Philip C. Kolin reviews No Brother, This Storm, poems by Jack Bedell
Mercer University Press | 2018 | ISBN: 9780881466751 | 59 pages
Jack Bedell’s new book of poems, No Brother, This Storm, arguably his best work thus far, celebrates his Cajun heritage even as it laments the ravages that natural forces have inflicted on his homeland. Born in Houma, Louisiana, in 1966, in the midst of Acadian culture, Bedell is currently Louisiana’s Poet Laureate and the editor of Louisiana Literature and the director of the Louisiana Literature Press. He is acclaimed for fostering the civic responsibilities of poetry through his teaching and numerous workshops statewide for many decades. In a recent interview in Kenyon Review with K. E. Ogden, Bedell declared of his Cajun ancestry, “I’m as from this place as anyone can be,” a sentiment echoed frequently in No Brother. He admits that the sights and sounds of the Louisiana Gulf Coast “have lingered in him” for years. In “Marsh,” he proclaims:
I cannot think of another place
as part of me—
reeds and water to the horizon line
space and game to live
fish for stew, turtles for sauce picante
bullfrogs and moonlight for deep sleep.
This Edenic dreamscape of land, water, wildlife, and Acadian culture is part of the rich tapestry of place woven through so many of his lush and evocative poems.
But Bedell also offers poems about a terrain under siege by hurricanes, floods, coastal erosion, and the loss of wetlands, those natural barriers that protect and sustain Bedell’s homeland. In “Breakwater,” he despairs that there is “no way to lure coastland / back into place, recall silt / already gone to the Gulf.” The impact on animals, shorelines, and human beings is horrific. Hardly the idyllic terrain of “Marsh,” “Storm, Grand Isle” graphically charts the dire consequences a hurricane has on coastal Louisiana:
All the way from the Caribbean,
new winds climb on shore
Barren since the horn sounded
blacktop roads lead nowhere.
Escape from these natural disasters has often been impossible. Roads lead nowhere because they have nowhere to go, deluged by high winds and land-ravaging storm surge.
But what stands out in Bedell’s No Brother is his deft merging of different terrains, natural and human. The human body as terrain becomes one with land and water, the one at risk because of the other. In a macabre but brilliant poem “Elliptic,” one of the cornerstones of his collection, Bedell hauntingly fuses these two terrains:
Lines of reeds where land
releases to the Gulf, back wash
into salt and wave
if we were to lay our dead
here to guard this shore
against new storms,
we could not
pile bones quickly enough
to outpace this loss,
stave off such constant
Dead bodies as totem protectors or, more prosaically, as sandbags becomes a tragic commentary on the power of nature’s battle with humanity. Architecturally savvy in this and other poems, Bedell intertwines the death and life of the land, and the waters around it, with the people who inhabit and work there fishing, hunting, trapping. Common to these two terrains, then, is loss, one of Bedell’s key metaphors. “So many traps are empty,” he mourns. In many ways to be sure, No Brother, This Storm is an ecological eulogy, but Bedell’s poems also lament human responsibility for upsetting the idyllic topography of “Marsh,” for instance, the “sharp mess” Bedell’s son finds in the waves. In “Wellfire,” the most culpatory poem in No Brother, This Storm, “magnetos turned too many times” while fumes enveloped the air, men’s faces are “singed,” bumming cigarettes that “dance like fireflies in the dark” in the hospital.
But it would be unfair, and unrepresentative, to say that the strength of No Brother, This Storm resides in bewailing environmental loss. To the contrary, Bedell’s poems evolve from sacred memories of his family and his culture, profoundly linked to a visionary sense of place. The first and last sections of No Brother, This Storm in particular are deeply rooted in his Cajun ancestry. The first poem, “Remnant,” recalling his mother’s cooking “chix buns,” proudly evokes the Biblical survivors of Earth’s last days, and Les Ris “swells under a kitchen towel,” evokes the Parable of the Leaven in Matthew (13:33) and Luke (13:20-21). Admittedly more culinary than apocalyptic, the poem ends with Bedell recording that “the taste remains,” a pleasant appetizer for the feast of poems to follow.
Place is also linked to Bedell’s memory of a boyhood radio station “west of Lafayette,” where “the sounds lingered in me for years.” Other members of his family are associated with places that characterize them. His son studied “weather patterns” on “the Pass at Manchac,” which reminds Bedell of the “same wind that stirred the sand / around Giza while they were building pyramids.” His father, a fisherman who also worked on the oil rigs, calculated “piping” “no matter if he lost a finger” in the process. And his uncle “captained a boat most of his life” and left enigmatic words that Bedell today finds inspiring. Place and prediction are the subject of “Frissons,” or chills. Cautioning readers trying to predict the weather, “not [to] look for a bruise in the sky,” Bedell assures them that “the hair will rise / a certain way / on the back of your neck and forearms” (the frissons) and then advises, “Follow these omens / like compass needles / leading you some other, any other, place.” Regardless of where that might be, it surely will be in Bedell’s South Louisiana.
