There’s Another New Orleans
By Patricia Jabbeh Wesley
Where the roads crawl backwards
behind streets broken up in many places
and children stand in doorways,
staring. Their eyes look far away,
and a woman stands by the street corner
hollering for a dollar to take her to the shelter.
At the Chinese restaurant,
a blind man was having a meal after
a long day collecting coins that we
tourists threw into a plastic bowl
on Canal Street. My girlfriends and I took a streetcar
from Bourbon down to the Gardens
where colonial mansions rush past you
with lost history. I didn’t know
you could ride a streetcar on a sidewalk
and watch houses disappear into history.
I wanted to feel the years.
I wanted to holler until I cried, or danced
through these colonial-mansion-streets
so the past would come flying out like
The colonial houses want to tell me
we have done away with the past?
But the streets behind our view crawl
backwards into history we came here
to remember or forget.
Someone should have kept the years for us.
Someone should have carved up the years
on pieces of metal for us.
At the restaurant door, I lose my step
in the dark. A five-year-old-boy
is playing the harmonica–nine o’clock
at night on Thursday. On Bourbon Street
nude girls are dancing in a bar,
and the five-year-old-boy outside,
on the sidewalk collects brown coins
into a plastic bowl. Will we ever know
what pennies can do?
Down the road, we forget the child,
Just a few steps away, a saxophone
wails on a thin string. At Bourbon and Canal,
tourists come out in colonies, holding
on to the thin evening air.
What brings out the best of Canal Street
brings out the worst of Canal Street.
The Saxophone player sweats and balloons
hard into the night air of footsteps coming
and going in search of food and drinks
and happiness. Lovers holding on to each
other as if afraid of unfamiliar ghosts.
There’s another New Orleans, I say,
where the blind man rises at dawn
below our passing feet.
You will not see him beneath the footsteps.
The tall buildings will lose him too,
in the French Quarters, where the smell
of Cajun spices and crawfish drowns us tourists.
The Gumbo tasted like home food to me,
and my God, they brought Jollof Rice
all the way here, and named it Jambalaya.
Our waitress placed me in the middle
of people eating fresh oysters and drinking
red wine. The wines and hot peppers will drown
only the moment. Outside the night air,
on our way back to where hotel rooms await us,
there, again is the five-year-old,
somebody’s son–the child who plays
the harmonica like no other person
in the whole world.
* * * * *
I bent down,
like a crab.
into a shell.
I hid, a leech
under a green leaf.
I quit talking
for the storm to pass.
(from “The Storm” in Before the Palm Could Bloom)
In the Beginning
In the beginning, there were women, and all things,
creeping and non-creeping, were good.
That was before time could tell daylight from night.
When men could speak women’s tongues; before
the sea turned blue and took up rolling, foaming, like
a big glass of fresh palm wine. Before oceans learned
to rise and fall, before rivers were first named rivers.
Before they named the Cavalla River, Cavalla, after
the fish or the fish after the town, or the town after
the river. When Cape Palmas, where I come from,
became Cape Palmas; before there was even a cape
or palm trees. Before Cape Palmas began to give birth
to palm trees that sprouted with fat bottoms and began
to rise, and the coconut learned to be sister to the nut
palm and the nut palm to the bamboo palm, the bamboo
palm to the thatched; or when their grandfather made
them blood relations, or straw relations or bamboo
relations, or cabbage relations or long, thin leaves
relations, or whatever it is that makes them seem
identical twins. But bamboo knows how to prick my
finger when I touch it with an angry heart; the palm tree
will prick lightly, while the coconut stands there, tall.
Coconut breasts hanging from its chest, or head,
or whatever. The way a bamboo grove used to prick
our toes when Mudi and I wandered under its swampy
territory. That was before the time when women took
upon themselves to birth babies, even though men
knew how to, or before men went around boasting
of having this many children and this many sons upon
their mere fingers. Iyeeh says men really birthed babies
then, and women boasted of being the fathers of babies
then, and the children ran for their fathers like they do
today for their mothers when a father calls them
for a whip with a cane. That was long before the car
road bulldozed the giant walnut, the oak, chopping up
the towns and the forests into roads, and rubber trees
sprang up where the forests were, and the coffee
became a tree, becoming first cousin to the cocoa,
and the palm nuts went to the city to be sold for coins.
Suddenly, we girls grew wings like pepper birds, no,
no, like eagles, or like jet planes, and could fly or hop
on a truck to the city where street lights cannot tell
the villager from the city dweller; where a man cannot
tell his wife from his lover; his inside children from his
outside children; where all have lost their hearts to the bars
and the dangling lights, and people fight on street corners;
and after all that, I and all the girls of the world learned
to run wild too, like wild flowers, no, no, wild, like men.
All the women of the world, becoming just men.
(Source: Becoming Ebony by Patricia Jabbeh Wesley)