Looking for Kerouac
LOOKING FOR KEROUAC is a mélange of creative non-fiction, prose and poetry, travelogue and memoir, from acclaimed New Zealand poet & author Mercedes Webb-Pullman. Layering flashbacks from her American honeymoon 30 years ago with journeys by train in search of remnants of the world of Kerouac and Co. in their cross-hatching travels over their country, “LOOKING FOR KEROUAC is certainly a piece of writing that Kerouac or any other stream-of-consciousness guru would be proud of. Allow the whole thing to hypnotize and bliss you out.” (Robert Clark Young, CNF Editor, Connotation Press).
Voodoo is alive and well and living in New Orleans
Beignets and chicory coffee at the Cafe du Monde for breakfast and Goldberg is right, these are the best beignets so far, a very cool place to sit and watch the passing parade and I lean right over my table trying not to cover myself in powdered sugar.
A flash of a memory of Richard who told me he fell in love with me because of the delicate way I ate a sugared donut, determined not to get any over my face. Today I’m on a mission to find the cemetery and visit Marie Laveau’s grave. Marie, the voodoo queen of New Orleans for more than fifty years although this becomes confusing as her daughter, also Marie, may have taken the title for part of that reign, and there are at least 3 cemeteries. I believe she’s in #1 and join a walking tour in Royal guided by a descendant of free people of colour who points out the slave quarters in buildings as we pass on the way to St Louis Street and it seems so strange that these quarters are now sought-after apartments and I wonder again if buildings absorb the psychic energies inside them somehow and play them out again later. He says the slaves had a good life here, were able to cultivate their own garden plots and trade produce in the markets held each Sunday in Congo Square where they made their own music and danced. I think that slavery is not the best way to enjoy life no matter if you do get one afternoon free a week but I don’t say anything.
Another steamy day and the cemetery is small and crowded with mouldering crypts punctuated by marble angels and carvings, rusty cast-iron gates and fences, many of the nameplates eroded by weather ‘til the writing is illegible, a fading in tune with the fading of memories until finally maybe the bodies are left in peace. We gather at the Glapion family crypt with its XXX’s written all over the walls and an eclectic collection of offerings at the base, plastic flowers, playing cards, jewellery, scraps of paper with pencilled names, key-ring toys, anything and everything offered in the hope of a blessing extending beyond the grave, it reminds me of a bower bird’s nest, this collection, and I’m careful to stay unnoticed as I scratch my own XXX on the wall and slip the joker from my deck of Amtrak cards into the pile while making my own silent plea to Marie
with her gold-hooped ears
plays a pretty sound through Decatur crowds
ah Marie, they turn to watch – she
dances naked at night by the lake
with drums and fire and white men
and now she’s in this tomb along with ninety or so other family members added over the years according to their custom, the last one in 1928; new bodies push old bodies down into the common pit where their bones intermingle and moulder. The warm moist atmosphere here acts quickly on above-ground coffins and bodies, they diminish within their thick stone and concrete walls quietly and efficiently moved down through the layers by new dead arriving on top, Marie who was pretty, Marie the tall beauty with black curling hair and fierce dark eyes, Marie of blood mixed from Africa England and vanishing native American, Marie a real American who put the holy fear of God into voodoo and for the first time made it pay, Marie the hairdresser intimate with the bored and privileged wives and daughters of the Creole aristocracy, like Madonna these days she picked up on the pulse of the imminent future and provided what it needed, music and circuses, sex and faith and the exercise of power, and Marie was good at all these things, became a queen among queens on the voodoo scene and her act kept getting better – she kept all the good stuff, the black cat, the roosters, the blood-drinking, the finale of sex, and grafted on new, borrowed mostly from the Roman Catholic Church, statues of saints, incense and holy water, prayers, she renounced the devil-worshipping of the old ways and offered voodoo to God, added blasphemy to idolatry and charged admission to the whites eager to witness these scandalous rites, she used to strut like she owned the city, wore her black hair hanging down her back, she came walking into Congo Square with her head held up like a queen, her skirts swished and everyone drew back to let her pass, the most powerful woman in the city, even Lafayette kissed her hand. She could make anyone do anything she wanted, she made people disappear, she made wives turn on their