This blog’s intermittent “Poetry at the Border” feature returns with two excerpts from the powerful new collection Mississippi, a striking large-format collaboration between poet Ann Fisher-Wirth and photographer Maude Schuyler Clay. While focused on a specific state, this book is full of borderlands and hinges: between poetry and photographs, between history and the present, and among races and realities. I’m fascinated by the relationship between word and image here–each poem, untitled, is coupled with a photograph, and the pairings tend to defamiliarize rather than illustrate one another. Next to “He ain’t done right to whistle,” for example, is an image of a ruin. So is the racism that led to Emmett Till’s murder a gutted edifice, still standing but increasingly fragile, doomed to be pulled down by kudzu? If so, what’s a person to do about it?–Look at it, surely. Head-on.
The voice-driven poems in Mississippi also urge us to listen to one another; while including dialogue and depicting multi-voiced negotiations, they sometimes possess an eerie quality, too. This is a spiritual collection, both in image and text. Many of Fisher-Wirth’s poems suggest how mundane world borders a more mysterious one or, as in the second poem below, describe someone in extremity praying for intervention. Words are bridges, creating connections between people, or perhaps among people and the other-than-human world.
from Ann Fisher-Wirth:
There are a number of poems in Mississippi about race, in a variety of voices. Specifically, the two poems here, “He ain’t done right to whistle” and “Well you know back then”–are companion poems, which embody two very different responses to the murder of Emmett Till.
At the heart of Mississippi’s Civil Rights history is Emmett Till, an African American boy murdered on August 28, 1955, at the age of fourteen. He had come from his home in Chicago to visit relatives in the Delta town of Money, Mississippi. Reportedly he spoke to or whistled at twenty-one-year-old Carolyn Bryant, the married proprietor of a small grocery store in Money. Several nights later, Bryant’s husband Roy and his half-brother J. W. Milam came and got Till from his great-uncle’s house, and took him away to a barn. There they beat him and gouged out one of his eyes, then shot him through the head, weighted his body with a cotton gin fan tied around his neck, and disposed of his body in the Tallahatchie River. Three days later, Till’s body was discovered and retrieved. It was prepared for burial in Tutwiler, Mississippi, and returned to his mother in Chicago. There, she insisted on an open casket funeral, insisting that the world see what had been done to her son, and images of Emmett’s barely recognizable face were broadcast all around the world. Bryant and Milam were acquitted in court; subsequently, protected from double jeopardy, they admitted their guilt in an interview in Look magazine. Emmett Till’s death and the worldwide horror that it awoke became a pivotal force in the African American Civil Rights movement. The Money store is now in ruins.
“Well you know back then” mentions Mose Wright. He was Emmett Till’s great-uncle, and he acted with enormous courage when he stood at the trial to identify Bryant and Milam as the men who had taken Till. Nevertheless, the jury took only 67 minutes to acquit.
He ain’t done right to whistle
and talk hi y’all baby and filth
to Carolyn Bryant even if he come
from away he ought to known
how we do around here and I sure
as hell don’t believe his uncle
shoulda stood up and pointed out
Roy and J.W. in that courthouse
I am so blessed tired of people
students and all coming down here
to interview us just because we
was alive then making out like this
is a bad town y’all don’t know
what we do for those who know
their place why just yesterday
Polly I said to the woman who
takes care of me my husband don’t
use this red tee and these shoes
take em for Brewster as for the rest
why that was a long time ago
most folks dead and store collapsed
to ruins why you raking it up again
Well you know back then couldn’t no
black man see justice
so when Mr. Wright come out that door
after standing up in court and
pointing out the killers he
was marked for a dead man
had to hightail to the station
leave his cotton in the fields
and get on out of here
I was just a kid
didn’t think like my folks
was ashamed what they be doing
so when they was talking that night
over chicken and collards
saying get the sheets
go rough up some a them teach em
what’s right I snuck off
hid in my closet prayed Pray Lord
didn’t have no words
for my misery just Pray Lord
If you’ll be in Tampa for the AWP, come see Ann and other Black Earth Institute Fellows read from 4-6:30 at the Attic. I’ll be joining them briefly as an About Place contributor.
Mississippi is Ann Fisher-Wirth‘s fifth book of poems; it is a poetry/photography collaboration with the acclaimed Delta photographer Maude Schuyler Clay. Other books include Dream Cabinet, Carta Marina, Blue Window, and Five Terraces. With Laura-Gray Street she coedited the groundbreaking Ecopoetry Anthology, with an introduction by Robert Hass. Former President of ASLE, recipient of senior Fulbrights to Switzerland and Sweden, she is a fellow of the Black Earth Institute, and has had residencies at Djerassi, Hedgebrook, The Mesa Refuge, and CAMAC/Centre d’Art Marnay. She teaches at the University of Mississippi and directs the minor in Environmental Studies. She also teaches yoga at Southern Star in Oxford, MS.
Early in her career, Maude Schuyler Clay assisted the photographer William Eggleston. She received the Mississippi Arts and Letters award for photography in 1988, 1992, 2000, and 2016, and the Mississippi Art Commission’s Individual Artist Grant in 1998. The University Press of Mississippi published Delta Land in 1999. Her work is in the collections of The Museum of Modern Art, The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and The National Museum for Women in the Arts, among others. Mississippi History was published by Steidl in 2016; another book is forthcoming, and Maude will have a major solo show at the Mississippi Museum of Art in 2019. She lives in the Mississippi Delta.