Dogs, Elegies, Progress, and David Byrne

I left class on Friday with no shortage of ideas for blog posts, prompted by Beth to consider why Patricia Smith would elegize Luther B (a dog) in several poems across Blood Dazzler. The poems tell a story of how the “Rottweiler, bull, whatever” (30) Luther B is left chained to a tree in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, struggles to survive and eventually “ascends” (69), assumed to be towards heaven after dying; however, the dog’s owner evacuated her home, and a poem from her perspective shows her belief that Luther B would have escaped the chains and easily ridden out the storm.

There is a lot to unpack in these poems, but I want to focus on the overall importance of the elegy – why a dog deserves an elegy, and why the story of a dog deserves to be told in Smith’s collection of poems about Katrina. I was also inspired by themes of dogs and progress in David Byrne’s album “American Utopia,” so I apply Byrne’s perspective on what dogs can represent and relate it to the importance of Luther B’s elegy.

 

I found the poem from the owner’s perspective “M’Dear Thinks on Luther B” particularly interesting, considering the positive outlook and hope she shows for Luther B. The poem opens with M’Dear assuredly claiming Luther B’s safety, “Bet he done broke loose” from his chains, and jokes about the ease of the dog’s survival, “Knowing him, he probably backstrokin’, / swimmin’ the Ninth, looking for something / good to fill that big greedy gut of his” (30). This hopeful outlook represents how people would try to remain positive in the aftermath of disaster, but also hints at the difficulty people have in grasping the oppressive power of forces one cannot control. M’Dear underestimates the strength of the chains constraining Luther B as well as the severity of the hurricane and flood.

And while M’Dear holds on to these beliefs, Smith hints that Luther B knows his demise is coming before the hurricane even arrives. In “The Dawn of Luther B’s Best Day,” Luther B has a premonition: “Snout turned upwards, he watches / his deliverance come closer. With the first plops of rain, / he snarls low and realizes just what kinda dog he is– / itchy, utterly bitchless, locked to the skin of a tree, / but fat with future” (15). This deliverance is later addressed when Luther B is revealed to be dead in a poem entitled “Luther B Ascends,” implying that he was only set free from his chains once he ascended to heaven (69).

I think it is important that everyone and everything lost to a natural disaster be acknowledged in some form. Smith writing a eulogy for Luther B is akin to the importance of documenting the X-Codes on houses. The physical manifestations of memories, information, and emotions may fade with time, but their meanings and lessons as a result of tragedy should still be preserved for historical documentation as well as in memory of the losses suffered.

Progress can be made naturally over time, but it is when tragedies occur that we realize where holes lie in our systems, allowing us to patch them up for the next time a tragedy comes around. This is a scary cycle, and preventative measures always try to address all possible issue, but it is near impossible to cover all bases for events we have no control over such as natural disasters. Beth mentioned last Friday that there had been no protocol for allowing aid animals into shelters in the case of a hurricane, only a broad rule that valued protecting humans lives over pets, but since hurricane Katrina progress was made in new laws that allow some aid animals in shelters in case of natural disasters. Ideas of progress with recur later in the blog post.

 

In early January I was lucky enough to get seats to a talk by David Byrne called “Reasons to be Cheerful,” which was a part of his cross-platform project by the same name that, quite aptly, highlights advances in the world that give reason to be happy in a time where the world’s state of affairs feels like its following a downward trend. The project spans social media, a website where Byrne regularly blogs about progress that gives new reasons to be cheerful, a new album “American Utopia” released March 9th, and visual performances on his cross-country tour. Byrne’s project can be seen as a second line to the dirge of near daily tribulations in current events.

One song from Byrne’s new album is called “Dog’s Mind,” which highlights the disconnect between what the government and media consider to be progress and how everyday people don’t see experience any progress despite paying attention to current news.

The following lines from the song remind me of a section from When The Levees Broke, which I’ll divulge after showing the lyrics: “the press boys thank the president / And he tells them what to say / There’s a photo opportunity / And then they’re sent away / To a place where nothing matters / Where the wheels of progress turn / Where reality is fiction / But the dogs show no concern.”

Hearing these lyrics reminded me of President George Bush’s speech in Jackson Square, and the backlash Bush and the government faced for it. The lighting of the building in the background had a New Orleans resident think that the building’s power had been restored, but in trying to show up to work the following day they found that the lighting was for show and there was still no power. Bush had finally made it to New Orleans to give a speech and have a photo shoot, so progress in rebuilding was faked for the media. The government and the media presented this faux-progress in a way that casts the destroyed New Orleans landscape as a set-piece on a stage, to be modified in shallow ways that fakes a scene of progress for an audience. Bush also caught flak for a photo of him looking out a window while flying over Post-Katrina New Orleans, showing literally how disconnected he was from the happenings on the ground, as if he was a spectator watching a show, and Smith discusses this photo in her poem “The President Flies Over” (36).

Byrne continues, mentioning dogs in their literal sense of being unaware of human issues, but also referring to politicians as dogs to show how they exist within their own ecosystem and how we spectate their ‘political progress’ that does not personally affect our lives. His lyrics continue: “Now the clerks look out the windows / At those dogs down in the park / Every window holds a staring face / Every desk stands piled with work.”

“Those dogs” in the park portrays the politicians in government as dogs playing games in their own confined park. “The clerks” represent everyday people, and no matter how much they look out their window to watch the dogs – watch news about government happenings – their lives seem to continue as normal regardless of what the government is doing in its confined political playpen. And yet everyone continues to stare through the window and observe the government’s dawdling, showing that they still have hope that progress can be achieved.

Through David Byrne’s lens, Smith’s elegy of Luther B can be seen as representing the failures of the government to act quickly and help the people of New Orleans both in preparation for and recovery from Hurricane Katrina. The people of New Orleans assumed that the US Army Corps of Engineers would have properly built the levees, and they hoped that the government could overcome its bureaucracy to aid in rebuilding. But just as M’Dear assumed and hoped that Luther B could break its chains, the people of New Orleans were also wrong in their own assumptions and hopes. And just as Luther B had a premonition of his demise, the government knew in advance that the levee would fail, and the lengthy bureaucracy now staple of government action did not change and continued to flounder in the wake of Katrina.

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