"Nasty Water" by James Nolan, University of Louisiana at Lafayette Press, 94 pages, softcover, $14.95
James Nolan traces his roots in New Orleans back five generations. He has lived in other places, but he’s always gone home, and in “Nasty Water” he offers what he calls an “autobiography of place” — 50 poems written over 50 years, focused on his native city.
It’s a collection perfectly timed to the city's tricentennial year, for these New Orleans-themed “songs” give insights into the history and culture of the city described in the title poem as a “shimmering mirage.” They also touch on the universal themes of family, coming home and enduring.
The first section gives glimpses into a 1950s and ’60s-era Creole childhood and introduces some of the authors’ quirky relatives, whom some readers will recognize from Nolan’s prose memoir, “Flight Risk: Memoirs of a New Orleans Bad Boy,” published in 2017. In “Nasty Water,” the poem “Mardi Gras Grandmothers” introduces Nolan’s Irish Nana, who “dyed her hair red” and “danced on Mardi Gras floats/ until she was seventy-five,” bending from her perch “in the parade of Iris” to lift up little Jimmy from the crowd. His other grandmother, his staid French Mémère, kept her grandson “from slipping/ into the streams of flambeau carriers.” Drawn to Nana, he knew Mémère would be waiting in the crowd to “take the dazzled face, the jazzed-out legs” and “lead her flambeau boy the dark way home."
“In the Rotunda” gives readers a humorous image of a young boy on his first field trip to Baton Rouge, lighting a souvenir cigar on the roof of the Capitol, pondering Huey Long and Huck Finn. In “Dream Castle (1964),” the adolescent speaker and a date have a “jive night” on Frenchmen Street. This section ends with two hauntingly musical poems. “Home Blues” has a trancelike rhythm and a repetitive chorus, “from the back porch/ of my mother’s house/… from the north/ from the south” with echoes of call-and-response patterns. “Cold Front” is a lament on his mother’s death that combines the repetitive form of a villanelle with traditional rhythms of blues and bluegrass lyrics evoking unbroken circles, a powerful combination.
The second half of “Nasty Water” is what the author calls “an orchestration of New Orleans culture.” That term is apt, for a musical motif runs throughout, even in the titles. Some are responses to historical events. “Superdome Lullaby” and “Blind Lady Singing” were written after Hurricane Katrina, “King Midas Blues” concerns the 2010 Gulf oil spill, and “Lament on the Assassination Six Days Later” reflects on Dr. Martin Luther King’s death. “King Solomon’s Sword, or the Café au Lait Blues” touches on the city’s underlying racial tensions, as does “Mr. Boudreaux’s Civil War.” Other poems celebrate New Orleans food, like “Over the Oysters” and “Crabs in a Hamper,” with its image of “broth seasoned like the sea.” Continuing the musical motif, “French Quarter Bar Fugue” is a contrapuntal journey through the city’s history by way of three historic bars.
One poem in particular might be seen to embody the essence of New Orleans in this tricentennial year. “Iron Lace” celebrates the delicate “wrought-iron galleries/ along French Quarter streets.” They’re described as “iron string quartets,” another musical allusion. “Conquistadors with horses/ French with fancy carriages/ Americans with automobiles/ have shoved and plowed against” these fragile structures over three centuries, yet they endure: “Iron to the bone…/ Iron lace does not break.”
The language of “Nasty Water” is lively and accessible, and every poem is beautifully crafted by this award-winning poet, essayist, translator and storyteller. Nolan’s “songs” will appeal especially to New Orleanians, but also to anyone with an interest in or affection for the multifaceted city he calls home.
—Perry lives in New Orleans
WHAT: James Nolan will read from his new book, "Nasty Water."
WHEN: 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. Thursday
WHERE: Garden District Books, 2727 Prytania St., New Orleans