Our Lady of The Flood by Alison Pelegrin
Diode Editions, 2018
Reviewed by DM O’Connor
They say no matter how
Katrina tore up house and yard, the half shelf Marys
stayed put, never looking away from our distress.
We will always honor you, like our real mothers,
with flower crowns.
Our Lady of the Half Shell
Diode Edition’s latest offering, Our Lady of The Flood, an 18-poem chapbook by Alison Pelegrin, is prayer in verse. Lake Pontchartrain, Bogue Falaya, Manchac Swamp, Mississippi tugboats and barges, set the scene for these traditionally structured poems. Thus, we encounter a Bathtub Madonna surrounded by Mardi Gras beads in conversation with Saint Medard, underscored with images of backyard barbeques serving deer sausages, excess zucchini, and the credo, “I am a believer in makeshift banquets/ with enough of whatever to go around.”
Pelegrin shows vulnerability and courage in facing the exhaustive themes of the American South. In “To the Recruitment Office of the West St. Tammany Parish KKK on Martin Luther King Day 2016” the narrative voice repurposes racist leaflets into origami cranes and sets them sailing “past cypress trees,/ harmless and pure as doves.”
In “Soliloquy against a Kudzu Backdrop:
I would like to believe these actors I see—
rednecks so loud in their stupidity
that rather than being frightened by their antics
I find myself waiting for a punch line.
If only, “heritage, not hate” weren’t a thing.
Our Lady of the Flood asks difficult and specific questions. What do we do when our community is publically spawning hate? How do we decipher confederate mythology? What to do with a Robert E. Lee statue? What to erect in the empty space?
In “Our Lady of ‘No Regrets’” the narration begins with a dreaded tattoo, streams through images of Patrick Swayze and “so many RIPs” concluding with questions concerning a mother’s lamentation:
But what about a mother’s grief over children
delivered with no guarantees? They are born,
they whine, they steal change from your purse,
they pierce their ears and brand themselves with ice.
No blank space, anymore, on their baby skin, to mark
with kisses. Just scribbles. Other people’s names inside of hearts.
Despite using the Christian vocabulary of prayer to code the unspeakable, Pelegrin’s verse is never far from the flood—specifically, Katrina. The victims, evacuees, and saints that watch over them are always in the picture. The final poem, “Quicksilver (Katrina 2005)” claims water as the ultimate ablution, the great equalizer, the primordial solution:
When the edges of the world turn watery
they are supposed to disappear.
I submit. That truth has now sunken in:
quicksilver visions wrinkle,
and then they vanish. But
this water is absolute. It remains,
though the hurricane is over.
At times, Our Lady of the Flood may feel a little thin for the inquisitive, abstract for non-worshipers, perhaps too coded in Christian verbiage for nonbelievers. But for certain survivors, it just might offer the right vocabulary, liturgy, and support needed to face the next flood, which may be lurking just beyond the horizon.
DAVID MORGAN O'CONNOR is from a small Canadian village on Lake Huron. After many nomadic years, he's based in Albuquerque, where stories and poems progress daily. His writing has appeared in more than 50 print or online publications. He reviews, interviews and blogs monthly.