by Kirk Schlueter
It seems odd at first to realize that the best word to describe Mona Lisa Saloy’s Second Line Home is “thanksgiving.” Saloy’s work is, after all, poems written in the wake of (and about) Hurricane Katrina’s devastation of her beloved New Orleans. Nevertheless, in the Crescent City’s survival and resurgence in the aftermath of the storm, Saloy finds plenty to give thanks for.
The book’s title comes from the New Orleans tradition of “two lines” at funerals: the first line, where the mourners carry the body in a grieving, dirge-singing procession to the cemetery, and the second line, where the mourners return from the graveyard singing loudly, celebrating a life well lived, and the ascent of the deceased. It is easy to see the connection to Saloy’s beautiful book of poems, whose sections loosely follow this tradition, first mourning the devastated post-Katrina New Orleans, and then moving to the survival of the people and their attempts to rebuild.
Saloy’s style prizes music; her lines often lack traditional punctuation, but neither the poem nor the reader care. Instead, the eye (and ear) are drawn to the cadence and beauty. It is a unique style, and helps capture the vitality and uniqueness of New Orleans. I know of no other book of poems quite like it. Saloy’s emotion and passion are fluid on the page, and contagious. After even a few poems, you begin to think of New Orleans as your city too.
In the introduction to Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy, Luc Sante writes, “Auster has the key to the city … like the key to dreams or the key to the highway. It … allows him to see through walls and around corners, that permits him entry to corridors and substrata and sealed houses nobody else notices. …” The same could easily be said about Saloy and New Orleans, and the Black Creole culture she inhabits. Her manner is always familiar, always inviting, always warm as she shows readers the city she knows and loves, a city with “more churches than bars.” Especially for an outsider to both New Orleans and Black Creole culture, Saloy’s open manner is comforting, and makes for a beautiful and friendly introduction. I won’t say I was able to stand in Saloy’s shoes, but I was certainly able to look right over her shoulder. You couldn’t ask for a better tour guide.
By showing her readers the city through her eyes, Saloy shows without ever directly telling the damage and trauma the survivors of Hurricane Katrina went through. “New Orleans,” she writes, “is everybody’s business,” and her joy at finally returning home shines through every poem in the collection, even those dealing with grief and mourning. I very quickly lost track of how many poems in the book ended with some variation of either giving thanks or praise, because Second Line is replete with those phrases. The poems sing their joy straight off the page.
For Saloy, it is clear, New Orleans is heaven. For those who think New Orleans drowned in August 2005, Second Line Home shows it is rising again, and still singing, still dancing. Second Line Home is not your average book about disaster. It’s a work about death in which resurrection takes center stage. It’s a book about loss and grief in which more time is spent on joy. In Saloy’s eyes, the Crescent City is not Atlantis. It is New Orleans—a city easy to recognize, hard to define, and impossible not to love.