Alice Anderson’s survival mode
The Sacramento writer’s new poetry collection chronicles traumatic injury, Hurricane Katrina and self-preservation
No one expected Sacramento poet Alice Anderson to do so well, not after all she’s been through.
First, there was the storm. Anderson and her children lived in Ocean Beach, Miss. when Hurricane Katrina made landfall there in 2005.
They drove away one day and returned a few days later. What they found back home was devastating.
“Everything is obliterated,” she said. “The town is gone, the kids’ school is a disaster. In some places all that was left was the trees and they were so tangled in blankets and curtains and strips of insulation. The enormity of it was overwhelming.”
They stayed, for a while. But months later, she just wanted to get out. So back to Sacramento they came, where Anderson had lived as a teenager and young adult.
“I’m following this circuitous path from one delta to another,” she said.
They settled in. Found solid ground. And then in 2009, Anderson suffered a traumatic brain injury after a fall.
At that point, partially paralyzed on her left side and suffering from aphasia, most people would have understood if she’d stopped writing.
But that’s not how Anderson does things.
Now, seven years later, her newest collection of poetry, The Watermark (Eyewear Publishing, $14.50) is just out, and her memoir, Some Bright Morning I’ll Fly Away, is forthcoming from St. Martin’s Press next spring.
The Watermark is nothing short of visceral, with poems about Hurricane Katrina, loss of all kinds, grief, change and what can only be described as the resilience of a prize fighter after what seemed like a ceaseless march of fists.
The book opens with “The Water” and “The Quiet,” two poems in which the facets of the hurricane are personified as women. First, the storm surge and the avalanche of water that follows the wind, as Anderson writes, “She is all stirred up and been drinking since dawn.”
We know that kind of woman. “She is death and desire, one. / She is death and desire, both.”
Then, “The Quiet,” the deadly silence that follows the storm; “She is the water’s little sister, not quite as / pretty, but three times as stubborn with something to prove.”
And as readers move through the collection, it becomes apparent that Anderson is writing from that most human of places, which is the human body.
Anderson said that, while the hurricane informs many of these poems, writing from the body “came from somewhere else.”
“That came from me recovering from brain injury,” she said. “Once I learned how to talk again, and write again, and read deeply again, after that there was no room for pleasant metaphors, for pretty little trinkets.”
When she started writing again, she forced herself to write through the blank spots that come with aphasia.
“In every sentence, in every line, there were three or four “x”s in place of the word I wanted,” she said. “It would be, ’I drove across x to get to Pascagoula,’ and then I would have to go back and Google ’the thing that stretches over water between two pieces of land.’ Oh, bridge, it’s a bridge! Talk about painstaking.”
But it came, slowly, in poems and in the memoir.
The title poem, “The Watermark,” is set sometime after the hurricane. The speaker in the poem is busy handing out granola bars and bottled water to people displaced by the storm, and she notices a little girl wearing what was once a lovely communion dress, her Social Security number scrawled in Sharpie across her forearm.
“And on her dress: a / meridian, smack dab across the middle of her sunken chest / right where her frenzied swimming heart nearly / drowned, but was baptized by fire instead, / a spare but / graced rebirth.”
Such a mark, symbolic or otherwise, Anderson said, is something we all have; accordingly she wrote her way to safer, drier ground.
“It might not be from the storm surge, but we’re all walking around with our own watermark, whether it be our wounds or our emotional injuries, and the question is always, ’How do you survive? How do you stay above that watermark?’”