On Sept. 5, 2005, just a week after Hurricane Katrina flooded his neighborhood, Peter Cooley returned to his house. Before he reached for a bottle of bleach, he found a pen. Moments later, he wrote a poem. Within weeks, many others poured out, 30 in all.
“They were written very quickly,” he says. “Almost given to me from on high.”
One poem, “Third Heaven,” parses the sensation of opening the front door, not just to his house but also to what he knew would be a new life.
“Only one thing was clear: someone was in the room/ someone larger than rooms and hurricanes/ someone who shone brighter than any sun,” he wrote. “There was no word for this except the one familiar to us all: deliverance.”
Cooley is the director of the undergraduate creative writing program at Tulane, where he has worked since 1975. He has nine books of poetry to his name, and between 1970 and 2000, he was the poetry editor for the North American Review, the oldest literary journal in the U.S.
Despite such credentials, he says Katrina handed him a new lesson on the writing life — that it should not be taken for granted and that writing is often most potent when it captures the immediacy of the moment.
He received, he says, “a greater impetus to write quickly and trust what I was putting down, not ponder it so much.”
“Disaster sharpens our awareness of what we are and where we’re going,” he says. “It made me much more aware of the fragility of human life.”
Before Katrina, he had become conditioned to loss. In January, June and December 2000, he suffered the deaths of his mother, brother and sister, respectively — “everyone in my family,” he says.
He spent a year shuttling between New Orleans and Detroit, his hometown, to settle their respective affairs.
When news came that Katrina was on its way, Cooley and his wife, Jacki, decided they would stay. Their car had engine problems, so they were unsure if it was even safe for interstate driving.
They relocated to St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church on South Carrollton Avenue, where Jacki worked and had keys.
“It was a church made out of brick, which is very secure. Our house is wood and more exposed,” he says.
When it arrived, the storm “sounded like a railroad car hitting another railroad car.” Then the power went out. Looters arrived in the neighborhood soon afterward.
Cooley remembers 17 days of subsisting on bologna sandwiches and MREs, sleeping on the couch and trying to read by flashlight. He watched looters ransack a nearby drugstore, taking primarily diapers, food and beer.
The couple lived those days “in a state of suspension.” When the water receded, he got in his car and drove through the city to survey the destruction. In Lakeview, he finally broke down crying.
It was during that time that Cooley renegotiated his own relationship with New Orleans. He told himself, “Something has to happen to make this better. At the same time, I know we have to get out of here if it’s not going to change.”
The couple did not move. Ten years later, on Aug. 29, he will read “Third Heaven,” among other poems, at a commemoration event at Tulane featuring other poets and writers on the university faculty. The 3 p.m. event in Freeman Auditorium at the Woldenberg Art Center is free, and the public is invited.
Every morning, he writes. Consistency is key, he discovered, to all kinds of survival.
“This is our home,” he says. “This is where we’re staying.”