Raymond McDaniel’s Saltwater Empire

Here’s a vivid book of poems all about New Orleans, long before, just before, and especially just after Hurricane Katrina. McDaniel does not live there, but he has listened to the city for a while: the disastrous weather and fatal political folly of 2005 are for him only the latest of many traumas (from the slave trade to bad city planning) that have endangered its residents—and inspired their art.

McDaniel’s own art comes mostly in one- and two-page verse units. Some of those units are glitteringly descriptive, gorgeous, baroque, even Byzantine, their short jeweled lines set end to end with white space, but no grammatical links, between them: “Peeled free of it we curl lissome and arch, stand nutmeg / in the equatorial sun.” Other units are flatly reportorial, plainly documentary. Several poems titled “Convention Centers of the New World” arrange into lines parts of what must be genuine interviews: “You know, now, you know, do I have to raise my kids / sleeping on a bench or living in our car?”

Nor does McDaniel look only at the human beings imperiled when New Orleans and its environs suffer. From the title onward these poems often look out, into the mouth of the Gulf, along an ecosystem more water than land, whose treasures and threats are more than we can handle: “The primary dune, the secondary dune, both leveled. // The maritime forest, extracted. // Every yard of the shore was shocked with jellyfish…. We cultivated the debris field.”

McDaniel’s historical and ecological warning—New Orleans is sexy, but also unsustainable—extends to the human fates portrayed here, meteor-shaped lives that fit the allusive titles he bestows: “orpheus,” “Swamp Thing” (the comic book character), “knights of babylon and chaos and hermes.” McDaniel gives us color-saturated, multiracial depictions of New Orleans’s dangerous youth, gang girls, hookers or “muses” (“Dressed only to strip, shop or steal”). “Summer’s slowed our city, tarred down its gears,” complain the plural speakers McDaniel calls (as in video games) “First Person Shooters”; “We are ravenous, we are raucous, we are sick.” These gang members are also symbols for poets: they “carry subcutaneous radio under the trains and into the brine.” Also like poets are pirates, and early jazzmen, and the girl Undine—“a slippery fish, a little sinner” whose “girl-gods include the underwater man, / shatterer of ships, plague of fleets, resolute / foe of Francophones,” and whose alliterative antecedents include the violent verse of Beowulf.

With its asyntactic, accretive, beautiful noun clauses, with its attention to race in the cadence of speech, with its segments transcribed from the real speech of people who suffered grave misfortune, McDaniel’s book will provoke (and can withstand) comparisons to C. D. Wright. If his music isn’t quite as original (if, in fact, it sometimes derives from hers), neither are his tastes and goals just hers; her documentary poems do not quite have his glee, nor do they draw on the same range of old lyric forms. McDaniel’s first book, Murder (a violet), also tried to tell a story (a detective story) by means of fragmentary postmodern short poems, but they were too fragmentary (or too postmodern)—I never figured out what the heck was going on. Here the outcome is far otherwise: the story of a damaged city, and the stories of the people who live there, shine through.

—Stephen Burt

Raymond McDaniel’s Saltwater Empire

Stephanie Burt
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