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In Red Beans and Ricely Yours (2005) there’s this extraordinary sense of place.

It is the dominant theme: the importance and significance of place caught up

in creating identity and a sense of being. For New Orleans is a way of life

 

 

 A Life Won with Blood & Tears

A review of Mona Lisa Saloy's Red Beans and Ricely Yours

By Rudolph Lewis

 

I wore loneliness like / your hand me-down skirts. 

Mona Lisa Saloy, "This Poem is for You My Sister"

 

In  “Word Works,” the first poem of Red Beans and Ricely Yours (2005), educator and poet Mona Lisa Saloy says, “I’m about how words / work up a gumbo of culture.”  Within the next 100 pages or so, that is what is accomplished, she replicating the life as known by her (as child and adult) through family and neighbors of the 7th Ward in downtown New Orleans. These poems are quite excellent. I gobbled them up in one day. Though I've known her and her poetry for twenty years, most of these poems were a discovery, revealing Saloy's love affair with the city of her birth. This book is genuine in sentiment and extraordinary in its music and storytelling. 

Readers of reviews are always suspect of superlatives used to praise a literary work. In this instance, Saloy is deserving, at least, for three sections of the book: “Red Beans and Ricely Southern,” “Shotgun Life,” and “Red Beans and Ricely Creole Quarters.” The third section "Red Beans and Ricely Creole Quarters" is the longest (19 poems), mostly about her Creole father and including poems like “Villanelle for Voodoo” and “The Ballad of Marie Leveau.” This third section is concluded with a poem “On Writing,” which opens with these lines, “I knock on white space to speak / pour Black ink like blood”— here we have the image of a conjuror or mambo at her craft and responsibility.

The other two sections—“Black Creole Love” and “Red Beans and Ricely Black”—are not quite in the same class of excellence as the first thirty-six poems; the latter sixteen poems are good, very good and in some other setting would be quite wonderful. But they fall off from the heights that are reached in the first three sections.  The final section contains “For My Brothers,” which is at least twenty years old, for I published it in my short-lived little magazine Cricket: Poems & Other Jazz, back in the mid-80s. The poem “The N Word” is a performance poem par excellence; and though I don’t care for it, it is quite inventive and humorous. The book ends with a religious sentiment, “We’ve come this far by faith.”

There are two poems, however, in the fifth and last section—“Song for Elder Sisters” and “ Mother with Me on Canal Street, New Orleans"—that recall the previous heights. Saloy excels at storytelling. In this latter poem, we get a unique peek into the New Orleans of her childhood, its culture, an extraordinary sense of place, custom, and humanity. Her mother was “jet black”; her father “high yellow” and could pass for white. And she was “yella.”  They are on a St. Charles Avenue street car: a “gray-haired lady asked us, / 'You keeping her for a white family uptown'.” That’s New Orleans. I can’t imagine this scene happening in any other place.

But that’s the thing about Saloy’s Red Beans and Ricely Yours (2005). There’s this extraordinary sense of place. It is the dominant theme: the importance and significance of place caught up in and creating identity and a sense of being. For New Orleans is a way of life—a religion, a way of being, a unique and extraordinary cultural way of existing within the context of racial oppression and poverty. This phenomenon is probably more unique and expressive in New Orleans than any large city in the Union, at least, from the black hand point of view.

Place, in this instance, is more than space (that too!) but cultural history (French and Spanish, Indian, African, American, and others), exotic foods, dance, music, customs, religions (Baptist, Catholic, Voodoo—all mixed together), dream books and numbers, family, barbecues, and kitchens, neighborhood, and burying places—enjoyed and sustained by generations. In "Daddy Poem III," she remembers, "Mother says I was born at home / on the four poster I sleep on still." In “Shotgun Life III: Today” she says, “We are a people of this place.” In “Word Works,” “This, my birthright, / gives a sense of place / that gets under your skin.” In “Nat King Cole Babies and Black Mona Lisas,” “I was born Black / on a Black block / in the 7th ward / on the back side of New Orleans.”

She goes on and on providing object by custom of every little detail that makes the life that was the Big Easy. In “I Had Forgotten the Loud – for Alice Walker,” “New Orleans leaves a honey taste in my mouth. / The cracked boulevards and weeping willows / shade bare front porches / and call her children home.” And in “Back on the Block,” “This is semitropics, / where green lizards squeeze through door jams.” People always together: "our home/was everybody’s home, cousins with aunts/uncles who kiss as they enter each time.”

It was also a place of “jim crow,” a place outside and apart one is forced to escape, because one “wore loneliness” like “hand me-down skirts.” Life was tough but bearable. Her father says, “there’s no place like New Orleans, / no where yeah! / Cawains used to crawl out the swamp / into my black iron pot.” That’s how it used to be. But she asks, “Where’s the Black community now?” So New Orleans filled up not only external space but that which was in the heart and soul of the people that transformed the space into a people.

Mona Lisa’s poems are concrete. They are filled with objects (cats, mosquito hawks, word sounds, music and musicians, oaks and mums, colors, houses (shotgun), yards, etc.) and actions (talk, dance, more talk, touching, eating, bereft of abstractions like good modern poems ought to be. These objects and actions are not metaphors anymore than any other word. They are what they are and what the people have made them “crawfish, cawain, mint love,” and “gumbo, as new with no regrets.” They are cultural objects (maybe they are totems), but in the mind and soul a “dance.”  In that life rendered in these poems will never reconstitute itself after the 2005 Katrina flood, Saloy’s poetic documentation makes the book exceedingly more precious, especially for those persons displaced who lived in such communities as the 7th Ward.

