The epigraph for the book is taken from Theodore Roethke’s “North American Sequence”: “The imperishable quiet at the heart of form.” This quietness to be found by contemplating the photographs of Maude Schuyler Clay was at the heart of Ann Fisher-Wirth’s poetic process, which involved listening — listening to the voices that spoke their stories somehow in connection, however oblique, with the photographs.
Clay, an alumna who studied art at the university, is a seventh-generation Mississippian; Fisher-Wirth has lived there for 30 years, so the images and words represent long, complicated accumulations and recombinations of visual and linguistic experience.
In her recent memoir The Faraway Nearby, the environmental writer Rebecca Solnit writes: “A place is a story, and stories are geography, and empathy is first of all an act of imagination, a storyteller’s art, and then a way of traveling from here to there.” Mississippi suffers from severe environmental degradation that cannot be separated from its history of poverty and racial oppression. Yet the state also possesses great natural beauty and a rich and complex culture, one interwoven from the many voices that have made up its identity. Mississippi explores both this degradation and this beauty. The poems are explorations of voice in its Mississippi plenitude and variety, honoring the voices, no matter whose they are, whether white or African American, and exploring the rich orality of Mississippi culture. With one exception, the beautiful, haunting photographs do not depict people, but, rather, swamps, fields, trees, lakes, empty chairs, dilapidated buildings. They work with the poems to offer the spirit of place.
Mississippi is a kaleidoscope of landscape and voices grounded in the clay of America’s most maligned state. Here, Ann Fisher-Wirth keeps her heart and finger on the pulse of Mississippi rhythm and blues, centering the reader in an active dimension of image and song. Like the blues, the pain here hurts so good, and the good is a wonder of glee and catharsis. Fisher-Wirth’s rhythmic lines and diction create southern personae leaving us deep in the waters of Clarksdale and other soulful communities. Against Maude Schuyler Clay’s stunning images, these poems spellbind, moving us to reach for something more magical and substantial than the soulless mundane of the everyday world.
— Derrick Harriell, author of Stripper in Wonderland and Ropes
Say what you will about the “disappearance” of the South as an identifiable region of the United States, those of us who live here year round maintain irrefutable body-knowledge of its ongoing uniqueness. This collaboration between two Mississippians, a poet and a photographer, testifies to some of the stubborn specificities that continue to brand the area: landscape and climate; religion and poverty; music and food; speech patterns, and above all, our racial history. Although there are beautiful images here that conjure earlier versions of the South, there is no trace of sentimentality, no romancing of old ideas or outdated mythologies. Through their carefully chosen juxtapositions of spare verse and austere image, Fisher-Wirth and Schuyler Clay imagine for us Mississippi in our global time — still suffering, but striving to emancipate itself from its wounded past that must be reckoned with before healing will come.
— Kate Daniels, author of A Walk in Victoria’s Secret: Poems, director of creative writing, Vanderbilt University
Mississippi, in the text and images of Ann Fisher-Wirth and Maude Schuyler Clay is a land defined by memories of presence and absence: the shadow of people unseen and places abandoned blending with the light of tomorrow morning. In this light we find hope for the salvation of our earth and the human beings who occupy it, as well as a palpable reverence for all the many forms of life which have gone before. The resonant, mystical words and images of this book are an exhalation of beauty, love and hope, a celebration of place that is also a caution reminding us that we are here for only a brief time, imprinting our presence for better or worse, while the land is forever.
— Kathy Vargas, artist/photographer, lyricist, and professor of art, University of the Incarnate Word
Maude Schuyler Clay’s beautiful photographs and Ann Fisher-Wirth’s exquisite poems give us the land and heart of Mississippi, the eternal and personal. The damaging political legacy will pass, this art will remain.
— Andrei Codrescu, author of The Art of Forgetting: New Poems
Fisher-Wirth’s poems are not direct responses to Clay’s photographs. Rather, her poems are voices — sometimes down-home, other times, uptown — that offer a complementary way of calling forth the spirit of a particular landscape. The attention of the eye and the ear are both quickened by this winning collaboration.
— Billy Collins, author of Aimless Love; U.S. Poet Laureate, 2001-2003
All these different voices banging around in one head, that’s Mississippi. And the gas pumps in the weeds, the hitchhiking dog, the shack literally beneath the hill, the unlit but nevertheless heat-warped candles. As large and real as the speakers become in Ann Fisher-Wirth’s beautiful poems, another character surges to the fore, not of a person but of place, of a land as betrayed as it is persistent, as real as it is magical. Maude Schuyler Clay’s photographs prompt these poems with such elegant and haunting images that it’s difficult to recall where the photographs end and the poems begin, which is how it should be. No matter where you’re from, if you’ve ever been homesick, this is your book.
— James Kimbrell, author of Smote and My Psychic