I – Vermillion Parish, Louisiana, November 5, 2008
Silence reigns, a morgue—on the streets
of Abbeville, in supermarkets, at gas stations.
Lips like thin granite lines clamp shut. Questions
hover unspoken, like a cloud of stale smoke.
In the coffee shop, regulars chew on local
politics along with grits, sausage and eggs—
the baggy-pants ordinance, a convicted felon running
for town council, cutting cane before the fields flood.
An old farmer in overalls says I don’t care
if the new president is green –
I voted for change. Silence.
A silence violent as a slap across the face.
Why didn’t I stay in New York
where people wept with pleasure,
danced in the streets?
Janet and I head south to her cabin on the marsh
to celebrate in private with barbecue sandwiches,
vodka tonics—we want to whoop and holler. But
her neighbor appears at our door, ashen, as if at a wake:
I don’t have a president now, she says.
II – St Martin Parish, Louisiana, October 29, 2018
On my way to Breaux Bridge for the Saturday morning
Cajun jam, I hear the radio report: eleven Jews massacred,
six wounded in a Pittsburgh synagogue. My breath shortens.
I’m shaken with a fear I’ve never felt before. This is personal.
At the café, Jimmy Boudreaux, local accordion master
leads with La Valse Criminelle—washtub bass, guitars,
and fiddles follow—some soaring, some squeaking—
singers shout or croak their favorite Cajun tunes.
I pull my triangle from its bag but can’t join in–
there’s no play left in me. I sink into a seat, share
my angst with Rachel, fellow New Yorker,
both of us aliens in a foreign land.
The fiddle player’s wife tries to join
in the conversation, bemoans the mental illness
rampant in this country. Rachel and I exchange glances–
she’s missed the point. She just doesn’t get it.
We haven’t had a president for three years.
I need a vacation from my mind—
it’s a locked-down airport, loud-speakers
blaring delays, cancellations, passengers
slouched in seats, crouched against walls,
terrified we’re in a tunnel with no way out,
wondering if there’s a light at the end?
I rinse the pills I spill in the sink
in the Alabama hotel where we stay overnight,
as we flee New York—viral epicenter—
and head back to Louisiana—epicenter
of Mardi Gras’ contagious festivities.
In Meridian Mississippi we stop
at a Walmart –no virus here, the clerk says,
grinning into my face as she unlocks
the case containing ear-buds, the better
to hear bad news, getting worse.
I spend fruitless hours hunting
for Lysol, Clorox on e-bay, abandon
my search for Clairol—why bother?
I spray my groceries with hydrogen peroxide,
wash them with soapy water–even my grapes–
before stashing them in the fridge .
There will be no return to normal,
declares the governor, looking truth
between the eyes—I look up Corona,
find it’s a circle of light, a halo.
I roll each grape between finger
and thumb, a rosary—worry and wash,
wash and worry—note how each grape glistens
with reflected light from above,
before popping each one into my mouth,
one perfect prayer bead at a time.
Elizabeth Burk is a psychologist who divides her time between a practice and family in New York and a home and husband in southwest Louisiana. She has three collections: Learning to Love Louisiana, Louisiana Purchase and Duet—Photographer and Poet, a collaboration with her photographer husband. Her work has appeared in various journals and anthologies including Atlanta Review, Rattle, Calyx, The Southern Poetry Anthology, Poetry Quarterly, About Place, Nelle, Louisiana Literature, Passager, and elsewhere.