Storming the Colosseum

Katie Ford recounts the experience of Hurricane Katrina and humbles us to the indiscriminate tragedies of this world in her new book of poetry Colosseum (Graywolf Press, 2008). It is organized into three sections: Storm, Vessel, and Colosseum. Each section begins with a quote or literary excerpt and one poem is dedicated to the poet Tess Gallagher whose most consequential work was written after her husband’s death. Healing and destruction mirror themselves in Fords book. One poem stands by itself at the very beginning of the book: “Beirut.” It is a very personal poem about birth, destruction, and knowledge.

Beirut city is the capital and largest city of Lebanon. It is currently the country’s main seaport and the city itself dates back to 15th century BC. It is a city that has been conquered and re-conquered over time. Civilizations have built on top of each other, just as life builds upon death and life is born of death. In this poem Ford describes her mother’s labor and we can almost feel her mother’s last push with the breaking of Lebanon.

Ruin is a promise
we make to each other:
I am born the day Saigon falls
and Lebanon takes to its own throat a club

Lebanon of limestone, Lebanon of sheep
for two days my mother lies flat
on the third day
the goats of Lebanese hills
tilt their heads, stop their feed and hear
an ancient city begin to break itself in half-
-Ford, Colosseum p.3-4

This comparison of a natural phenomenon or disaster with something in Ford’s own experience pops up again and again and really sets the tone of the book. In her prose piece “Division” Ford compares creases in the earth and mountain ranges to the discovery that someone has keyed her car. In “Snakes” Ford thinks of the tools left behind by ancient man and what will be left behind from our generation,

In New Orleans, snakes followed the flood into houses
How wise for the living plagues to leave only their effects for archaeologists to find
Ford, Colosseum p.48

Several short thoughtful poems are filled with quirky spirit: “Earth,” “Ark,” and particularly poignant “Flag.”

Some come to this ruin and raise a flag.
Some take a prophet too soon by the hand.
The dead are still lost and the lost nearly dead:
Here a woman spills onto her porch to show
she has opened her wrists. What did she use?
She used the wind.
-Ford, Colosseum p.31

Ford touches on the pain of New Orleans throughout the book. It feels like Ford is traveling through the destruction of the hurricane, but at a distance. The words seem detached and distraught with a beautiful ache. She leaves us dots to connect in her poetry, but sometimes reader gets lost. The pain that Ford writes penetrates, but the potential for deeper discovery and deeper healing are still there. Colosseum has some poems that drown in abstract philosophical pleading and some pillars of brilliance that save the reader from drowning.

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