When the Water Came

By Cynthia Hogue and Rebecca Ross

Uno Press
August 2010
120 pages


Reviewed by Michelle Gaffey


In the autobiographical statements concluding When the Water Came: Evacuees of Hurricane Katrina, Cynthia Hogue and Rebecca Ross note that their photo-poetic collaboration grew out of their recollections of living along the Gulf Coast. Their memories, however, do not involve the spectacle of New Orleans often seen on television: "one big party, musicians / on every street corner, booze / all the time." In a loving and beautifully-executed effort to demythologize New Orleans, Hogue's interview-poems about and Ross's photographs of Hurricane Katrina evacuees in When the Water Came create "a space for voices to be heard and people to be seen who might otherwise be invisible or forgotten." 

Conscious of their project's roots in the documentary book tradition, Hogue and Ross note that they "do not claim to present a single truth or judgment" about New Orleans or its inhabitants. When the Water Came differs from many contemporary documentary books in that Hogue's poems are comprised entirely of words spoken by Katrina evacuees, and Ross's portraits of the interviewed evacuees were created in collaboration with the photographed subjects.  These deliberate, political acts of inviting the subjects of their poems and photographs to help construct the art, present a New Orleans that is "a damn sight realer," to use a quote from William Stott's Documentary Expression and Thirties America, than images of the city as "one big party," popularized by tourist pamphlets. 

The ethical impulses behind the collaborative creation of poetry and photographs in When the Water Came may remind readers of C.D. Wright's and Deborah Luster's 2003 project, One Big Self: Prisoners of Louisiana, in which incarcerated men and women participated in the staging of their portraits and whose interviews served as partial source material for the poetry.  Even Wright's and Luster's book title may be extended to When the Water Came: Hogue and Ross gesture toward New Orleans's "big self."  In the twelve interview poems, which appropriate the interviewees' names as titles, the evacuees speak of a culturally rich and diverse New Orleans.  As Miriam Youngerman Miller, one of the interviewed evacuees, explains, when she "moved to Vista Park…there were 400 households of every sort of person— / white, black, creoles of color, / Southwest Asians, East Asians, / Hispanics..."

We discover that the evacuees are professors, Vietnam veterans, former Winn-Dixie employees, casino bartenders, and artists; they are mothers, administrative assistants, fire alarm dispatchers, musicians, writers, and retired auto mechanics.  Hogue welcomes the voices of the many people affected by Katrina; we thus read narratives by and about a woman who was responsible for keeping fourteen people safe through the storm and evacuation; the middle-class men and women who lost their homes and savings because their insurance providers "refused to pay out"; a man whose family's financial stability was threatened when he "was fired for failure / to come back to work in the hurricane"; and a professor who, a few months after Katrina, held class online—her students scattered throughout the country—to discuss King Lear, "a play with characters lost / in a storm."  

What most impressed me as I read the multiplicity of voices in these interview poems, though, was that I actually forgot that I was reading.  Hogue so successfully captures the distinct experiences and viewpoints of her interviewees, as well as the many cadences of Louisiana speech, that I felt as though I was listening to the stories.  Few contemporary poets allow the linkages between text and speech to play out as gracefully as does Hogue in When the Water Came.  Significantly, Hogue does not censor, insert, correct, or explain; she allows the evacuees to speak for themselves, adjusting the standard font and spacing throughout the book only to denote a shift in speaker, pitch, or rhythm.  Hogue thus embraces the imagery already embedded within the evacuees' stories.  Miriam Youngerman Miller, for example, knew her "house was ruined / because [she] saw it on CNN under water":                                          

                                 They showed that shot again and again.
The tanks from the Shell station
on the corner spread their iridescence
             through that filthy water everywhere
                                  and I knew it was all over

Sally Cole, conscious of an ironic moment of grace after she was displaced by Katrina, tells us:

…If I kept moving,
I was okay.  I put 10,000 miles on my car.
In New York I was at a light near Gramercy Park
and a young couple asked directions.
"Don't ask me.  I'm from New Orleans."
"We are too!"

Ross's photographs, which are placed within and between the poems, function in part to bring us back to the page, to remind us that we are, in fact, reading and experiencing representations of reality.  These photographs, the captions for which are listed at the end of the book in a separate section that seems to stand alone as a poem itself, focus not only on the faces of the interviewees, but on objects, animate and inanimate, affected by the storm: structures razed or damaged by the winds and water, a now out-of-service grocery store, water-stained pictures, sewage drains, foliage, and even a tenderly-photographed brown stink bug.  At times the images refer directly to something mentioned earlier in the interviewees' narratives; other times they allude to that which will be described later.  And sometimes, as in the image of Deborah Green, which subtly reveals the deep, pit-like scar in the center of her left hand, the photographs allow us to use what we have already learned to imagine the stories behind the pictures: What caused this scar?  Did Deborah have an accident while operating machinery when she worked in the food service industry?  We are often, though, shockingly re-grounded in the interviewees' narratives in the pages following the photographs: after her divorce, Deborah "dated a rich man."  One night, she explains, "[h]e took the .357 and fired. / I put up my hands to cover my face. / Oh, I cried.  The bullet went through my hand, / my mouth, and the back of my head."

The photographs thus serve as symbols of or visual metaphors for the material losses and emotional devastation experienced before, during, and after Hurricane Katrina.  But many of the images also convey a sense of hope.  I was particularly drawn to the types of reflective surfaces in Ross's work, such as the windows in which we can see homes reflected on the glass, hints to readers that there is still more to be seen (and heard) beyond the frames of the photographs and edges of the book—that many other stories, images, and lives are waiting to be shared and remembered. On the surfaces of windows we see leaves on trees, signs of renewal, symbolic of the evacuees' endurance to either return to New Orleans or relocate across the country—to begin anew.

Ross further includes a number of photographs that focus on interviewees' hands and that call attention to what was (or was not) within the interviewees' reach during and after the storm: albums, jewelry, tools for work.  These particular photographs of the evacuees' hands also highlight the acts of compassion revealed in Hogue's interview poems; in contrast to the actions of government officials and FEMA representatives described throughout the book, the evacuees speak of stopping to make sandwiches for hungry children floating by on mattresses, of tying their small pets to their bodies as they drift through water and sewage, even of looters who, in an act of gentleness, leave a wedding video behind for its owners' return.   

These images of the evacuees' hands likewise call attention to the production of When the Water Came.  We are reminded that multiple voices had a hand in creating this documentary text that rescues New Orleans and its people from media-driven myths and spectacles.

A damn sight realer, indeed.