“Hope, thin-bodied, is bent, never broken.” The Katrina poems by Niyi Osundare


you call this a levee?

Niyi Osundare, a professor at the University of New Orleans, managed to hide in the attic with his wife when Katrina struck. For more than 24 hours they waited for rescue, the waters rising, swallowing up everything, reaching their feet… All along, the couple calling 911. Around 2.30 in the night they got a response. A woman said:

“Go out in a boat.”

“How can we get one?”

“I don’t know,” she answered.

So I asked her, “A whole city is under water? And there is no boat?”

And she said, “Okay. You stand on your roof and a helicopter might see you.”

In the dark, with no light, how to get to the roof? One of the beautiful things about Niyi Osundare’s Katrina poems is their ability to capture the memory of what New Orleans was before, during, and after Katrina. In his collection, City Without People (2011), he structures the poems in five parts: Water Water, After The Flood, The Language of Pain, Katrina Will Not Have The Last Word, and Afterword.

You’ll have a chance to read one poem from the Water Water category, which marks the water’s journey. The poems in this section, and water as the subject matter, become bolder in their rage, with the waters ‘barging through doors uninvited, like a desperate burglar,’ tossing up stuff like toys, turning into an omiyale–Yoruba name for home-devastating floods.


It all began as a whisper among

The leaves. The tree’s tangled tale

And the wanton narrative of the wind


Then, the pit pat pit pat bing bang bing

Of the hooves of the trampling rain

My shuddering roof, my wounded house


A shunting of shingles

Unraveling of rafters

And the wind dropped a pool


In my living room. The sky

Rumbled like a stricken bull;

Lightning zigzagged  its fire through


The darkening clouds. Wind-driven,

Tornado-tormented, the Lake overran

Its fence, pouring its piled-up anger


In the careless streets.

Levees (built with levity)

Collapsed like hapless mounds


          Roads lost their names,

          Streets their memories


A torrential torment enthralled the city

The day the Lake came down my street

And took my house away.

How the British do it to protect the city and its citizens

After The Flood section resumes the journey of a city stripped of all its layers, muddied and murdered, but not quite dead yet. ‘Undertakers bemoan a shortage of coffins. In the twilight sky, a vanguard of vultures.’ The city is in its nightmarish garment, and humor is not lost: There’s a skull that loved fried chicken, judging by the shape of the teeth. There’s an advert, which I find post-apocalyptic, of one of the demolition companies that swooped down (like vultures?) on New Orleans in the wake of Katrina: WE TEAR DOWN HOUSES FOR A LIVING. Someone’s roof is a ‘flying saucer that lands on top of three cars and flips them upside down like beached whales.’ The flood has come and gone, leaving its silt behind, and there’s hope.



8 feet

below sea level


The people


many, many miles

below government care



Lakeisha’s grandma

Drowned here

In her wheelchair

When the water rose

Above her head


A good Samaritan

tethered her floating body

to an electric pole

to prevent it from


Getting washed away

by the raging flood


Narita’s baby

died in this house


The lake stole him

from his cot


And gave him

to the hungry sea



Have just unearthed another body:


A six-year old girl

(or therebout)

with her bones neatly packed

in her denim pinafore,

her plastic toy

one muddy inch


from her contorted fingers.

She left no clue

About Mommy’s whereabouts


Another skull

Just discovered


In House 10

Road 7



aged about 70


Probably loved fried chicken

black-eye beans and collard greens


Judging by

the shape of the teeth


We leave the Coroner’s office

to put a name to the bones


A pair of boots

stands at attention


Atop the grave

Of a rubbled home,


bloated by the flood,

its medaled memory muddied


And bravely sad.

