Amanda Auchter’s ‘The Wishing Tomb’
The Wishing Tomb
by Amanda Auchter
Perugia Press, $16.00 paperback, 88 pp.
The Wishing Tomb by Amanda Auchter is a haunting collection. It is no wonder that this book won the 2012 Perugia Press Prize for Poetry. The narrative of these poems never gives: in this place, New Orleans, LA (NOLA), we are rooted firmly by details of land and water, but also by the details of the people who haunt this place, as well as the resilient spirits who populate the city and keep it alive.
What surprises me most about this collection is that it’s written chronologically but never seems to read like a history book. Divided into three sections that span the strength of NOLA through many struggles and disasters, Auchter lets us see this place clearly, from the first poems—in which water “arrives exhausted, climbs // the lowlands and marshweed” (“Letter to Comte de Pontchartrain”) and land that “opens before us: the first point of green” or “the mouth of the river, its arterial flow” and “the mosquito-darkened sky” (“Early Pastoral”)—to the last poems that keep us firmly situated, even though by the end of the book the landscape has changed: “the weight of so much disaster: wind-ripped trees, // the cracked teeth of window after window” (“Gray Line Katrina Tours”) and “It is May, then June / and August, and heat drifts in from the Gulf // and don’t think we have forgotten / what wind can do” (“Late Pastoral”). Throughout the collection, we know where we are, and we know what we are watching: the drastic change of place.
Even though the place changes, neighborhoods taken for highways (“Highway Pastoral”) and destruction caused by fire (“The Good Friday Fire”), the people remain resilient. They know how to survive. It is not a weak person who lives in NOLA. This is evident early in the collection with poems like “The Punishment Collar,” which depicts a scene during slavery:
In the white noise of winter, a collar
of bells sound the location
of a man throwing his shadow
through live oaks, cotton bramble. The strange
storm of heartbeat, damp
adrenaline. Behind him, the house falls
into mist and branches,
an oil-glow behind a curtain.
Even in poems of human struggle and suffering, we are never far from the landscape. In “Testimony of Baroness De Pontalba, 1834,” a woman who was shot four times at point blank range survives, and we always remember where we are: “I listen to the red drum / of my heart, its blood a wind // carrying through me.” The landscape lives in each resident, even through plague: “Everywhere, water, night pushing / its mouth into the humid, // sleeping bodies” (“American Plague”).
What is most interesting to me about this collection is not just the tales of survival and resilience, but how the residents of NOLA keep going after so much destruction, after having struggled for so long. My favorite character among these poems is Marie Laveau, the legendary Voodoo Priestess, If visitors to her tomb mark an X on her grave and knock three times, she will grant a wish. This is not just about legend, but a way in which to survive: “For weeks, // to keep evil away, I filled rooms // with dried blooms, this wild- / flower decay” (“Marie Laveau”). Laveau strings her way through the first two sections, then we’re offered another way of spiritual survival: through prayer.
The third section begins with the poem “Wind Prayer”: “Tell me how to speak to suffering, where / to toss the slivers of a body already broken” and “Which storm // do I bless with the frozen cross, which one / do I open the door or window to, offer handfuls // of my prayers?” Even a marble Jesus himself sees destruction (“St. Louis Cathedral, 2005”). Holy landmarks cannot remain safe from wind and rain, from the torrential sea. We must remember what there is to love about the place we live, why remain there, and “The City that Care Forgot” gives us that reminder: “What brings you back is the sugared air // that seeps its way through / the streets” and “What calls you: the music / of a gate opening onto Tchoupitoulas Street, / chicory-heat, the roof tiles // in the black sky. The water. The rising.” In the end, it’s the memory of place that makes us return, reminding us of the reason we fell in love with the landscape and people in the first place, no matter where we live or which home calls to us.