Our Lady of the Flood by Alison Pelegrin
Diode Editions, 2018
28 pages, $12 chapbook
Review by Dayna Patterson
Alison Pelegrin’s new chapbook is part hymn, part elegy for a post-Katrina South. It’s an ode with its eyes wide open, missing nothing. Pelegrin sees the roadkill and floodlines, the Robert E. Lee statue and KKK recruitment office, and raises you “the longest bridge in the world” (14). She sets before you feast after makeshift feast, where “So many relatives, angels gasping like trash fish on the pier,” gather around a cardboard table in the garage to partake of ambrosia, a “foam of jeweled fruits” that is “on no page of the low carb bible” (6).
Feast and flood are watched over by Our Lady of the Flood, “a hands-on angel of the earthly kind,” who is crowned with “a citronella halo” and ghosts “the mud-milk waters / with a laundry basket of kittens” (5). This Louisiana Madonna—who reigns over the chapbook—resurfaces periodically throughout in poems such as “Our Lady of Whatever,” in which she laments that she’s “a late-blooming lady, and the best names / have been dealt” (9). She proceeds to test the waters of various names, such as
Our Lady of Iguanas, her reptile crown,
Our Lady of Prompt Succor, New Orleans’ queen,
whose magic halts floodwaters at the chapel steps.
Our Lady of Blind River, ghosting by pirogue
to her cypress abode.
. . .
Maybe I could be Lake Pontchartrain’s Lady
of the Longest Bridge, Lady of Cicada Tea Parties,
of Lighthearted Marvels, of Sand Mandalas
Reduced to Cerulean Ash. Our Lady of Shrinky Dinks. (9)
As a poet-editor deeply interested in the Feminine Divine, the “Our Lady” poem series immediately hooked me. They are some of my favorites in the chapbook because of the way Pelegrin mashes together sacred and profane, combining the specific aches of a community with a lady-saint tailored to salve each one. She is the “Bathtub Madonna” whose statues people drown on purpose to stop “fishermen from bombing rivers / for an easy catch” in “Our Lady on the Half Shell” (15). Her “side hustle” is the “prevention of bad tattoos” in “Our Lady of ‘No Regerts’” (18). It isn’t her full-time deal, so she can’t catch every “Patrick Swayze centaur in a rainbow breeze” (18). In “Our Lady of Last Words,” she wonders:
how can I still be learning
the names for life’s marvels emerald
joy of a hummingbird cupped in the hand (21)
Pelegrin’s poems convey a deep-belonging and love of Louisiana culture with a simultaneous dose of alienation and dissonance. The push-pull of this tension is evident in poems like “To the Recruitment Office of the West St. Tammany Parish KKK.” The poem’s speaker walks her dog along a residential street where sand baggies have been dropped at houses with invites to white knighthood. Defiant, she announces “Your labor’s undone”:
I repurposed the leaflets
into origami cranes.
I brought them to the Bogue Falaya
and set them sailing
past the cypress trees,
harmless and pure as doves. (16)
The tension is even more nuanced in poems such as “Excising a Memorial to the Confederate General Robert E. Lee.” The speaker acknowledges upfront that the statue has got to go, but moves beyond this statement to explore how her rootedness leaves her conflicted: “why the scrap / of rebel in me clinging to this piss-soaked ground / / where his pillar stands” (10). Pelegrin deftly maneuvers scene changes from memorial to Mardi Gras to Confederate battle reenactments to doctors on the sidelines who had to hack limbs, “sometimes, to save a life” (11). She casts herself “as killer angel in this tale, my gown a mop for blood, / my handiwork a regiment of empty sleeves / / shaking their defiant, phantom fists at the sky” (11).
Anyone writing into the challenges and peculiarities of one’s own culture would benefit from Pelegrin’s unabashed honesty. She writes toward a broader empathy and appreciation, both tender and critical about her native state, leading readers through puked-on streets, past a curtain of kudzu, across manifold bridges, “surefooted through labyrinths of debris” (5).