Merv and I picked up our silver rental car at the New Orleans Airport and crossed the Mississippi River with its smooth easy water. We looked down over the old bridge at the river traffic, long barges, a tugboat. If they were moving at all it was too slow to detect from our height and distance. We stayed on Louisiana 90. We were in bayou country. In Cajun country. The Mississippi delta and the bayous and swamp.
Merv reread the poems on the plane, the last set our Cajun Poet had sent us. We were heading to visit him in his new home, a nursing home. The poems are dark journeys into prisons or loves lost. They start at a place you can touch and taste and identify.
The day was bright. A wind blew smoke from smokestacks and fires making the bright blue sky a little grey at the edges. Grey smoke the color of the Spanish moss which we were seeing a lot of in the trees of the swamp right by the road.
There were the signs “bridge freezes before road” but I couldn’t imagine freezing around here. Lots of bridges crossing fingers of bayou, shaped and cut and managed. Lots of the roads were poured concrete, and the car bumped its rhythmic way along. Flat road through farmland now, beef cattle grazing in green patches cut out of swamp.
Houses built on, over the bayou, on stilts, other houses low on the ground. We are in flood country. In fishing country. We keep going. We pass into farmland, fields of sugar cane. “Caution, cane loader ahead” said a sign, though we did not see the cane being loaded. Is there a bit of sweetness to the smoke? Merv tells me they are burning the cane fields after it is cut.
We only ever get to the outskirts of St. Martinville. There is no one outside. No one at the playground. No one walking down the road. Straight roads, no rocks or hills to push it one way or the other. Always the hint of water. The ponds are full. A pond is a hole in the ground. It will fill with water. The water is right here, right under. Waterness is the condition. Land is the exception. So different from our place. “Is there a drop? Is there a water source? Are there springs?” Around our place without all those answers you just get a part time pond, or an empty hole in the ground.
Sometimes the road is more like a causeway, swamp on both sides.
What did the Cajuns think when they got off the boats that moved them from rocky Nova Scotia to Acadia? Did they feel the ocean and feel at home? They knew how to bring it in and keep it out, seizing farmland from the sea. Did they do that here?
We aren’t here to tour. We are here to see our Cajun poet in the nursing home. We find the home all stretched out in single story brick. It is new and beautiful with sitting spaces and carpet corridors. We ask and are directed to our friend’s room. Here he is with his wide smile, his twinkling eyes, his warm low Louisiana voice. I want to ask him how he writes poetry, where it comes from, how he knows it is good. How he reworks it. I don’t. I ask him how he teaches writing. He describes teaching Portuguese children about metaphor and simile and freeing them up to write. “The sun is like a ball…the sun is a ball.” The children are off onto sun and wind and ocean and helping their fathers with fishing, our poet says.
The story is from a long time ago, his time in Provincetown at the writers program. Our conversation is all a long time ago, people and heartbreaks and passions fifty years old. The conversation moves gently, floating from memory to memory. The good times, the good food eaten together. Our poet’s low chuckles, his twinkling eyes, his pride in the place, the fountain, the courtyard. He takes us around, down the different corridors. “Most of the people here have dementia,” he says. He knows everybody, nods and smiles their names, Miss Julia. “Are you my aide?” Miss Julia says to me. Our poet answers “She will be along, Miss Julia. You have a nice day.” She nods and walks her wheelchair down the hall. We meet all the nurses. He knows their families, grew up with them.
“Lots of people have their grandchildren visit,” our poet tells us. “I don’t have any grandchildren.” Is he sad? Does he mourn? He doesn’t let on.
“This is a good place to write poetry. I have put that aside. I am writing short stories now.” A typist who works at the courthouse transcribes his beautiful cursive notebooks. He submits them to journals. He is close to publication. They sent a photographer for a portrait.
We leave and weave our flat road way through the cane fields and the swamp growth and the grazing fields back to the highway, back to the airport, to drop the car and taxi to New Orleans. We will walk over to the Mississippi, one block away, and watch its easy wide water.