Notes from Atlantis

Random Thoughts from the Crescent City

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Notes from Atlantis 13

Dear Folks,

Okay, here’s why I love New Orleans. Because in the space of one single month you can go to a literary salon, hear Monk Boudreaux channel down the African gods at Tipitina’s, go to a Twelfth Night ball, and party on New Year’s Eve with an eight foot tall penis.

Now c’mon, you’ve got to admit, for a “disaster zone” that’s doing pretty good!

We’ll start on a refined note. We went to our friend Marda’s literary salon earlier last month. There in her beautiful, high-ceilinged apartment in the French Quarter we heard readings of poetry and a novel-in-progress, listened to jazz standards and topical patter songs performed on her grand piano, discussed upcoming publications (Andrei Codrescu has a book coming out this month, “New Orleans Mon Amour”, and Tom Piazza and Roy Blount Jr. both have new works) and gossiped about writers and writing in this close-knit, supportive, and remarkably friendly world. Really, maybe it’s just me, but I can’t imagine New York writers getting together to sip champagne and compare notes with the same kind of loving cameraderie as exists down here. Ego and competition take a back seat to fondness and sheer enthusiasm for one another’s work, and the result is as nourishing as air.

As the darkness fell and Christmas tree lights came on in the swagged garlands of the house across the street, we sat out on Marda’s gallery and listened to the traffic going by on Royal Street below, and it was as if the hurricane had never for the bittersweet pleasure of greeting old friends, hugging and telling tales. Where did you go, when did you get back, how’s your house? What are you working on now? Dr. Kenneth Holditch was holding forth on Tennessee Williams, back from his enforced exile in Tupelo. Rosemary James and her husband, Joe DeSalvo, were back from Charleston and preparing to reopen Faulkner House Books. Josh Clark, who runs Light of New Orleans Press and who rode out the storm in the French Quarter, was there looking like a fashion plate and sporting his new “Katrina” tattoo. These are people who are all alive and thinking and observing and recording this truly extraordinary time, and I can’t wait to see what they come up with! Poetry to sear the soul and wit to make us laugh out loud in the face of tragedy. I can’t wait.

We went to Tipitina’s a week later, and I have to admit, it was actually my first visit there. Presided over by the spirit of the late Professor Longhair, who played there in his final years, Tips is the kind of road house-cum-social hall where you can imagine hearing everyone from Robert Johnson to a young Elvis Presley...and while it’s not quite that old (twenty-seven years of cigarette smoke and spilled beer have given it a timeless quality) everybody from Dr. John to the Neville Brothers to Galactic calls it home. They’d just hosted a big Katrina benefit the night before, featuring Arlo Guthrie and Willie Nelson, but the night we were there it was just “Big Chief” Monk Boudreaux and various Mardi Gras Indians, performing essentially for themselves.

Driving drums and rhythmic chanting created a hypnotic beat calling up the Yoruba and Haitian gods, as well as the spirits of Black Hawk, Big Chief Jolly, and the godfathers and mothers of today’s most inspired rappers. Meanwhile dancers, male and female, challenged one another with intricate rhymes and snapped, bucked, kicked-up and hip-shook in ways that would have left Alvin Ailey and Martha Graham breathless. All of it was improvised. All of it was of the moment. All of it was filled with the angry, joyous, wild, grieving energy of people who’ve seen their homes and their traditions, their beautiful beaded costumes and their intricate cultural networks almost literally washed away...but there they were. Defiantly drumming and dancing. There were no pretty feathers, no colored flags. Instead it was a community invocation of the spirit, making you realize the intimate connection between performance and ritual, art and prayer. The wild voudouists who danced out on Bayou St. John were probably inspired by much the same impulse...making a great shout to heaven with all the joy and rage they could muster. I can’t tell you when I’ve ever felt more honored to be somewhere.

Except, perhaps, at a Mardi Gras ball...because there, too, what we were really seeing was a private community’s celebration of itself. Now I know, a lot of people might have been all over this from a racist or sexist or politically incorrect perspective. Here were masked men, after all, wealthy men, engaged in the debut of nubile young women in a context of privilege and noblesse oblige. Here were the mysterious, slightly ominous masks, blank papier mache above the nose and featureless cloth below, recalling both the dangerous anarchy of the commedia dell’arte and the night riders of Reconstruction.

Except I think such criticism misses the point entirely, and I think that’s true now more than ever. In the same way the Golden Eagles and the other Mardi Gras Indians weren’t putting on a show for the tourists, the krewe we were privileged to observe (I can’t reveal the specifics of who or where) were engaging in a joyous, beautiful, happy and deeply tender homage to tradition. Here were lovely young women in virginal white, shy, self-mocking, a little aware of the ironic distance between their actions and their ambitions, but enjoying themselves nonetheless. Here were the men, in many cases their fathers or their uncles, escorting them gently in the promenade, creating a Cinderella fairy-tale for the pure pleasure of giving it to themselves and their women. Yes, it’s all in good fun. Yes, of course, these aren’t real kings and queens. And if the past century has taught us anything (not to mention the past four months) it’s that wealth and power and privilege are only provisional gifts, and change can’t be barred from the door. But for a night the world was simply beautiful, and the silks and satins of the court, the comic costumes, the strains of waltzes, created a world everyone there could enjoy, even though everyone there knew it was only temporary. Like the Mardi Gras Indians, the krewe members and their families we saw were saying this is what our fathers did, and our grandfathers: this was where my mother reigned as queen for an evening, and perhaps, one day, my daughter will as well. I think finally you need to touch the past, you need, in Auden’s lovely phrase, to break bread with the dead, because otherwise you lose so much if you forget them. You call them up by drumming or with a tableau, and when they’re there in the room for an instant, you tell them you love them, and then you let them go.

And sometimes you just have to let go and be completely silly...which brings me back to that eight foot tall penis. I’ll bet you thought I’d forgotten about that! On New Year’s Eve, we attended a costume party, the theme of which was “Copulate to Repopulate New Orleans”. Naturally, Yours Truly went as a pregnant bride (anyone remember that scene from “Funny Girl”?) and our friends Kyle and Christopher came, respectively, as a choir boy and a priest. And Bill? Well, we found this large beige rubber costume in a shop, tucked way in the back, and upon unwrapping it, we realized what it was and...suffice it to say he was the life of the party. I now have the distinct privilege of knowing I’m married to the biggest dick in New Orleans. That plus wearing white tie and tails the other night...I tell you, he’s becoming completely costume-besotted. I can’t wait to see what the rest of this Carnival season will bring.

Which brings me to my final point, which is to wish you all a wonderful Carnival season, wherever you happen to be. If your schedule permits, please come down here and join us! Wherever you go, may the Lords of Misrule and Mischief, the gods of breaking the rules and not taking yourself too seriously, prevail...because life’s far too serious as it is, there’s no need for us to encourage it! We intend to eat, drink, and be merry, and to catch all the beads we can, and to dance up a storm, and to celebrate the fact that we’re not dead yet and neither is New Orleans. Please join us!

And if you should happen to encounter an eight foot tall penis while you’re walking around in the French Quarter, please don’t just ASSUME it’s Bill! After all, there a lot of other dicks down here as well. But they’re all pretty cool.

Love and Happy Mardi Gras!




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