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Poetry by Martha Serpas

Chosen by outgoing Poet Laureate Jack Bedell

Poetry by Martha Serpas

Photo by Steve Nicklas

The Mississippi River Flood of 1927 at Mounds, Illinois.

What moves me most about Martha Serpas’s poetry is its urgency and accuracy. Each of her lines is fine-tuned with an intellectual, environmental, and spiritual rigor that renders it pristine. Longer than any Louisiana poet I’ve known, Martha has had her eye on the perils facing our coast and on the gradual loss of our wetlands. Since her first collection, Côte Blanche (New Issues, 2002), she has drawn our attention to the damage being done to our marshes and basins by storms, erosion, and the oil industry. She has also used her verse to illustrate how those environmental losses affect our spiritual and cultural health, both individually and as a community. Hers is an art as relevant as it is beautiful, and I couldn’t love it more.

—Jack Bedell

 

The Landscape is the Language

The swamp has a single

Discordant baseline

Insistent and full-throated

Blowing through dry palm fronds

 

And the long em-dash of soaring pelicans

Over elliptical knees, mossy commas

In an optional series

The cheniere’s thesis

Rising above the marsh

The naked ghost trees

 

The saltwater interrupts

Cypress punctuates every essential

And nonessential thought

 

Humidity quizzes the swamp

Hangs around my ears like language lab

Headphones, till there’s only

A glossary, a run-on, my mother tongue

 

When I speak from the heart

I step out on flotante. I shift my weight

With a pocket comb, I pull

The dead grass from the marsh

The storm decreates the water

And revises the dangling roseaus

 

Local Gods

I have always been a fan of local gods.

Whereas if the omnipresent God is ever present,

then the Cajun god is in one bar,

sitting on one stool, nursing the same

Jack and water, ready to talk—who’s ya daddy

che’? While Cajun goddess stirs a roux,

round and round, like a wheel of fortune

spun every time to a dark-roast fan.

 

Whenever I get down to Golden Meadow,

I pull over at the town hall shrine

for a moment with Our Lady

of Right Here Right Now

as she opens her arms to the serpent

as it opens its mouth to cry.

 

Oleander Avenue, 1927

The drowned girl is laid on a flatbed

classmates ring her like stage lights

 

wide-eyed, her monolog more

the wind driving time forward

 

then like backwash they recede

more tidal flat than transgressive dune

 

The truck pulls out onto

Oleander Avenue, heads northwest

 

toward the parish seat

where word has already arrived.

 

Parents wait in a shell lot,

slippers and boots crunching over

 

hand-rolled cigarettes. The sun

failing, one mother will

 

outlive a daughter, another will be spared

losing a child half her age.

 

All of them will look at the girl,

remember the one they nursed

 

and think again what they know they knew then,

 

she wants too much.

 

Martha Serpas has published three collections of poetry: Côte Blanche, The Dirty Side of the Storm, and The Diener. A fourth, Double Effect, is due in fall 2020 from LSU Press. She co-produced Veins in the Gulf, a documentary about land loss in Louisiana. She teaches at the University of Houston and serves as a hospital trauma chaplain.