Many of our greatest poets came to us in ruins. The gouging lyrics of the Greek poet Sappho, for instance, were rescued from strips of papyri. Heraclitus was famous in his time, but all we have left of his great works are fragments that echo powerfully, spookily across the millennia.
What happens, though, when a poet sets out to construct a ruin 2,000 years in advance? The result is a book like Philadelphia-based poet Katie Ford’s new volume, “Colosseum,” a collection full of self-conscious occlusions, far-reaching links and some oracular, beautiful lines.
Before Ford moved to the tri-state area, she lived in New Orleans, and this book is haunted by the storms that transformed that city forever. The poems about that event, and its aftermath, are the strongest work in the book. Ford worries less about what the event means and more about how to bring it to life in a poem.
And she can do that heartbreakingly well. Ford’s sludgy lines eddy and snag on unexpected lyricisms: “Blue tarps drape the oysters/harvested from contaminated beds,” she writes in “Fish Market,” “silverlings caught from trestles of the resealed lake.”
“Snakes” is another marvelous, deeply upsetting piece of work. “In New Orleans, snakes followed the flood/into the houses,” she writes. “They moved like completely sane machines, able to execute/their bodies perfectly. Little storms all over,/coil after coil of mimicry.”
“Colosseum,” if it’s not clear already, is pitched as a work of testimony. The weight of that role presses down hard on some of these poems, though. “I wanted so much to be and swallow and/carry and bear and have a mind to mind,” Ford writes in “Vessel.”
Unfortunately, this desire to make the flood mean something—an understandable human wish after so much destruction—strangles some of Ford’s poems, turning them into a state of breathless lament: “Something please tell me I’m wrong/about impermanence,” she writes in “The Shape of Us.”
Searching for a narrative, a context, a line out of now into the past, Ford detours through the savaging of other cities—Beirut, Damascus, Nagasaki—but none of these poems have the power of those about New Orleans. The world is vast and full of suffering, indeed; sadly, Katrina was hardly the beginning. If only, though, this poet had recognized that the destruction of one city is enough to move us. (John Freeman)
By Katie Ford
Graywolf, 64 pages, $15