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What to Tweak
Patricia Smith

Italicized excerpts are from an Aug. 31, 2005, e-mail from Marty Bahamonde to his boss Michael Brown, head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Bahamonde was one of the only FEMA employees in New Orleans at the time.

Aug. 31, 12:20 p.m. Re: New Orleans

Sir, I know that you know the situation is past critical. Here are some things you might not know.

Rainbows warp when you curse them. I have held
a shivered black child against my body.
The word river doesn’t know edges. God wouldn’t
do this. There’s a Chevy tangled in that tree.
Here, I am so starkly white. Sometimes bullets
make perfect sense. Eventually the concrete will buckle.
They won’t stop screeching at me.
I have passed out all my gum. So many people
are thirsty. A child breathes hot against my thigh.
He has named me father.

Hotels are kicking people out….

No one is prepared for their sulking shadows,
sullying sleek halls, leaving smudges on grand glass.
They double negative, sport clothes limp with ache.
These people don’t know this place,
this costly harbor where they have always pointed,
eyes bucked and overwhelmed,
giddy with the conjure of mirrored silver
and whole cups dedicated to tea.
In the sudden midst of glorious this,
they fill their cavernous pockets with faith.
Why didn’t we bolt the doors
before they began to dream?

thousands gathering in the streets with no food or water…

The weakened mob veers into the open for breath.
Ashy babies bellow, B-boys hurl gold-toothed fuck its,
everyone asks for food. And the heat
singes art on bare backs, sucks tears from parched skin.
It’s true there is no food, but water is everywhere.
The demon has chapped their rusty ankles,
reddened the throats of babies, smashed homes to mist.
It is water that beats down without taking a breath,
pointing its dank mossy finger at their faith.
I have killed you, it patters.
I have bled you dry.

Hundreds still being rescued from homes.


Or not. Death has an insistent iron smell, oversweet rot
loud enough to prompt questions to God.
Behind sagging doors specters swirl, grow huge-limbed,
stink brilliance. And up on the roofs of tombs,
sinking souls claw the sky,
pray the rising rivers away from their throats.
The moon refuses to illuminate their overtures,
winking dim then winking shut.
From the papery peaks of three-flats,
shots and weeping in the starless dark.

If you listen, you can hear the dying—
a soft wood creaking odd and high,
a song growing larger than the person who sings.


Evacuation in process. Plans developing for dome evacuation but hotel situation adding to problem. We are out of food and running out of water at the dome. Plans in works to address the critical need.

Stifle the stinking, shut down the cameras,
wave Dubya down from the sky.
Subtract the babies, unarm the flailers,
hose that wailing bitch down.
Draw up a blueprint, consider detention,
throw them some cash from a bag.
Tell them it’s God, pry them with preachers,
padlock the rest of the map.
Hand them a voucher, fly in some chicken,
twist the volume knob hard.
Turn down the TV, distract them with vision,
pull out your hammer and nail.
Sponge off their shoulders, suckle their children,
prop them upright for the lens.
Tolerate ranting, dazzle with card tricks,
pin flags on absent lapels.
Try not to breathe them, fan them with cardboard,
say that their houses will rise.
Play them some music, swear you hear engines,
drape their stooped bodies with beads.
Salute their resilience, tempt them with future,
surrender your shoes to the mud.
Promise them trailers, pass out complaint forms,
draft a law wearing their names.
Say help is coming, say help is coming,
then say that help’s running late.
Shrink from their clutches, lie to their faces,
explain how the levies grew thin.
Mop up the vomit, cringe at their crudeness,
audition their daughters for rape.
Stomp on their sleeping, outrun the gangsters,
pass out American flags.

DMAT staff working in deplorable conditions. The sooner we can get the medical patients out, the sooner we can get them out.

Breathing bladed, blood tinged black,
their stark diseases mystify, ooze unbridled.
Heat stuns their grip on history,
so they keep attempting to walk back
into remembered days of weather
that never grew more tangled than rain.
They crave the reign of simple delta,
when skinned pig, peppered collards
and a bottle of red heat signaled a day gone right.
So they keep trying to walk, to force their feet
into the now-obscenity of a straight line,
to begin with that first blessing—forward, forward,
not getting the joke of their paper shoes,
not knowing the sidewalks are gone.

Phone connectivity impossible.

Something has gone wrong with the air.
The unusual of it limps electric,
deftly swallows wept adjectives.
But what words for the rough kiss,
a whole people suddenly folded at the heart?

Brown:

Thanks for update. Anything specific I need to do

or tweak?