POETRY

someone other than me

someone
other than me
keeps us safe
in the rough daze of light
beating thru busted
drawn shades
offering answers
to confuse me further

someone
other than me
circulates outside
in a fevered pitch
on a daily basis
sweeping the steps
and cooking eggs
with no end in sight

someone
bigger than me
sweats and blows
and forces through
the rain sleet and snow
picking up the trash
outside my door

and whoever you are
i write these words
to thank you

headless leaf blowers

are joining forces

with the weed whackers

and are out there again

chasing me down from

lawn to lawn

parking lot to empty garage

cemetery to gravestone

with little chance of me

making it out unscathed

now

above the hullabaloo

with a map of cornwall

pasted to my chest

ive been up all night

absorbing the blue

listening to angels

dance with the rain

in broken gutters

and sewers flooded

with forgotten brains

strange with freedom i shall roam

rolling my soul

into a shapeless dough

no longer caring if nakedness

can be clothed

for i have heard

the vultures laugh

&

am not afraid

if this storm jokes

cursing my silent labor

filled with unknowns

forever seeking cures

how can dreams

waken destiny

when every star beams

fixed and constant

sleeping a million years

past the silence

resembling an axe cleaned

and gleaming

with whispers in the wind

Maker REbirth

poets and dreamers

have you not heard

the visions you seek

are half past this close

and well and truly over

any old rainbow

 

you are standing

in the thick of them

knee high and waste deep

so smell the salt

and chill for a moment

watching cormorants

sail overhead

Figures in Jazz

nina of all the voices

echonin’ thru

you sang so true

your enemies swooned

knowin’ the beat

from slave ships past

rollin’ on oceans

stained with blood

on western shores

where street fisherman sing

castin’ their nets beyond the grave

HHCOVER

Review by Jonathan Katz

For Where Y’at Magazine, February 2009

“As anyone who’s spent five minutes in New Orleans can tell you, our city is one forged by a polyglot population. Hurricane Hotel, a novel by New Orleanian J.K. Lawson, is likewise writ of many voices and many stories. What each character, dead or alive, has in common is their deep connection to the ups and downs of a city that has, since 2005, been defined by a singular event.

The effects of Katrina are difficult to understate, and Lawson does his part to elucidate the suffering endured by many. His touchstone is the historic Audubon Hotel. It was wrecked during Katrina and is, of this writing, still waiting to be restored.

Jelly Roll Morton plays an important role in Hurricane Hotel; as do a slew of other only-in-New Orleans characters—meth heads, Tulane undergrads, WWOZ listeners, and more, united by the real Storm of the Century. His prose often teeters on overwhelming, but in the end, J.K. Lawson has crafted a compelling narrative so New Orleans it’s practically doused in Creole seasoning, pan-blackened, and served to you with a bottle of Crystal.”

FOREWORD by Andre Dubus III
  It was August of 2005, and we knew nothing of what was to come. We did not know of the tropical depression forming over the Bahamas, that it would grow and roll over south Florida, uprooting trees and smashing homes, that it would kill eleven people before it left land and found the warm waters of the Gulf like a junkie finding her fix, that it would rise up and bear down on the coasts of Mississippi and Louisiana and that by then the southern parishes of Louisiana would be evacuated; Plaquemines and St. Bernard, St. Charles, La Fourche, Terrebonne, and St. Tammany, that the mayor of New Orleans – that haunted and blessed mother of jazz and voodoo, of Creole and blues and all that is free – would issue the first mandatory evacuation order of the city’s history, and my cousin John Lawson and I would stand together in my library in my house in the woods north of Boston and watch this on my color T.V., a helicopter shot of the slow crawl of loaded cars and pick ups and mini-vans on the 24 mile lake Pontchartrian Causeway.  
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And just days before, John and his wife, my first cousin Aimee, had finished renovating their house in the Broadmoor neighborhood of New Orleans, a sunken bowl of ground south of Lake Pontchartrian. They then drove their three-year old son Sebastian up here for some late summer rest and high times. They’d spent a few days with us, and now they were headed farther north to Maine, to friends on an island overlooking cold waters.

Standing there in my library, John looked concerned but unafraid.

I said, “The mayor’s evacuating the whole city.”

“We see a lot of hurricanes, Cuz.”

I nodded, my eyes on the screen, on those hundreds and hundreds of cars taking up so many miles of the causeway. Then there were the hugs goodbye, a plan to see John and Aimee and Sebastian on their way back from Maine. They told us how much they loved it up there, how good their friends were, how there was no T.V.

