Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Bill Lavender

From New Orleans Elegies

II (Grand Isle)

All along Caminada Pass now the rip-rap
is unbroken, stone wall between the unrelenting
waves of the western Gulf and the delicate
southwest point of the island. The chenière
that rooted the ground on this end was swept
away by Katrina, leaving a small acre of sea
oats now being trampled by backhoes
and dumptrucks. They have covered the beach
with rubber for a good way there
and laid out great canvas socks of sand
to reinforce the levee, and time will
tell how these hi-tech measures work.
The lee corner between the end
of the jetty and the beginning
of the beach still seems to attract
bottom-feeders, redfish and drum and
of course hardheads, and we met a guy
who said that the day before he caught
more than a hundred specks right up
on the beach, in two feet of water, pulled
one in on every cast. If he’d been
keeping them he would have limited out
three or four times at least.

Grand Isle has a central ridge which is elevated several feet above sea level, which is called a chenier, derived from the French for “oak ridge.” Unlike many other barrier islands in the gulf the chenier on Grand Isle allowed for the growth of extensive oak groves whose roots provided a livable land.

We pulled in to the new “Wakeland”
and watched the teenaged boys scoot back
and forth on the waterboard, pulled by
a cable controlled by another teenaged boy
with a joystick. Roxy wanted to do it
and we had to explain she was too young
and needed to know how to swim better
before she could try anything like that.
She kept climbing down the pier-wall
and making us all nervous. She knocked
my Bud-light into the water and had
to retrieve the can, so I held her by her feet
and lowered her down.

The French and Spanish explorers, but gave little attention to the area in the early 18th century. By the 1720s the French began to develop an interest in the Barataria region for colonization.

The Rodeo was winding down for the day
and the frat boys in their muscle trucks were
promenading down Highway 1, subwoofers
thudding and bikini’d party girls dancing
in back, and we slowed to a crawl as we
passed party after party with rap music
or heavy metal blaring.

Some old maps indicate the presence of what might have been a Fort called Fort Blanc in the mid 1700’s. The Spanish built a watchtower and pilot station on the western tip of Grand Terre in 1780.

Suppose you had a friend and not just any
friend but a friend of many years, a friend
you might have called your best, a friend
most especially within the art, within
the society of poetry, and one day
as if by metamorphosis this friend
ceases to be a friend and becomes
what you could only call an enemy,
disseminating lies and rumors
and actively campaigning against you.

The destruction of Lafitte’s on Grand Terre fort shortly before the Battle of New Orleans, from The Buccaneer (1958) starring Yul Brynner

Playground for the rich ever since they
cut the canal and boat service opened,
home of second homes for French
Quarter traders, where wives and children
might summer, and then the big shot
of oil money mid-20th century that brought
the entire matrix of rigs and refineries
and canals, dredging the passes to keep
the equipment moving, filling the east
end of the island with the Apache GITB
GOM Shelf facility parking lot,
an acre of pickups baking in the sun,
right next door to the State Park Lagoon
where we kayaked after the kids left.

As the 19th century progressed plantations begin to appear and the island supported a number of sugar plantations and cotton. Some of these grew to be large concerns and there was more land available than there is today.One of the largest was the Barataria Plantation. By the 1830 census there were 107 people on the island.

Insatiate the next morning I went down
into the surf early, walked the 50 yards
out to the sandbar and stood knee deep
throwing a gold spoon. The day was
slightly overcast and the sunrise stunning.
Porpoises breached in the light chop and
mullet swarmed on the surface. An hour
yielded me two keeper specks, enough
for supper at least, and I waded in absently
with my stringer. The surf was frothing
just at shoreline and I saw within it
a five foot tiger shark, the dorsal and tail
and even the bare back well visible over the
foot-deep foam and close enough I could
have tapped him with my pole. I froze and
watched him calmly pass, first shark
I had seen on the beach, and then from
the safety of the sand watched him make
his round, westward down the beach
always hiding in the froth, then out into
the channel and back east, fins breaking
surface now and then making
a dotted line of his progress.

The mighty hurricane of Oct 1,1893 leveled many of the popular hotels on the island. Before the 1893 storm Grand Isle experienced a resort boom, with some predicting it would become the Rivera of the South. the 1893 hurricane killed 2000 people on the Gulf Coast and wiped the island of Chenière Caminada (to the west of Grand Isle), killing almost half of that islands 1500 inhabitants, few were killed on Grand Isle, however .

We go out in the evening, Nanc having
scoffed at my fear of the shark, and from
the sandbar hook a couple which get away.
One is a Spanish Mackerel which jumps
insanely when hooked, leaping six feet
out of the water, flipping himself off the hook
before I can get a net under him. We plot
an early morning return to the lagoon with
the kayaks. I’m mad at her because she came
out without her shirt and no amount of sun-
screen will protect you completely. It’s six
o’clock she says, and I ask what difference
that makes since the sun is still high in the
sky. We hear a splash and look to my right
just in time to see the shark thrashing with
something on the surface 100 feet from us.
“I’m going in,” I say, and she follows.

House in the 1930s with an old oak tree
We pack the kayaks on the truck that
evening so we can just get up and
go and eat breakfast later. No need to set
an alarm of course; I wake up at 5 and we are
launching the kayaks by 6. The redfish
still cut the water all around and still
refuse to bite anything we show them.
I row around trolling with my spoon,
try bait living and dead, a sparkle beetle:
nothing. Finally, all the way at the end
where a short rock jetty separates the lagoon
from Barataria Pass, something bites my
spoon and I land it. It is not a fish I have
ever seen before. Perch-shaped but meatier,
small mouth, it looks suspiciously like a
bass except for an overall reddish tint.
The eyes are wild, yellowish red around
the pupils. I keep it, even though I don’t
know what it is, and later catch two more.
I get out and walk the rocks, like the proverb-
ial cow, fishing the gulf side. I get
hung in the rocks and lose one rig, two.
I land one speck and then, to my great
surprise, on a spoon, a nice little flounder.

Inset prose sections are quoted (directly) from: http://www.grandisle.us/, accessed 8 August 2013.
This piece originally appeared in The Maple Leaf Rag V: An Anthology of Poetic Writings.

Bill Lavender is a poet, novelist and publisher of the Lavender Ink and Diálogos imprints. He lives in New Orleans.

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