Bayou St. John: Fantasies of history-sifting
In 2013, as part of FEMA’s Environmental and Historic Preservation program, archaeologists conducted a dig at the colloquially-named Spanish Fort site along Bayou St. John. I’m lucky enough to have been given an official report of the dig, which includes both historical information as well as an exhaustive inventory of discovered artifacts.
The behemoth is somewhere around 450 pages long, and much of it is incomprehensible to those of us not trained in the field. However, the artifact list is poet’s dream come true—a veritable treasure-trove of bizarre sounds, a cacophony of seemingly disparate words placed side-by-side, which, to the uninitiated, reads like nonsense delivered with utter authority. Object names—a “post-bottom mold base,” for example—could mean anything, and yet, one knows without a doubt that every object, whatever it may be, is steeped in history.
Right away, I longed to write a poem in which I pretended to be an archaeologist, so I could appropriate some of this language: a hyper-focussed, hyper-detailed sifter of history, another version of myself on hands-and-knees, troweling, brushing, labeling, gently lifting, gently rinsing (you know, all the things archaeologists do, but more whimsical and exaggerated) to find the fragments of forgotten stories.
If I were to write a poem from the perspective of my archaeologist alter-ego, here are some of the words and phrases I might use (jumbled up from the official inventory mentioned above):
grog-tempered ceramic sherds,
one rim sherd, two body sherds,
one from each stratum
ball clay pipe
pink-bodied/buff-bodied Albany slip
amber, cobalt, olive, aqua
cut nails, cut spike, soft paste
indeterminate amorphous ferrous metal
slag, mortar, coquina, concrete
scalloped rim sherd like a segment
of a humpback’s fin [she adds in a metaphor]
a singular stamped pipe stem reading “BELLE/SERVE”
sliders, cooters, painted turtles
tooled bead, tooled blob, applied blob, applied brandy
applied champagne, chert pebbles
button, hinge, wire, dagger
evidence of butchering: pig rib, cow patella
Ok, ok—back to the history. I learned so much from this report! Last summer, I posted about an adventure I took to the Spanish Fort, and I included photographs of conical piles of rocks (if you’ve been there, I’m sure you know what I’m talking about!) that I just couldn’t make sense of….
*drum roll please*
The report has informed me that these are the remnants of granite rock fountains built in the late 19th century when the amusement park at the Spanish Fort site was at its zenith. Alligators in pens! Music halls and fish ponds! Carousels! Railroad cars with patrons pouring out of them! And yes, granite fountains, spilling and bubbling, day and night….
Ok, the poet has tired herself out now. I promise more history next time!
2013 Phase I Archaeological Inventory of Portions of New Orleans City Park and Phase II Testing and Evaluation of Sites 16OR626 and 16OR19 in New Orleans, Orleans Parish, Louisiana & Analysis of 1976 Archaeological Collection from Fort St John/Spanish Fort (Site 16OR19), prepared for FEMA by R. Christopher Goodwin & Associates, Inc. , New Orleans, LA.
Cassie Pruyn is a New Orleans based poet who is currently working on a narrative history of Bayou St. John in New Orleans. You can see her posts and poetry on her website.