Mississippi, poems by Ann Fisher-Wirth, photographs by Maude Schuyler Clay, (Wings Press)
As citizens of the earth, we’re inevitably wedded to place, a particular spot on the map that embodies the contours and angles of our lives, the precise shape of the world we inhabit, which we only learn to love if we devote attention to it.
Such constancy and commitment is evident in the photos of Maude Schuyler Clay and the poems of Ann Fisher-Wirth, long-time residents of Mississippi, who capture the nuanced beauty, the joys and travails, of the citizens of this much-maligned state.
The collaboration between their art proffers the kind of deep, slow thinking that represents a way of knowing similar to the formation of sedimentary rock: layer upon layer of experience sifting down, settling, shaping a place through the steadfast work of time.
To be clear, this partnership is no one-to-one translation of photo to poem. Instead, Schuyler Clay’s art serves as a catalyst for Fisher-Wirth’s imagination, a springboard that launches the poet toward associations, juxtapositions, and surprising tangents. In looking at each image, the poet often hears voices speaking outside the physical or temporal frame, and those voices conjure the poems into being, creating a sundry choir singing about all manner of living.
The collection is peopled by a variety of characters: the poor and uneducated, the well-off and the imprisoned, the hateful and the persecuted, those who seek to live within nature’s boundaries and others who wish only to dominate it to the point of destruction.
And while these fictional voices intersect with history—Emmett Till’s murder, for example—this is not a book of documentary verse. Instead, the volume’s untitled poems allow unnamed speakers to come forward and offer a glimpse of their lives and livelihoods by testifying about the place they reside in and the burden or grace of the lives they’ve been given, a most southern convention.
Fisher-Wirth makes use of the rich oral tradition of Mississippi, replicating the many and varied speech patterns of its natives. In a brief preface to the book, she contends that prescriptive grammar holds no interest for her: “Recently on Facebook, someone snarkily commented that though we hear people say things like might could and aks, ‘That’s not English.’ I completely disagree.” Out of this strong conviction, the poet celebrates language in all its manifestations, in all that it reveals about the person who is speaking and the place from which she speaks.
And for this reason, we are presented with a verbal tapestry of startling and delightful insight. For instance, when an elderly woman connects a memory of a house with the affection she continues to have for a lover:
Like to drove me crazy
the cicadas in the privet and pecan trees
whupping up their little motors
Or when another woman, who has a boyfriend by the name of “Jig,” receives a letter from her beau:
all pittypat but what a disappointment.
Your eyes are like lakes, your cheeks are
like ruby pettals, and it went on and on,
just the way I told him. Signed it, too,
the way I told him, scrumptious word
I got from my uncle’s sexy books.
Love, your immorata J.J. Mooney.
Had to dump him after that. Jig Jig
dumb as an egg.
In the course of preserving these speech patterns, the poet reveals the deeply embedded stories of the region, carrying forward information about the places where the stories unfold.
These August afternoons even the candles
melt dear God I shape them again with my hands
but the wax just sweats and oozes
there on the mantel
In this way, Fisher-Wirth invites the earth to have its say, subtly exposing how weather or topography ultimately controls human desires and behaviors. As one man confesses in a poem, “ma’am I got what I need in the earth.”
But providing for oneself and one’s family in a state that has known extreme poverty leads to lamentation. “We’re mostly headed for hell now the devil’s come among us,” says one speaker. “No point reading the papers, watching the news, just got to lay up for the family best I’m able.”
And the lessons learned in school serve to reinforce this idea of commitment to family. After reading Antigone, a student says,
No way in hell Id let them
vulchers eat my brother
no ma’am Id do just like Angon done
my daddy my brother my cusin all them
not meat in the road for vulchers
shoot me see if I care
put me in one them caves
Agon was right
family the only thing that matters
The poems that comprise Mississippi do not flinch or seek to hide the tragic, burdensome history of racism in the state, either:
Well you know back then couldn’t no
black man see justice
And we are witness as the threat of such injustice leads to fear and the most base forms of survival, as a speaker explains, “I snuck off // hid in my closet prayed Pray Lord / didn’t have no words / for my misery just Pray Lord.”
Yet neither the poet nor the photographer is willing to overlook startling moments of joy in the context of this pain and brutal hatred. There is hope in this book, moments often connected to love in its many guises. These epiphanies provide balance to the collection and demonstrate how one survives in such a climate. In a monologue, a woman recalls how love surprised her husband:
We was walking home from prom
I was kicking the petals
when he pulls out this ring
says he bought it
for another girl
but when he saw me at the game
he changed his mind
Another speaker uses a common image from the country to suggest the nature of intimacy:
Your hands on my face
your belly on my belly
me flipping like a fish at the bottom of a boat
As these voices spill over in poems, Schuyler Clay’s photos arrest the reader on facing pages. Hers is a direct gaze that focuses on the plainest of subjects: An unmade bed with a bowl of cut fruit and a spoon; a tenant farmer’s simple house, paint a long-ago afterthought; a shelf shadowed on the wall, displaying pitchers and crocks; a stairway leading down to the street, steps worn, a door at the bottom promising light.
Perhaps the best way to describe this compelling and beautiful collection is to say the artists have conveyed skillfully the idea of a home ground, a place long-lived in, a place of both hate and love, of dearth and bounty.
As a speaker says, without remorse, late in the book, listening to “cicadas stitch the felty night”:
You turn to me,
sweat-slippery, and I hold you,
stroke your forehead and damp hair,
we drift, and breathe, and fall into sleep,
into this home where we will die.
Todd Davis is the author of five collections of poetry, most recently Winterkill and In the Kingdom of the Ditch, both published by Michigan State University Press. He is professor of English and Environmental Studies at Pennsylvania State University’s Altoona College. New poems appear in Barrow Street, Missouri Review, North American Review, Arts & Letters, and Orion.