Three poems near the end of No Brother, This Storm do homage to the historical/heroic memory of Acadian Louisiana. “El Tajin” describes an ancient ball game, making it the title of the poem, and stresses that “[e]very wall holds stories of players” and the “carvings [about the same] show all this in glorious tribute.” “Des Exiles Acadiens dans le Port du Boston, 1775” epiphantically reveals how these French emigres, when their ship docked in Boston, realized how “storefront windows / lighting one by one, [were] not nearly as welcoming in day / as they appear in night,” a parable about the Acadian experience in coming to a new land. Doubtless the most honorific poem in No Brother, This Storm is “Like from the Tip of a Staff” about the legend of Jim Bowie and rivers that “carried the blood they’ve spilled / into history, east up the Ohio / toward the Pacific in the Missouri, [and] over spillways through the Atchafalaya.” After being shot and stabbed in a duel,
all Bowie had to do was bleed
into the river for his name to mean
something to us all, for the knife
is brother honed for him to stick
in our memories, its blade curved
and meandering as the river itself.
Like from the tip of a staff, Bowie’s blood
dripped into the Mississippi
to mingle with our dreams
as long as the river flows.
The poem enlists the readers’ memory of other heroes—from Egyptian gods to Hercules to Adonis to America’s fallen patriots—whose blood blessed or protected those who lionized them. Place here becomes sacred space for Bedell and for his readers he makes fellow residents of his native land.
A keen environmentalist, Bedell also fills the poems in No Brother, This Storm with the flora and fauna of South Louisiana. Moss, cypress, and giant oaks are planted in poems replicating his native terrain. Other poems are populated with creatures small (sand crabs, bullfrogs, chinchillas, and shrimp) and large (raccoons, “sloe-eyed” cattle, bears). Bedell ties many of these animals to myths and fables, such as the “cats without color,” lutins in the poem of the same name. Since fishing has been a vital occupation in French-speaking Louisiana, it is not surprising that Bedell’s poems swim with snapping turtles, mullet, lemon fish, stingrays, and a channel cat “that stole bait decades ago” and that “old men” are eager to get their revenge. Above all, Bedell is a contemporary Audubon in poems that watch egrets, “persistent” woodpeckers, pelicans, gulls, and diving do-gris (ducks) that “spreads [a lake] in all directions.” In fact, the cover of No Brother, This Storm showcases five royal terns with distinctive orange beaks perched upon old chipped white pilings, one of the terns looking as if he is squawking a diatribe against menacing environmental change.
But the bird that captures Bedell’s prize for heroic grace is the heron, e.g., they “ready their bones for flight” and then “take flight in the fog.” In a short, wisdom-packed poem based on an Acadian folk tale, “Pere Papineau,” Bedell says an old man “will follow you back home / hungry / Always leave him to his thoughts / the heron’s cry.” That cry symbolizes the longing and the fortitude of Bedell’s heroic ancestors. Bedell’s snakes—a dead cottonmouth, for instance—also symbolically slip “into narrative” even as “its headless muscles writhed.” Ironically, though, “Fable, Un Matin,” tells a story of a farmer watching an alligator who has invaded the farmer’s pond. The narrative shockingly paints the gator in terms of human virtues that the farmer “read in a wildlife books”:
it took them to grow past fifteen feet
how gentle and patient they were
courting love, always circling
and waiting, slapping their broad throats
on the water’s surface for attention.
Caught up in this farmer’s fable, the product of Bedell’s Aesopian wit, the reader may almost feel sorrier for the gator than for the farmer’s stock.
No Brother, This Storm is a beautifully crafted and deeply nuanced work, a study in ecology and ethnography to be sure, but also a graceful meditation on the vicissitudes of environmental flux and the resilience of the people who live and thrive throughout Bedell’s lyrics. Even after the dark and gloomy Mississippi leaves “stillness, heat, and rotten silt behind,” Bedell is confident that this “place will find movement again.” Moreover, this mighty river triumphs, like Bedell’s Cajun ancestors, by accepting and living through nature’s cycles—“the river has fed some lands, / starved some / and climbed its banks / to fill deltas.”
One of the most prophetic poems in No Brother, This Storm, “Coastal Aberration” declares that a “pelican [which] fights into the wind” can be both “scourge” and “harbinger” of better times. The philosopher-poet Bedell instructs us: “Maybe, more than the traps, it’s proof that the sea cannot run barren. Life is not decay, not the slow loss of color and grain. The bird will dive into the surf soon enough, scoop up fish for its young, and carry that back to its nest to spark a scene more vibrant than shored boats and empty traps.” How iconic that Bedell selects the Louisiana state bird to be the subject of his parable on the survival and triumph of Acadian spirit. Terrain for Bedell invokes and symbolizes belief. “A cold morning becomes psalm” in swamp, marsh, bayou, cove, wetlands, and continues well into the Gulf. No Brother, This Storm is filled with blessings aplenty for those who want to reap the rewards of faith and hope as Jack Bedell has memorably done.
Header photo by Paul S. Wolf, courtesy Shutterstock.