetry and the factual squibs at the end of the book. Should I break the flow and spoil the surprise by checking the notes first, and risk only finding what I already “know” the poem is about? Should I read the poems first, and endure the disorientation of not comprehending their context? I just had to read the book twice! And I’m sure it won’t be my last visit to these steamy, sad, gorgeous pages.
Upon reflection, I understood that the unreconciled duality of form was part of Auchter’s commentary on New Orleans, city of masks, oppressive and beautiful. A number of the poems hinge on the tension between the official story and the suppressed voices within it. Slaves speak here, and criminals, the dead, the polluted landscape.
The poems below, “Harriet Beecher Stowe at the Cornstalk Hotel, 1850” and “St. Louis Cathedral, 2005”, are excerpted from The Wishing Tomb, with the permission of Perugia Press, Florence, MA. Copyright 2012 by Amanda Auchter.
Harriet Beecher Stowe at the Cornstalk Hotel, 1850
A man and a woman arrive together
in chains. His voice surfaces—
I shall try to meet you there—but I cannot
hear what follows. Tea cools in white china.
I think of horses, the way they walk back
and forth, hold up their heads. Horses,
the way a man in a coat turns them about,
opens their mouths, checks their teeth. Scars
on the flanks. A chimney gasps smoke
into the afternoon. The body looted. A child
plays a violin outside the stalls, watches
as women remove their handkerchiefs,
show their hands. A whip
weaves close to the ears. The balcony overlooks
a narrow street, a cart and driver.
The voices drift out, an edge
of an outline. The voices say, I hope
you will try to meet me in heaven.
I shall try to meet you there.
St. Louis Cathedral, 2005
The marble Jesus opens his eyes to the violence
of wind shaking bananas from tender stems,
the crack of two oak trees falling
in St. Anthony’s Garden behind their ornamental gate.
Rivers fill his mouth and in each
he tastes a shipwreck: torn boards, canvas,
drowned bodies. The slap of purple beads
against his bare feet. His arms
spread out as though he could cradle the city
inside him, as though the water that rises
above porches and windowsills,
above attics could abate with his strange light.
While the city darkens, he continues to turn each palm
skyward, an offering of damp stone,
a leaf caught in the crack of his right palm. Water
falls from his eyes and behind him, the wind
tears a hole in the roof of the church.
The rain enters the roof, floods
the Holtkamp pipe organ until everything is silent
of music. His hands are quieted
of their pale prayers—the left forefinger
and thumb broken off by a brick spinning its red stream
into the air. They push away
from his body. He watches
the city float past with its shattered glass, shoes,
telephone wire. How the debris of his
broken fingers swirl away from him, then point back.