In "The Tempest," Shakespeare sings to his muse, writing of how "graves at my command / Have waked their sleepers, oped and let 'em forth / By my so potent art." Four centuries later, American writers continue to ply their own literary spades at the undead ghosts of Katrina. In her new volume, "Blood Dazzler," a finalist for the National Book Award for poetry, Patricia Smith brings an incantatory brilliance to the horror of that hurricane and our nation's shameful response to it.
This is an awesomely alliterative book. Smith, who is a slam poet champion, makes her lines seethe and bulge like high-pressure fronts. For her, the storm is elementally female. "Every woman begins as weather," she writes in "5 P.M., Tuesday, August 23, 2005": "sips slow thunder, knows her hips. Every woman / harbors a chaos." Line by line, beat by beat, Smith beautifully evokes Katrina's gathering rage and then tracks the tangible havoc it wrought on the Gulf Coast.
Like Jacob Lawrence's magnificent Great Migration series of paintings, there is a gouged poignancy to the progression of these poems. Weather becomes warnings received too late, leading to harrowing rooftop vigils. Smith conjures the voices silenced by rising water -- the agonizing choices made by those who barely survived. "I have three children, / but only two arms," she writes in the voice of a woman. "He falls / and barely splashes, / that's how incredibly light / he is -- was. How death whispers."
"Blood Dazzler" may not be a big volume, but it captures the panoramic sweep of the storm's impact. "Giddy shoppers / circle and howl, bellowing their felonies," she writes in "Loot." "Herbert my son," she writes in the voice of Ethel Freeman, whose fate was one of the most heartbreaking shown in Spike Lee's film "When the Levees Broke." "I believe him when he says help gon' come."
The tireless work of filmmakers, journalists and survivors determined to tell their stories have made Smith's own book easier to tell. She respects the narrative that this collective outpouring has created, giving a call-and-response echo to her verse. "The storm left a wound seeping," she writes in "Voodoo V: Enemy Be Gone," "a boulevard yawning, / some memories fractured, a / kiss exploded, / she left no stone resting."
These poems are not elegies, but language elevated to such a level that it becomes eternally present tense. Even Smith's gimlet-eyed poem about President Bush idly strumming a guitar while the storm bore down on New Orleans and her dead-eyed portrait of FEMA's "Michael Brown" duck the lazy habits of polemic and pivot on memorable images. This book refuses to "paint the rubble pretty," as Smith writes in "Rebuilding." Still, it is a work of awful beauty.
John Freeman is completing a book on the tyranny of e-mail. National Book Award winners are announced Wednesday.