Book Review: Requiem for New Orleans (2006)

Sometimes a title says it all. Mike Sharpe’s Requiem for New Orleans is a lament for a New Orleans that no longer exists. At the same time, the title reflects the stylistic approach Sharpe takes to the subject.

The work is intended to emulate a symphony based on the concept of a requiem mass. Sharpe takes this approach because he believes it is appropriate for a disaster in which the “biblical proportions are manifest. Thus, Sharpe combines more traditional poetry and prose with not only excerpts from a requiem mass and the Bible but also blues and popular music and even the U.S. Constitution. Unfortunately, that is also the work’s downfall. Sharpe tries to pack too many stylistic elements into too few pages.

While mourning New Orleans, Sharpe retains the political edge of his first work of poetry, Thou Shalt Not Kill Unless Otherwise Instructed. Sharpe is highly critical of the president and his administration for their failures. And even those pieces with an overt political tone are explicit in portraying the devastation. For example, while the theme of “Katrina” is how the storm revealed the president’s failures, Sharpe also writes:

Well, there’s stinking bodies floating in the water
and stinking bodies lying in rooms.
There’s stinking bodies in the doorways
and stinking bodies in the attics.
There’s corpses in the chapels too
and dead swept away in the bayou.

Yet while the political angle is predominant, it is not the sole focus. Sharpe also raises more philosophical questions, such as in “Where Are You, God?”

I am poor and black
abandoned all my life.I am poor and white
abandoned all my life.

Where are you, God?
Where is my salvation?

At bottom, that is also an underlying theme of the work. How do we restore what we have lost both physically and psychologically? Can we atone for the failures and errors that contributed to the disaster? Can we redeem the people and spirit of New Orleans?

While Sharpe’s blending of diverse styles is not wholly successful, the political and spiritual questions he raises are well worth contemplating.

I want to know
Where are my children
Where are my friends
Where is my house
Where is my man

Mike Sharpe, Requiem for New Orleans

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