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What a bayou remembers: Bayou St. John

First, a couple quick notes:

*The author is desperately hoping that the lovely woman who approached her at the Studio in the Woods’ FORESTival this past Saturday, who once lived in the Luling Mansion (!), is reading this post. Dear Kind Woman, I have lost your business card! I have been searching for it all week! If you would email me, I would be so grateful and would love to talk to you about my favorite mysterious mansion. The fact that I lost your business card indicates that I’m still more of a poet than a researcher.…

**The author has been engaged with much post-election reflection, and is also currently reading Lydia Davis’ translation of Proust’s Swann’s Way. This is probably evident enough in the post below.

 


 

As might be obvious by now, I am deeply interested in the history of spaces and places: what has unfolded in this exact spot—in this house, on this city block, along this bayousince its beginning? What have time and time’s residents (that’s us) enacted upon this particular space?

Then I find myself wondering: what makes a space the space that it is? What of its original properties does it retain, given the assault of time? For example, a three hundred year old house. What about it hasn’t been changed? What, as they say, is still “original”? Let's say that, except for in one room, the flooring is no longer original. Nor is the sheetrock, moulding, windows, doors, or any of the exterior features. Say the house has had a hard life, and has required resuscitation by modern hands. What makes this house this house then? Where in its tangible body is its three-hundred-year history housed? A few beams and studs, hidden beneath the house’s skin? A few floorboards, refinished, but nonetheless holding the energy—the DNA even—of the many hundreds of feet that have crisscrossed its surface? Perhaps a few bricks in the foundation, perhaps they remember all the way back to the beginning, having napped in the dank clay since then, sinking imperceptibly deeper and deeper as the house thrums with activity above….

Or take a bayou, for example. A swampy trickle; a river’s flung-off limb; the tiny drainpipe of a brackish estuary slithering through the clay in myriad directions: this was our bayou to begin with. Now it’s a frozen feature of a previous landscape, a feature as common to that previous landscape as a single capillary among millions. Now, at least within city limits, it’s the only one left.

But it’s been dredged, widened, straightened, leveed, drained, cleaned up and hosed-down, laced with pipes, stitched with bridges, fixed with locks. Slack as it may be, its water has turned over probably a million times by now. A thousand generations of fish. And yet, I remain convinced that, like a house, a bayou remembers.

A bayou remembers all the boats: smooth-bottomed, keeled and un-keeled, some with groaning motors, some with oars. It remembers every submerged grocery cart, every beer bottle, every car. It remembers every alligator, turtle, catfish, every bear sipping at its edge. Every stray bullet, every fishing lure. All the human bodies—some naked, some dressed in layers of fabric, the limbs jerking and flailing, the fabric swirling. It remembers, right now, as we speak, the duck’s floating oval of feathers, the measured shushing of its webbed feet.

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.