The Wishing Tomb [ePub]

by Amanda Auchter

From the moment I read the first lines of this magnificent collection, it was obvious why Auchter’s book was the winner of the 2012 Perugia Press Prize and the 2013 PEN Center USA Literary Award for Poetry. My normal ritual for reading a poetry collection is to read slowly, a few poems at a time, allowing myself time to ponder and savor the words before continuing. I had to force myself to slow down and read The Wishing Tomb in this manner. Auchter’s writing is so compelling that I wanted to race through in one sitting, to devour the poems.

There is no fluff in this collection. The book narrates the remarkable, rich history of New Orleans in chronological order, with fluid descriptions and precise word choices. Auchter makes use of persona poems to show her readers a timeline of NOLA from first discovery, through slavery, fires, disease, storms, voodoo, and jazz. The cadence of her lyrical lines evokes the jazz history of the city she so obviously loves.

The title poem comes from the vault of voodoo queen Marie Laveau, where women go for help when looking for a husband. Legend has it that if a woman makes a mark, knocks 3 times, and leaves an offering, she will be granted a wish.
Every night, women come with baskets
of fruit, rosaries, clippings of their own dark

braids. Leave candy, and tomorrow
a flower will appear on your doorstep.
(The Wishing Tomb)
On so many levels the term “wishing tomb” is an apt title for this collection; it could be interpreted as an extended metaphor for New Orleans.

There is, of course, an obvious theme of water, storms, and destruction, yet the spirit of the residents and the city always triumphs.
At night,

we keep vigil, listen to the water
suck in debris and spit it out

again. We do not speak of how soon the water
will reach theporch, the window, the roof.
(Report on Levee Breach, 1816)

The persona poem “Billion-Dollar Betsy” is a pointed reminder that Katrina was not the first hurricane to devastate New Orleans.Only foundations and debris were left where Betsy made landfall in Grand Isle on Sept. 9 1965. In St. Bernard Parish, the fishing villages of Yscloskey and Delacroix Island were washed away. There were breaches on both sides of the Industrial Canal.The storm became the first billion-dollar hurricane, causing $1.2 billion in damage. In response to Betsy, Congress ordered the Army Corps of Engineers to build a massive flood-protection system for New Orleans. That system fell apart 40 years later during Hurricane Katrina.
During those days, I coughed cars, telephone
lines, kicked down doors. Inside, a mother

and two children in a hallway closet
watched as I sucked everything

into my wide throat-coffee tables, lamps, pictures
of babies and grandmothers.

The third section of the book is comprised of poems about Katrina. My favorite is “St. Louis Cathedral, 2005.” It begins with a marble statue of Jesus, tells how “rivers fill his mouth.”
His arms
spread out as though he could cradle the city

inside him, as though the water that rises
above porches and windowsills,
above attics could abate with his strange light.

Although many of the poems have a surface issue of destruction, this collection is a love story, not a requiem.



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