Once saw action


In Normandy

trudged through purple paddies


In Saigon

Everywhere in search


of a prize

which eluded him at home…


A sad, vacant pair

still in search of their missing feet


The Sheraton

towers above the muddy mess


Its own wound

bandaged with brown paper


Once thought impregnable

until Katrina turned its rooms


Into a rubble of broken glass


So much there was here

So little now



Hope, thin-bodied,

Is bent

Never broken

How the Italians are protecting Venice on the sea

Niyi could have left to work and live elsewhere, when New Orleans turned into a ‘mighty smelly swamp.’ He had offers, but he did not abandon the ‘sick, betrayed city,’ for what it was, what it stood for, and what it really is (not just the French Quarter), which you’ll discover if you get yourself a copy of his book, City Without People. Moving from one rescue camp to another, sleeping in the fields, receiving help from old and new friends, Niyi’s plight, and that of others taught him a couple of things: how to live with nothing. how to forgive the wind. how Katrina re-arranged his needs, and showed him the vanity of possessing, the horror of being possessed. In the poem titled “Losses,” from the Section, The Language of Pain, Niyi attempts a laundry-list of some of the things he’s lost:

A new pair of shoes

Received on Fathers Day


An African attire

Embroidered in timeless silk


A papyrus scroll

From my last Egyptian journey


A hand-made copy

Of my book in Czech


My daughter’s diploma

My wife’s resume


A rare, rare photo

Of my father in his youth


Tapes of a chat

With my ageing mother…

Yet, I’m thinking, like the Ancient Mariner perhaps, the city hangs around his neck like an albatross. He would not forsake it.

The Dutch guarding the whole nation which lies below sea-level

I was shocked to learn that Katrina was not a ‘totally natural disaster.’ The water that consumed everything came from a broken levee, the London Avenue Canal, which was a weak one. Remember when folks put up mounds of earth at the edge of a lake and called it a levee? There was no proper flood-control wall (Holland could teach us so much!) ‘Most of that country is below sea-level. after a few devastating hits, they’ve perfected the art and science of flood control.’ Niyi suggests that water doesn’t like to be underestimated. But much as it took away all he had, “it never succeeded in taking away his tongue–and a sense of proportion and justice.” So he “sings of a city that insists on its right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” In a way, the American government failed in its claim to protect and preserve the lives of the people. After the floods, it wasn’t New Orleans on trial, being debated whether it should have a second chance or not, whether it should be rebuilt. It wasn’t even a money issue (The government isn’t short of that, given its capacity to send millions wherever it wants). The claim to care and protect was what was tested. How much help has New Orleans received? How strong and high are the walls that have been built? What storm categories can they endure? We will see, eventually.

All images from CommonDreams.org





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One Response to “Hope, thin-bodied, is bent, never broken.” The Katrina poems by Niyi Osundare

  1. Thom H July 11, 2012 at 10:27 pm #

    Like most Americans not from N’Orleans, I think we’ve already let this slip down the memory hole. It was an all-around disgrace. First, the responses by authorities on the federal, state and local levels. Second, the at times openly biased media coverage. Third, and more generally, how it seemed to portray the US generally at its worst: Homer Simpson-like incompetence, with added meanness and divisiveness. The “fourth world,” as some have called the US: first world for some; third world for too many others. How we responsed to Katrina really exposed a lot about us that was not good.

    As for one point in your blog entry, let me confirm several researchers have claimed that this was a disaster waiting to happen: virtually man-made, given engineering, funding, and policy choices over the years prior to Katrina.

    Sadly, and perhaps not surprisingly, one of the best commentators on the Katrina fiasco is a professional comedian (among other ventures), the multi-talented Harry Shearer. He’s got a film out about Katrina worth seeing. Not just comic rant, but some heavy hitters, professors Ivor Van Heerden and Robert Bea, on what the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers got repeatedly wrong. Here’s the YouTube trailer: http://youtu.be/iST8js4HtOY

    If you want the truth, listen to the court jester. But as for the court, the king, the ministers and all the sages, expect serious madness, straight-faced inanity, and one foolish gesture after another.

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