Laissez les bons temps roule
By Sterling Warner
For Hurricane Katrina’s Victims
Katrina’s torrent barely touched Vieux Carré.
It endures on high ground where the
Café Du Monte stands like a citadel,
Issues dark roasted Chicory Coffee 24/7,
Dusts powdered sugar on Beignet loving patrons;
No swampland crypt, the French Quarter presents
Pedestrians a sanctuary to suck down safe hurricanes
Chased with “Harry’s Huge Beers.”
Voodoo lovers slap legs together
Like alligator tails in brackish marshes;
Balcony flirts, evening ladies wear delicate masks
Fat Tuesday, last day before Lent’s forty day fast;
Mardi Gras magic exudes from every pore,
Elaborately costumed krewes toss beads off floats,
Give rise to fanciful celebrations of the dead,
Historic carnival steeped in Catholic doctrine.
Haitian halos encircle heads,
Bend minds, create
Sober motley moments among
Tarot card readings, psychic oracles
Jostling Bourbon Street crowds—
Backdrop for parading ramblers,
Mischievous, Puckish vagabonds,
Ragged marching saints.
Shuffling along as
Jazz bands blow Dixieland
Zydeco singers scrape wash boards, and
Street musicians mutter the blues,
Encouraged by two hands clapping,
Living dreams off guitar case offerings:
Copper tokens, silver coins,
Green paper gratitude.
Gris, Gris in my pocket, still
Scaling steps in New Orleans
Looking down Toulouse Street
Finding JAX Brewery gone
Replaced by Planet Hollywood. No
Mississippi miracle could heal Katrina survivors
Cleanse the river, recover such culture—
Foreboding yet enticing Gothic glamour.
Today is Mardi Gras, also known as Fat Tuesday or Shrove Tuesday. Mardi Gras is French for “Fat Tuesday,” reflecting the practice of the last night of eating rich, fatty foods before the ritual Lenten sacrifices and fasting of the Lenten season. Mardi Gras is a tradition that dates back thousands of years to pagan celebrations of spring and fertility, including the raucous Roman festivals of Saturnalia and Lupercalia. When Christianity arrived in Rome, religious leaders decided to incorporate these popular local traditions into the new faith, an easier task than abolishing them altogether. As a result, the excess and debauchery of the Mardi Gras season became a prelude to Lent, the 40 days of fasting and penance between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday.
While not observed nationally throughout the United States, a number of traditionally ethnic French cities and regions in the country have notable celebrations. Mardi Gras arrived in North America as a French Catholic tradition with the Le Moyne brothers, Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville and Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville, in the late 17th century, when King Louis XIV sent the pair to defend France’s claim on the territory of Louisiane, which included what are now the U.S. states of Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and part of eastern Texas.
The expedition, led by Iberville, entered the mouth of the Mississippi River on the evening of 2 March 1699, Lundi Gras. They did not yet know it was the river explored and claimed for France by René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle in 1683. The party proceeded upstream to a place on the east bank about 60 miles (100 km) downriver from where New Orleans is today, and made camp on 3 March 1699, Mardi Gras. In honor of this holiday, Iberville named the spot Point du Mardi Gras and called the nearby tributary Bayou Mardi Gras. Bienville went on to found the settlement of Mobile, Alabama in 1702 as the first capital of French Louisiana. In 1703 French settlers in Mobile established the first organized Mardi Gras celebration tradition in what was to become the United States. The first informal mystic society, or krewe, was formed in Mobile in 1711, the Boeuf Gras Society. By 1720, Biloxi had been made capital of Louisiana. The French Mardi Gras customs had accompanied the colonists who settled there.
In 1723, the capital of Louisiana was moved to New Orleans, founded in 1718. The first Mardi Gras parade held in New Orleans is recorded to have taken place in 1837. The tradition in New Orleans expanded to the point that it became synonymous with the city in popular perception, and embraced by residents of New Orleans beyond those of French or Catholic heritage. Mardi Gras celebrations are part of the basis of the slogan Laissez les bons temps rouler (“Let the good times roll”).
When I lived in southern Mississippi and later while a friend of mine lived in southern Louisiana, I attended a number of Mardi Gras parades. I would never go to the one in New Orleans again. While it was interesting, it was far too crowded for my taste. People were crammed in everywhere shoulder to shoulder. It was enough to induce a panic attack in anyone who dared to be sober. I’ve also attended Mardi Gras parades in Thibidoux, Houma and La Rose, Louisiana. When I lived in Mississippi, I used to love to watch the parades in Biloxi and Gulfport, Mississippi on WLOX, the ABC station in Biloxi.
Ironically, I have never attended the parade in Mobile. When I was growing up in Alabama, the parade in Mobile was considered crime ridden and dangerous. Only the most adventurous who threw caution to the wind in order to catch a few plastic beads and Moon Pies ventured to Mobile for Mardi Gras. New Orleans wasn’t much better. The parades of the Mississippi Gulf Coast and in Southern Louisiana were much more pleasant, and often safer, alternatives.
I also chose this poem, because I lived through Hurricane Katrina. While it devastated parts of New Orleans, southern Mississippi lay in ruins afterward. Complete sections of Gulfport and Biloxi were leveled, and the towns of Bay St. Louis and Waveland, Mississippi were nearly completely destroyed and they were largely cut off from the world due the collapse of the major bridge in and out of the towns. Katrina struck the Gulf Coast in August 2005, and it has never been the same since. Mardi Gras continues and is a festive occasion, but so much was lost because of Hurricane Katrina and so many people moved away from the Gulf Coast, that it has taken many years for those areas to recover.
Sterling Warner is a retired English Professor and author of fiction, non- fiction, and poetry. He received the Jim Herndon Award in 2013 and was a Pushcart Award nominee in 2014. He received a Hayward Award in 2000 and was named the Atherton Poet Laureate in 2014. Warner formerly taught a wide variety of Composition, Literature, Creative Writing, and Rhetoric courses in the English Department at Evergreen Valley College, where he served as the Creative Writing Program Director, EVC Author’s Series Organizer, and Chief Editor of the literary magazine Leaf by Leaf. Enjoying his Washington retirement, Warner continues to write and regularly hosts the Union of Writers Open Mike.
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