husbands and run away with other men, she made white ladies lie on the ground and roll their bellies, she thrived on publicity, politicians and city officials were in her pay, she’d learned all about the city in her hairdresser days, the police came to her rites and went away, but all of that was used to pay for her lover, a damaged Civil war vet, and the fifteen children she birthed and raised with him in St Anne Street in the cottage she got with voodoo, she made gris-gris in St Louis Cathedral with Guinea peppers and the house was hers, control central for her network of slaves. If you found a wax ball covered in feathers on your steps in the morning you rushed to Marie and made it right, she was a witch, she could kill you if she wanted and you had to appease her, and you bought amulets and charms, powders and lotions and potions from her shop in the cottage’s cramped front room, rubbing shoulders with all of New Orleans
with her gold-hooped ears
plays a pretty sound through Decatur crowds
ah Marie, they turn to watch – she
dances naked at night by the lake
with drums and fire and white men
Marie the Magnificent in Congo Square on a Sunday afternoon when the drums boom boom through the air smoky with food and laughter and she brings her basket and places it with care then takes the snake and drapes it over her shoulders and dances, she becomes the snake, they say she has no bones when she dances with the snake and her feet never move and the crowd draws around her hushed and reverent, out of time and place Africa dances here in Congo Square amongst the slaves, proud Africa and her blood pounding to the same rhythms, intoxication of sex and death
and now her bones mix with her lover and their children, their children’s children, all bones the same, just food for the greedy earth and the fat New Orleans worms and whether Marie is in this crypt or that one she’s here somewhere in this final acre where Nicholas Cage’s odd pyramid grave sits ready for him just around the corner, graves clustered together as close as the boat sheds at Titahi Bay, shouldering each other in a disreputable line, or like the huts along a Mediterranean cliff, hunched as if there is safety in numbers, poised between one world and another, portals where you leave your body at the entrance and pay with your life before you enter.
Queen Marie leading the rites on St Joe’s Eve on the bayou by the lake, the great cauldron steaming on a bonfire, men stripped to loin-cloths and women in their loose one-piece cotton robes drinking tafia rum distilled from molasses until at a signal from their queen they form a circle and dance their traditional dances around her as she stands on her snake box or sits on her throne-like chair in the circle’s centre, music from a fiddle covered with snakeskin and drums made of wine casks, gourds and stretched cow hides, the dancing more and more frantic, dancers whirling in circles until they tumble to the ground, spasmodic jerking and trembling, others with wild screams of frenzy run out into the water and soon the climax of sexual orgy begins.
She is the only one with clothes on, she wears a long blue dress with a full skirt that reaches to her ankles, sometimes her loose hair hangs down her back, sometimes she wears a kerchief on it tied with seven knots, the points sticking straight up, she always wears her gold hoop earrings and big gold bracelets that chime and tinkle on her arms. She calls her snake to crawl all over the dancers’ legs, it’s twenty feet long, her snake, she calls it Zombi, it’s her god, Zombi brings sickness and health, good luck or bad, life or death, she keeps him in her yard at St Anne Street and talks to him all the time, he is Papa La Bas who is the devil and at Maison Blanche Marie reverts to the old religion of Santo Domingo, Maison Blanche hidden near the water, surrounded by bushes so it can’t be seen from the road, the White House where white men come for sex with young dark girls, where at certain times the old is made new again, here the snake, here the breast torn from a living chicken and offered to the queen who must eat, here with lips smeared by the blood of slaughtered beasts they take their terrible oaths, here they sing
Eh, ye, ye Mamzelle Marie,
Ya, ye, ye, li konin tou, gris-gris
Li te kouri lekal, aver vieux kokodril;
Oh ouai, ye Mamzelle Marie
here they hiss and crawl on the ground like snakes, hop around croaking like frogs, creep along twisting and shouting like alligators, screech like hoot owls, run around on all fours biting each other like dogs, some dance with torches in their hands past the big bonfires surrounding the house and up and down the water’s edge, the beach red like blood all night long and they stand up to their knees in water and throw food into the middle of the circle for Papa La Bas, the devil who leads them from behind the mask of the queen and her pretence of accepting a white god, Marie who consorts with crocodiles, Marie who talks with the devil.