So they didn’t know anything until later, that the eye of Katrina passed just east of New Orleans, her battering winds a Category 2 but her tidal surge a Category 3. For a day it looked like the worst had come and gone; this had been a bad hurricane but also another New Orleans had survived. But by the last day of August, the levees began to crack and give, first the smaller drainage canal levees, then the big navigationals, those designed and built by the Army Corps of Engineers – the 17th Street Canal Levee, the Industrial Canal Levee, and the London Avenue Canal floodwall. And it was as if the maternal waters of Lake Pontchartrain had gotten drunk and rolled over in her sleep, crushing the baby she had always slept beside, and now nearly all of New Orleans was underwater, including John and Aimee’s one-story home in Broadmoor.

But, those first days after Katrina, they didn’t yet know this. Because their friends in Maine had no T.V., John climbed into their dingy, rowed to the mainland, and read in the New York Times about the flooding. He’d lived through two down there before, though, and he assumed it was like countless other times the Big Easy didn’t have it so easy.

It wasn’t until they were back at our place in the woods did they see a T.V. for the first time, did they see all the live footage of people stranded on rooftops they’d chopped through, those who were fortunate enough to remember Hugo and had stowed a hatchet or chainsaw in their attics. Some of those that didn’t drowned in their homes. Others climbed into passing boats, or swam to waist-deep water, then waded to higher ground and joined thousands of others heading for the Superdome.

John saw all this and knew then that their house had to be underwater. He knew it in his head anyway. But late that night, my wife and kids asleep, Aimee and Sebastian too, John stayed up and watched Geraldo standing in front of the Convention Center pleading for help that would not come, and that’s when John’s heart and body knew his house was gone and everything in it.

He was right; it was under nine feet of water and stayed that way for six weeks. Their sofas and chairs floated. Art on the walls crumbled with the walls. The books and albums they’d collected over twenty-five years were lost. So were precious photos, letters, and family documents, as well as Aimee’s production notes from years of her work in theater. All of John’s handmade films.

All gone.

But then another feeling came. The blessed knowledge that they weren’t gone. His family. They had survived. His lovely wife and their miraculous son, they were upstairs in this very house fast asleep. That night, his mouth went dry, his heart began to pound, and the Muse sat up inside him: he flicked off the T.V., found his notebook and pen, and began writing Part II of Hurricane Hotel, a novel that had been coming to him for a long while now, a novel that rose up out of his own years living in New Orleans as a younger man and artist. Lean years of squatting at the C Note, stepping over drunks to get to his room. Years living at the Audubon Hotel, the guy upstairs who earned his keep doing his bead work for the owners, though it was far more than that.

It came to him as visions do – complete and pristine – millions and millions of Mardi Gras beads lying in the streets and on the sidewalks, scattered in darkened doorways and hanging over black iron fences and gnarled tree roots, the purple and red and green and gold refuse of revelers come and gone, this material that John would spend days gathering up into plastic trash bags, then months and years fashioning into art.

He was writing, too, and it’s all here: from Ruth’s gentle touch to the joyful rituals of the hell-bound Chemical Sisters, from the drunk and redeemed Arlen to sexy Sophia and trigger-happy Treme, from mad Martha, Mona and Moose to pre-destined Zane and long suffering Emma Jane, wise-cracking Jake and Molly and the paternal Guy Upstairs, all blind to the rising muddy waters of the Mississippi, the wind-blown salt of the Gulf, the heavy waters of Lake Pontchartrain, spilling over, then rising, rising, rising, taking everything and nearly everyone.

Hurricane Hotel is a love letter to the drowned city that gave birth not only to it but also to the Muse of J.K. Lawson, my cousin, who serves us here a final image of redemption that rises from the very center of his own psyche: children taking shards of stained glass from a ruined church and fixing them to the mud of an entombed car.

And who else to deliver this letter back to New Orleans but the Spirit of Jelly Roll that John so passionately evokes here? Who else but a ghost of a rambler and gambler and pool shark, of a pimp and vaudeville comedian and master of the ebony and ivory keys? Who else but a man who died of an evil voodoo spell but left behind so much goodness?

For, as J.K. Lawson shows us again and yet again: from devastation, truth. From devastation, beauty.

Andre Dubus III

©2007

NOLAFugees

Read the 12/08 review in NOLAFugees.com

Photos from a staged reading of Hurricane Hotel

John Lawson is a regular contributor of poetry and art to

The Berkshire Edge