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Story Publication logo February 17, 2022

The Black Shoals: A Poetic Response

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Honey Island swamp
The Honey Island swamp. Image by Irene Vázquez. United States, 2021.

Irene Vázquez took a tour of the Honey Island Swamp as part of her research for this project. Here she combines audio collected from the tour with her poem, one that addresses the systemic issues that plague the Gulf.

The Black Shoals

Title after Tiffany Lethabo King

Swallow me whole, 

oh beast of the Southern radar, 

patron of the disaster zone, of the unsurvivable 

storm surge, oh surveiller of our anxieties, 

of a drowning foretold. 

Here we are in another August 

of hot darkness, another storm 

ravaging the Black Shoals,

and I am told the map 

isn’t even accurate anymore,

the coastline has eroded so much 

that Louisiana is no longer a boot shape,  

our shores more saltwater than homestead,

and I click through headlines on Twitter like it’s all new. 

My lungs were declared a disaster zone 

long ago. My people have wandered,

and were lost, 

refugees in their own country, 

their homes named uninhabitable 

long before the storm even hit. 

I have lived 15 years flinching 

at the slightest crack of thunder, but it is August. 

Three months into a national uprising, 

400-plus years into a people’s apocalypse, 

twenty days after a man was shot 

in the back seven times in Wisconsin, 

and I am tired 

of telling people these are “natural” disasters.

Three years ago, 

when the last storm hit,

I might have told you that every five hundred years 

someone must bear the sins 

of a people,

but in the years since my hands

first began to shake, 

I have learned who and what and where is responsible,

and as the storm spins in the radar,

I watch colonization unfold in real time:

Man-made climate change

spins whiteness into stacks 

of white cumulonimbus. 

As the eye of the storm intensifies 

with each degree stacked in the gulf,

each tick moves upward on the stock exchange. 

Tell me

someone didn’t dream up this deluge,

this clearing of land, uninhabitable,

contaminated,

tell me who has the right to remain, 

tell me, without flinching,

that my life matters.

Truth be told,

the storm isn’t even the half of it:

ain’t nothing new

‘bout our lands declared, 

“uninhabitable,”

cleared for industrial use,

for flume and flare,

for fire and brimstone,

this place, the only one where we were allowed 

to reside. 

Refineries, petrochemical infestations 

have taken hold in our homelands, 

and in the days before natural disaster

they unleash one manmade all on their own,

here, our bodies,

marked in yellow tape,

“uninhabitable,” 

flooding the lungs of our communities

with the smoke from their stacks. 

Oh, our lady of perpetual fever dreams,

our asphalt sovereign, 

mother of ozone action days and

asthmatic breath — 

behold how the men have partitioned 

our city, sliced and diced 

until all that is left 

is to worry and wait.

We were never meant to survive.

And ain’t that some shit. 

Ain’t that something holy

in all this mudbound, 

ain’t that some Black life. For still,

I sit here loving you,

blessed city of perpetual raincloud. 

We who have kept on,

keeping on,

pressing towards the mark.

We, brought here to these Black Shoals,

long before the storms came. 

We, who will keep the land,

long after our captors are gone. 

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