Marie who takes up a ministry of attending to the city jail’s prisoners, especially men awaiting execution, she builds an altar in the condemned cell for them, she takes care of the spiritual needs of murderers, she goes with priests to succour the victims of yellow fever, she nurses the sick and stays healthy herself, Marie the Blessed, she tries to save the lives of two men on the gallows and Papa La Bas brings a storm and the ropes slip over the men’s heads on the gallows so they drop to the cobblestones with broken arms and skull wounds but still alive alive after a hanging but the police drag them back up to the platform and this time they are dead properly and because so many believe Marie caused the storm and almost saved the lives of these two men the Louisiana Legislature meets and forever outlaws public executions and I wonder whether Marie is a catcher of souls like Mother Teresa, unable to do anything for life but catching the souls for her god at death.
Marie brings her gumbo to prison as their final meal, and maybe the prisoners die without fear or pain. Marie does her work well until in March 1869 when she is 70 years old she presides over a ceremony for the final time, a conclave held before a corpse exposed at one end of the chapel, Marie dressed in yellow and red ascends a dais and chants her wild fetish song while the congregation accompanies her with voices and a drum-like beat of hands and feet, moving in a circle, increasing speed, loosening clothes, dropping ornaments and flowers from their hair, intoxicated by rhythm and heat, dancing around a basket of snakes, each touching a serpent’s head as they pass, power simmering in the room until the celebrants fall upon each other in the ecstasy of fleshly communion. Marie as flesh spends her final years in bed, wizened and forgetful background to the new queen, reverting.
Back at Pat O’Briens for a margarita this time with my red beans and rice, some gumbo and jambalaya and I see a withered old crone in the courtyard alleyway, yellow skin and wisps of white hair escaping from under her tignon, dingy cloth tied into seven knots and all the points upright, her eyes burn into mine, she’s gone and a cool breeze stirs. Voodoo is alive and well in New Orleans, it peers out at you from doorways and shadows, sneaks in with music and food and particularly rum, is part of everything you see and all of things you can’t see.
I wander down Decatur, find Lush but don’t buy, reminded of lotions and potions and earthly desires, and stroll back to the Garden Court through trucks unloading supplies to restaurant kitchen entrances, shrimp and crabs, fish and oysters, chickens all fresh and dead, ready for hungry mouths but I’m hungry for something else, I find the address of Priestess Miriam’s Voodoo Spiritual Temple and Cultural Centre on North Rampart, just around the corner from Marie Laveau’s cottage in St Anne Street, and after a Bloody Mary and a set from the jazz band I stride the chess-board streets like a knight, one over and two up, until I find Priestess Miriam’s Temple shop front, right on the edge of the board.
Of course a bell tinkles as I enter, a temple bell like the little anklets Doi put on her daughter when she first started walking which also always reminded me of trying to bell my proud tom cat and the ways he found to keep the bell silent, he developed a new way of walking, so did Duey, what is this bell telling me? Pay attention.
I’m in a gift shop, a dazzling multitude of spiritual gifts, I like the hand-written signs and tickets, this is no crass commercial operation, but there are too many things in here to see, each insisting on its own recognition, this is very confusing, everything is little and held in arrays of small containers, there are tiny scrolls with written spells, tied with satin ribbons, there are amulets and charms of all shapes and sizes, all specific, tisanes of herbs with strange names, bunches of dried flowers and plants, roots and berries, jars of powders each with a small wooden scoop, some vegetal, some mineral, tiny plastic bags of chips of special woods, small statues and religious icons, there’s even a St Christopher medal, the saint who took care of safety on journeys when I was a child but has since been broken back down to the ranks.
I’m trying to scan it all and all the scents, they change as I move, woody, lemon, musk, incense, but a walking tour arrives through the door behind me and I go with the flow into the next room, this one with more botanica and fewer labels, this is a workshop maybe when the shop is closed, there’s a toilet and hand basin off to the side, a reassuringly human touch, as is the widescreen TV above the counter, loudly playing the lead-up to the football final on tonight.
