Cheré Dastugue Coen
City of Hey Baby
I’ve found that many Americans hail from cities, but they move away and are happily identified with their new home. For those of us destined to be born in New Orleans, that crazy humid metropolis nestled in the bend of an equally insane river, we’re branded at birth and that mark remains with us until we land next to our ancestors in those haunting above-ground tombs.
That doesn’t mean we don’t get comfortable in our new locations, reveling in progressive politics and big-city innovations. I can be gone months and not feel a ping of longing for my native city.
But, Patrice Melnick brought it all back with a rush.
Melnick wasn’t born in the Big Easy, nor does she live there now. The poet transplanted to Grand Coteau, Louisiana, after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city. She had taught English and creative writing at Xavier University in New Orleans and changed course when she arrived in Cajun Country, founding the Festival of Woods literary arts festival for which she received, in addition to her other attributes, the Public Humanities Programming award from the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities and was named one of the Louisianans of 2019 by Louisiana Life Magazine.
Melnick has published her poetry in many publications and has written a memoir titled “Po-boy Contraband: from Diagnosis Back to Life.” Her first poetry collection came out this year, however, titled “The City of Hey Baby” (Finishing Line Press), and it's a beautiful homage to my home town. Melnick understood New Orleans when she lived there, and she writes about it like a native. Her poetry resonated in my heart like a brass band.
And that’s where I found myself aching for a cup of chicory coffee, a croissant from a French Quarter bakery and the ripe smell of live oak tree leaves on St. Charles Avenue. Reading her work made me wish for pulling on my skates and rolling through Audubon Park, then grabbing a shrimp po-boy at Domilise’s.
Damn you, Patrice Melnick!
Her delightful collection of poetry ranges from the light-hearted “Trash Day,” in which the author finds her receptacle burned to a “glob of melted plastic like an ugly ceramic ashtray,” to the heartbreak of hurricanes in “Fifty Days after Hurricane Katrina on Dumaine Street.” There are nods to love interests, friends, watermelons and the introduction of Cajun boudin on a Mardi Gras morning. Dancing at Tipitina’s. Fridges “bursting with despair” after Katrina. Creole houses. Regardless of the sentiment, Melnick captures what makes New Orleans odd and unique, the Caribbean laugh of a landlord, the “yo yo guys with pendulum attitudes,” the vulnerable “child-woman” hoping for a caring man and the resident population who utter the title phrase.
“New Orleans is the city of ‘Hey Baby,” she writes in the title poem, “from the coffee shop waitress, the delivery man, the telephone operator, and ‘Hey Baby,’ from men who follow and men who don’t and ‘Hey Baby,’ flies from balconies and slowing cars because Hey Baby means nothing and Hey Baby means too much.”
Yeah ya right.
Quarantined in my house right now, I long for a too-large burger at Port of Call delivered by a waitress saying “Hey Baby” or a flaky croissant with café au lait from Croissant d’Or Patisserie. If I had pushed the longing deep inside, this rich collection brought it all back.
Damn you, Patrice Melnick.