[REVIEW] A Series of Un/Natural/Disasters by Cheena Marie Lo

Commune Editions
March 2016


A series of Un/Natural/Disasters is not the place to turn if you’re looking for levity, for beautiful language and pleasing rhythms. The collection of 39 poems bluntly beat a track around hurricane-ravaged New Orleans, asking us to take another look at the tragedy and absurdity of what happened in 2005, of what continues to happen today.

Lo’s poems are powerful and honest and they can be tough to read as Lo unflinchingly shows us the sights, sounds, and statistics of New Orleans. We catch some familiar and heartbreaking signs left behind after Katrina, like the neon X’s marked on houses, the creep of successive water lines. At other moments, the poems are hopelessly cryptic and unfamiliar (lists or scatterplots of numbers and symbols with no context) and we long for Lo to explain them to us. Lo withholds, working like a conductor, sunk beneath stage level, summoning thoughts and figures into formation, only occasionally stepping in to repeat something, as if to say “did you get it?.”

In “Because another tropical storm is coming,” snatches of sound bites march down the page, different voices making the same point. The sound clips in “Warning signs and signals” are clustered together, but you can almost hear Lo flipping through TV clips, the smooth, modulated voices of news anchors sounding increasingly bizarre as the poem progresses. Several poems, like “Poor,” beat out a dark chant, the word repeated so many times, it becomes a humming mantra about the wrongs of Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath. It is moving and numbing.

Lo doesn’t have all of the answers, here. There are moments where the poems are intentionally vague, like in “Something About Being Maddened by Hunger.” Consider that there is more to this situation than can be described in words, or covered in the news, they seem to say. Consider that, even as you read this collection, even as you feel sorrow, you will not ever fully understand. There will always be something eluding your grasp.

Despite this, the subtext to the collection feels clear. Who is to blame? Who is to blame for what happened to this city, the houses, and, most importantly, the poor black people who suffered the most? Reading this collection is not unlike going to a protest, one you might’ve stumbled into, so you stand near the back of the room and let the statistics, definitions and numbers, wash over you. But as you hear more and more, your anger and outrage grows, until you realize you’re no longer in the back, but you’re standing in the front of the room and the keynote speaker is stepping onto stage.

That’s when this collection solidifies, becomes unshakable. Lo’s voice seems to ring out for what feels like the first time toward the end, in short and skillfully pared down poems. They drop perfectly into place in the broader collection. In “We are alone” they ask, “Where has everyone gone?” making it clear, that they, too, are bewildered. There can be no resolution, no explanation that makes it easier to wrap the tentacles of our brain around all that has happened in New Orleans. Think about it, Lo seems to say. And don’t stop for a long time.