I sit for a while in the back courtyard where a formally-shaped garden looks interesting but grows none of the herbals for sale in there but this is a space shared with others I guess, overlooking windows with their eyes on me and no ashtray but I know voodoo favours tobacco and bury my butt carefully in the garden bed edge before walking into the other building; though it shares a wall with the shop it has a separate entrance, a little lobby with displays like shrines dedicated to visitors who have been helped and guided by Miriam including Nicholas Cage, Kate Hudson and Lucy Lawless.
This is like a discovery of outsider art, I feel like the first explorer into a crypt undisturbed for eons, the relics are dusty and votive candles flutter amongst them like moths but there’s an energy that feels coiled here, a glitter in the air, a flicker vanishing from the corner of my eye so I have to turn to look but nothing moves. Miriam greets me, we touch, she’s very warm, she moves me into the inner sanctum, the temple where she leads prayers, meditations, readings, rituals, weddings, ceremonies. Again I am overwhelmed, this must be a technique, the eye cannot take in such a rush of information and the mind lays down leaving room for something else.
I am literally surrounded – all the walls, the ceiling, even the floor, covered in idols and icons, symbols and statues, carvings and totems and ritual objects from every culture and religion I’ve ever heard of and others I have no idea about, amongst them are piled or pinned heaps of cigarettes and bank notes of all denominations and countries, chains, pendants, jewels, lumps of gemstones, small gold nuggets, bronzed baby bootees, certificates and diplomas, and photographs – photographs of strangers in unknown places, and the focal point of the room, under a canopy of silk embroidered with arcane designs, the main altar stands with many Catholic saints, a nativity scene of exquisite porcelain detail next to a Mexican piñata figure, Mary in her blue cloak spreads her special sadness, another Marie I hold in my eye as a lifeline.
Miriam speaks of her life, daughter of a Missouri share-cropper farming cotton, her gift for lucid dreaming already apparent when she went to New York to escape the oppressive segregation of the South, after 20 years a nurse in Chicago she came with her husband Prince Oswan to New Orleans to work for the Voodoo Museum and soon established her Temple. She hands me a powerful prayer for health by the Reverend R. J. Williams for which I am grateful, it’s roneoed on bright yellow paper and looks very cheerful, but I don’t feel enough spiritual connection to ask her for a reading although I have seen half a dozen examples of Maori carving in her temple and actually do feel quite at home here.
Lucy Lawless gave her some beautiful pounamu pieces. I leave a small bone carving of a fish hook draped over one of the Balinese masks and some New Zealand coins in a small wooden dish with a guttering candle before it.
Dinner of fried shrimp in the Chequered Parrot, I buy a bottle of white rum and make coffee with it in my room, off to sleep with the curtains open and the Mississippi curved before me like a question mark and I dream of Marie Laveau out on St Joe’s Bayou; she arrives in a skiff, Cleopatra in her golden barge and sings out
Salya ma coupe ca and the people sing
Mamzelle Marie chauffez ca
as they pile wood, a piece each, into a bonfire on the beach which she lights then two people, so old they look sexless, place a large iron cauldron there and fill it with water brought from a beer barrel, another old man adds salt, jabbering in Creole, and a young girl sings as she adds black pepper; a box is handed to Marie from which she takes a black snake and cuts it into three, a Trinity, one piece she puts in the pot, the others she gives to the old man and young girl, and they add them too and all sing a chorus of the same song, then Marie cries out and a black cat is brought to her, she slits its throat without fuss and tosses it into the pot, another chorus rises, a black rooster is brought and she ties its head to its feet backwards then rips its chest with her teeth, biting into the living flesh so bloods runs down her face and the crowd sighs and sings again as she tosses its still-living body in with the rest then orders everyone to undress and as they do she takes powders, white and coloured, from a shot bag in her pocket and holds them aloft; the crowd joins hands and circles the pot, she pours them in while everyone sings C’est l’amour, oui maman, c’est l’amour then as midnight arrives she sings Li minuit tous moune a l’eau and we all run into the water, up to my thighs, warm liquid caress and you are there somehow beside me, your smile a fire in which I will burn forever…