Nicole Cooley grew up in New Orleans, Louisiana. She has published two books of poetry and a novel. Her fourth book, Breach, is forthcoming from LSU Press. She is an associate professor of English and Creative Writing at Queens College—City University of New York, where she directs the new MFA program in creative writing and literary translation.
Biloxi Bay Bridge Still Out
Bay St. Louis, Mississippi
One year later, at the end of summer, light is chopped up into concrete blocks.
The bridge still out. From my truck I watch the highway grind to nothing.
The cars all have to turn back. I lean out my window and I tell them:
The eastern span was thrown fifty feet by wind.
At Beach Mini Mart, I wrote another message, spray-painted on plywood
over broken glass: Good Buddy, Come Back.
Parked at the edge of where the highway ends, I wait to tell them:
How water rose, receded, tumbled the girders, cracked the deck.
Now cars turn from the split asphalt, from the jumble of concrete pilings,
broken bridge spanning the unsaid.
The House on Galvez Street
When we return from two weeks on the Gulf Coast, our house smells musty, damp, and I fill and set the soup pot on the burner, shake in oregano and red pepper, because I want to drown out any smell of water.
When my two-year old sobs and kicks and screams on the kitchen floor I see her tantrum as a deep pool, murky and dark. I will myself to be calm, to float on the surface of the water.
When my mother tells me we lost boxes of family photographs in the flood of 1978, I remember how she couldn’t bring me home from school because she was trapped in the house on Galvez Street by the rising water.
When I drive over Canal to St. Claude Avenue, to the Ninth Ward, to Desire Street, the first shock is that the neighborhood looks burned and dried, each side street a parched throat, as if all the water has been washed away by water.
When we return from New Orleans, I can’t shake the images from my head: flood-rusted, closed-down schools, FEMA trailers, empty because no one is given keys, house after house exposed and violated by water.
When the water first rose in our not-below-ground basement on Galvez Street, it reached the blue-roofed dollhouse my mother built, set on a low table, its cobblestone paper sidewalk she had made was encircled by water.
When we return, I read Alice in Wonderland to my daughters but skip the white rabbit, skip the changing size, skip the magic bottle pleading Drink Me, turn only to the pool of tears, hold my daughters tightly in my lap, watch Alice drowning in her body’s own water.
Self-Portrait in Mixed Media: Concrete, Chalk, Floodwater
I switch on the floodlight to rinse the front lawn clean.
Outside my daughters lie down on a river
of glittering asphalt where each draws
the outline of the other. They chalk their bodies
into our street. All summer there has been no rain,
the grass edged yellow and dry. I watch my girls
but I look past them to see the other girl,
myself, walking on the levee, sliding over clean
cement, down to the water’s edge where rain’s
blunt edge drums the mud of the river.
I look around our street and imagine a body
floating in the flood, a family on a roof drawn
into the tightest circle. My older daughter draws
her sister’s edges, colors her absence, these girls
who once lived safely in my body.
What if all the houses on my street, their clean
blue shutters, bordered roses, were taken by the river,
wind slamming boards and shingles, rain
splitting roofs and fences, breaking steps, rain
swirling, lashing, ruining? My daughters draw and draw
self-portraits on concrete, and there is no river
here to swell and swallow the landscape. The girls’
chalk crumbles, settles on the dry clean
grass like ash, like mold blackening the bodies
of the houses on each side-street. A body
floats and sinks and no one claims it while rain
breaks open another house, buckles clean
wood, tears apart a door. I watch my street, drawn
back as always to the other city, where a girl
stands at the levee’s edge alone, where a river
flushes with light and promise, where the river
hasn’t yet spilled over, flooding the body
of the city. I’d like to step outside myself, tell the girl
about the city’s future, but stumbling rain
would drown me out, eye of the storm drawing
always closer. In this city water rinses nothing clean.
As if I could keep my girls safe at the levee’s edge,
as if I could draw a clean river of light, as if I could stop
another storm erasing the outline of the city.
Place a penny on the space marked Start.
1.Whose statue stands in Jackson Square?
3. What is a levee?
5. How low is Louisiana’s lowest point?
7. What is the Army Corps of Engineers?
9. How do you get keys to your FEMA trailer?
2. How fast is the Atchafylaya coastline eroding?
4. Name of the lake north of New Orleans.
6. When will Morgan City finally disappear into the Gulf?
8. How many oil rigs are stationed on the coast?
10. Who will tear down your house? Who will rebuild it?
12. Why would you come back?