Our Lady of the Flood by Alison Pelegrin
Review by Diane Elayne Dees
The entire region around New Orleans embodies a certain sensibility, born of geography and weather and a unique heritage that is hard to define and even harder to translate. When I first moved to the city decades ago, I was both curious about and amused by the many “Our Lady” names of schools and churches. “Can you imagine what their fight song is?” an acquaintance once asked when we drove past Our Lady of Prompt Succor School.
After you’ve lived here a long time, though, Our Lady of Prompt Succor, Our Lady of Good Counsel, Our Lady of Perpetual Help, and Our Lady Star of the Sea (which we called “the tuna fish church”) all become part of the sometimes bizarre linguistic landscape of the city.
I’ve also lived through many Louisiana hurricanes and floods, so I approached reading Alison Pelegrin’s Our Lady of the Flood with relish, and I was not disappointed. In this collection, Pelegrin skillfully cuts through the difficulty of cultural translation with a collection of poems that puts the region’s eccentricity in the colorful and sometimes absurd context that it deserves. Moreover, she does it—often with delicious humor—by using language that gives new life to the tasks and customs that are part of daily life in and around New Orleans.
The collection opens with the eponymous poem, “Our Lady of the Flood”:
Some saints are untouchable behind glass,
but you ride in open boats
with mildew on the edges of your gown,
a calm commander of the Cajun Navy’s fleet.
Your devotees worship outside
in a circle of ruined pews,
no incense but bug spray
This is a perfect introduction to the parade of “Our Lady” poems that are to come, as well as the other poems in Our Lady of the Flood, which include an ode to ambrosia (“confection snubbed by food snobs as a [. . .] meringue of shame”), a meditation on local bridges, and a commentary on the removal of New Orleans’ Lee Circle statue of General Robert E. Lee.
Hurricane Katrina, as one might expect, is an ongoing theme in Pelegrin’s collection. In “Anything We Want,” she expresses the longing of all Louisianans who were displaced by the 2005 storm:
They won’t quit asking, What do you want?
I want to be somewhere besides Mississippi
with its highway that splits fields
of cotton and soy and blackbirds.
I want art supplies and to read a book
in my old bed, to ride the streetcar by myself
I want my mom to say something
in the Walmart, where we have gone to spend
a gift card from some church
on anything we want.
And in “Quicksilver”:
[…] quicksilver visions wrinkle
and then they vanish. But
this water is absolute. It remains,
though the hurricane is over.
I have studied from my exile
in this hotel room, witnessed
rooftop rescue, the folly
of mammoth sandbags. This water
is no silvered mirage. It clings like tar.
It swallows everything we are.
The “Our Lady” poems are a special treat. “Our Lady on the Half Shell” celebrates “Bathtub Madonna, Lily of so many gardens, Queen of Heaven in a scalloped shell [. . .]”:
White-washed, with marble chips, or pansies, at your feet,
you have many faces in New Orleans—so many incarnations—
alabaster, hand-painted Creole or coffee or midnight skin,
your ghost eyes peering out and you motionless
And then there’s “Our Lady of ‘No Regerts’ ”:
Our Lady of No Regerts, prevention of bad tattoos
must be your side hustle, a part-time ministry,
because, queen of inky heaven, with respect,
a few too many permanent atrocities
have escaped your intervention
My personal favorite is “Our Lady of Whatever,” in which the poet fantasizes about being one of the many Ladies revered in New Orleans.
So many lakes. So many Ladies of the Lakes.
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.
A special gem in this collection is Pelegrin’s “Soliloquy against a Kudzu Backdrop”:
Audience of none, superstition dictates
that I peek through the kudzu curtain
like a starlet before making an entrance
and speaking yet again on the theme
of ignorance observed in waking life.
I would like to believe these are actors I see—
rednecks so loud in their stupidity
that rather than being frightened by their antics
I find myself waiting for the punchline
How can we be
so different when the same trees
rustle in all of our dreams?
It isn’t easy to move readers beyond the clichéd images of jazz bands, wrought iron balconies and roaming alligators, to the sometimes painful, sometimes hilarious, and always evocative images that represent what life is really like in New Orleans and its outlying regions. But in Our Lady of the Flood, Alison Pelegrin provides a charmingly authentic portrait of a culture that is like no other in the nation.
Alison Pelegrin’s latest collection, Our Lady of Bewilderment, is forthcoming from LSU Press in 2022. Other books include Waterlines (LSU 2016), as well as Hurricane Party (2011), and Big Muddy River of Stars (2007), both with the University of Akron Press. Pelegrin is the recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Louisiana Division of the Arts, and the Louisiana Board of Regents. She is Writer-in-Residence at Southeastern Louisiana University.
Diane Elayne Dees is the author of the chapbook, Coronary Truth (Kelsay Books) and two forthcoming chapbooks, I Can’t Recall Exactly When I Died, and The Last Time I Saw You. Diane, who lives in Covington, Louisiana—just across Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans—also publishes Women Who Serve, a blog that delivers news and commentary on women’s professional tennis throughout the world. Her author blog is Diane Elayne Dees: Poet and Writer-at-Large.
ABOUT THE PRESS: Diode Editions is an independent press based in Doha, Qatar and Richmond, Virginia. Editor-in-Chief Patty Paine founded the press in 2012 as an offshoot of Diode Poetry Journal. To date, the press has published 37 titles of poetry, chapbooks and poetry-related nonfiction works and hosts yearly book and chapbook contests.
Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe