As anyone who has heard the hundreds of literary introductions he has given around town over the last decade would suspect, Raymond McDaniel is a poet who revels in the textures of words. Many of his poems focus on the intersection of sounds, the alliterative play of the consonants fighting against the longer, almost rhyming sounds of the vowels. Often the words are collected in sonorous clusters that are more important than the lines or stanzas or even the narrative sense that would try to contain them: “Mosquito netting’s opera lace for godly, for godlets. masquerade mechanical.”

This technique is an almost perfect way to capture the languid, tropical atmosphere of the Gulf Coast, McDaniel’s home ground and the setting for his most recent collection, Saltwater Empire. I’m guessing that this book started as an effort to recapture some of the characters and the language of New Orleans and other parts of the gulf. McDaniel would look at the picture clearly, recognizing the full range of the history, allowing anger even as his clear affection for it all often created the undercurrent of the poems. But then something happened. Hurricane Katrina hit, and in its aftermath the country abandoned many of its citizens. What may have been seen as McDaniel’s understandable nostalgia was replaced by rage. The Saltwater Empire has changed forever.

The book includes several long poems, all called “Convention Centers of the New World.” These poems are built out of other people’s words, people who were famously captive in the New Orleans Superdome and whose words are collected in an oral history project called “Alive in Truth.” McDaniel puts this simple, powerful language against his own powerful but more elaborate language:

It’s just unfair to me. I mean, I have so much unfinished business
in New Orleans, that — will it ever get taken care of?

Will the pieces ever get put together?
Will I be spending the rest of my life living in the past?

You know, what? Where do I go from here?
Where do my children go from here?

This contrast of the documentary language with McDaniel’s own hits the readers with a force that is greater than either would have otherwise. And when the two languages are directly combined, as in the poem “Assault to Abjury,” McDaniel creates the poems of this historical moment that may indeed become part of the way we remember it: “God help us we tried to stay shattered but we just got better. fled. were harmed, and then we healed.”

Raymond McDaniel reads from Saltwater Empire at the Ann Arbor Book Festival street fair on North University on Saturday, May 17.

[Review published May 2008]