Anyone who has spent time in the French Quarter knows it always has been a great place for people watching. Living there can be like living inside the pages of a book of complicated short stories where all of the characters are unexpectedly connected. Observant residents are inevitably privy to all sorts of secrets that can never be revealed for fear of invading someone's privacy. Although I never asked him point-blank, I have long suspected my colleague Dalt Wonk created his French Quarter Fables as a way of sharing his observations as discreet parables with elegantly funky animals standing in for human characters. All have a ring of truth about them, but rendered allegorically in verse they assume a near-mythic quality that is illuminating without being personally compromising.
One of my favorites is the opening fable The Impulsive Swallow (pictured). It's the story of a lady swallow who, after repeatedly spurning the seductive allure of a saxophone-playing tomcat who serenades her from below, experiences a moment of weakness: "And the night air was fragrant/ and the sky full of stars/ She walked out and listened/ and let down her guard." The cat is very cool and the lady swallow is no match for his charms, which predictably leads to a deadly denouement: "Just a breeze from the window — a feather in flight — and the wail of a saxophone/ lost in the night." As with all such things, the proof of the tale is in the telling, and here Wonk's resonant verse playfully conveys the universal qualities of this little tragedy as it unfolds.
How often have similar human stories been acted out on the streets of the French Quarter? Wonk's evocatively self-illustrated works may seem eerily familiar to anyone who has spent time in those fabled environs. In a realm of sensual allure, the possibilities for potentially dangerous liaisons are endless, and a roster of characters comprised of birds, cats, frogs, lizards, mules and poodles amounts almost to a typecasting of the Quarter's colorful human zoo. Like the Louis XIV-era fabulist Jean de La Fontaine, Wonk writes in a deceptively simple style that sounds like either a charming children's story or cautionary words to the wise. Like de La Fontaine, Wonk's fables become more elaborate as they progress, so by the time we get to The Malamute and the Seal, they assume Somerset Maugham-like overtones. Here Wonk's colorful animals make perfect foils for human foibles.
A longtime resident of the French Quarter, where he and his wife, photographer Josephine Sacabo, have lived since the 1970s, Wonk is a distinguished poet, playwright, illustrator and Gambit theater critic. When his French Quarter Fables was first published years ago, he described it as his "love letter" to his longtime home, and this new, gorgeously produced large-format limited edition published by his and Sacabo's Luna Press eloquently underscores that enduring sentiment. — D. ERIC BOOKHARDT