The book is primarily autobiographical. One senses that the book itself, the writing of it, changed the person, that the writer has risen to some higher state of being, beyond that of the young writer who returned to her community after being away on the West Coast a decade or so—a woman rediscovering her roots, appreciating and reevaluating that life she lived as a child, a woman who has come to grips with that life she tried to escape—its harshness and its sadness. Her mother died in 1966; her father, she nursed when he was in his 80s and near death. We sense a very sensitive and delicate sensibility coming finally into its own, into maturity, discovering what wonders she has inherited and realizing what resources and abilities she commands, “as the burnt sky folds.”

In some ways, Red Beans and Ricely Yours (2005) reminds me of Jean Toomer’s Cane; in other ways, Baldwin’s Go Tell It On the Mountain. Toomer felt that there was a way of life, of which his grandmother schooled him, that was dying and Toomer sought to capture it in words, stories. Well, that is what Mona Lisa has achieved wonderfully, but much more coherently, and maybe much more lovingly. Baldwin’s Mountain I see as a book that was his first and best piece of fiction in which he liberated himself and became his own man. Dr. Mona Lisa Saloy has achieved a similar liberation and transformation with this new book of poems. Such personal victories always deserve great applause, especially when they are achieved so wonderfully.

No writer or group of writing comes to mind of Black New Orleans that captures the New Orleans life in so wondrous a painting, musical composition—not Kalamu ya Salaam, not Brenda Marie Osbey, not even Marcus Bruce Christian. None expresses such love and devotion, none so realistically and approachable, none so fully and delightfully as we find in Red Beans and Ricely Yours(2005). These fifty poems or so of a life murdered by human neglect and disregard are insights won with blood and tears.

I remind you the book should have been the first three sections (36 poems), except for a few other poems in the other two sections (16 poems). Whatever flaw the book may have, one delights even in them. All the poems are well done and will be enjoyed. Folks, we have a classic here that will make an excellent gift for any occasion. I have the hardback edition. One on your shelf, everybody’ll know you have good taste, New Orleans style.

A final note: I’m told that Louis Armstrong used to sign all his letters Red Beans and Ricely Yours. This is a recent discovery. Mona Lisa has also signed her email notes with such endings for some time.

*    *   *   *   *

Rudy, I read your review of Mona Lisa's Red Beans and clicked on the highlighted poems.  Your review is excellent and that girl can write her tail off.  I plan to get her book.  Miriam

 

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Contents

Acknowledgments

ix

Red Beans and Ricely Southern

Word Works

3

Back on the Block

6

This Poem is for You My Sister

8

My Mother's the Daughter of a Slave

11

For Frank Fitch

12

Southern Sisters

14

Frontliners

15

Louisiana Log

17

A Few words on My Words

19

I Had Forgotten the Lord

20

Shotgun Life

Shotgun Life I: Home

23

Shotgun Life II

25

Shotgun Life III

26

Shotgun Life IV: Section 8, 2003

28

Shotgun Life V: Remembering D

29

Shotgun Life VI: Roots, 200 years, Louisiana Purchase

30

Shotgun Life VII: Old school, Circa 1960

31

Red Beans and Ricely Creole Quarters

Nat King Cole Babies and Black Mona Lisa

35

My Creole Daddy I

39

Daddy's Philosophy II

41

Daddy Poem III: New Orleans Then

42

Daddy Poem IV

44

For Daddy V 

45

On My Block

47

Heritage

48

Parochial Product

49

My Cousin My Brother

50

French Market Morning

52

French Market Friend

53

Recycling Neighborhood Style

55

Villanelle for Voodoo

57

The Ballad of Marie LeVeau

58

The Last Mile

62

A Taste of New Orleans

66

Summer in New Orleans

68

On Writing

Black Creole Love

This Afternoon . . . 

73

Email: Hey Now

74

When We . . .

76

The First 30 Days

77

Charm Fails Death

78

Deuces Running Wild

79

Telling Poem

80

Like Langston Hughes Did

82

Red Beans and Ricely Black

Song for Elder Sisters

85

Mother with Me on Canal Street, New Orleans 

87

For My Brothers

89

jim crow

91

End Notes

93

The N Word

95

We've Come This Far

100

Glossary

103

About the Author

107

*   *   *   *   *

Published by Truman State University Press --tsup.truman.edu / Hardback $2495 / Paperback $14.95

posted 26 October 2005

 

Mona Lisa Saloy is associate professor of English and Director of creative writing at Dillard University (before Katrina). She won the 2005 T.S. Eliot Prize for Poetry for this collection. She has also won fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities and from the United Negro College Fund/Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Her poems have appeared in anthologies, magazines, journals, and film.

She received her PhD in English and MFA in creative writing from Louisiana State University and her MA in creative writing and English from San Francisco State University. Displaced by hurricane Katrina, Saloy is a visiting associate professor of English and creative writing at the University of Washington for the 2005/2006 academic year.  Mona Lisa Saloy Bio

*   *   *   *   *

Dillard University's Creative Writing Program

Study with Published Awarded Writers

Mona Lisa Saloy and Dedra Johnson

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Contrary to the rosy picture of race embodied in Barack Obama's political success and Oprah Winfrey's financial success, legal scholar Alexander argues vigorously and persuasively that [w]e have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it. Jim Crow and legal racial segregation has been replaced by mass incarceration as a system of social control (More African Americans are under correctional control today... than were enslaved in 1850). Alexander reviews American racial history from the colonies to the Clinton administration, delineating its transformation into the war on drugs. She offers an acute analysis of the effect of this mass incarceration upon former inmates who will be discriminated against, legally, for the rest of their lives, denied employment, housing, education, and public benefits. Most provocatively, she reveals how both the move toward colorblindness and affirmative action may blur our vision of injustice: most Americans know and don't know the truth about mass incarceration—but her carefully researched, deeply engaging, and thoroughly readable book should change that.—Publishers Weekly

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