In years past, I lived in Mississippi. I stepped in Mississippi mud. I knew the correct pronunciation of the state which is, in case you were wondering:
Mis'sippi. I drove across the Delta and watched cotton being harvested by a full and hovering-over-the-horizon moon, so big you could ride right into it.
Mississippi is one of those places where the setting IS the character.
Recently, I had a voice in my head of a poem I heard years ago while driving in Oxford at Ole Miss where I did campus ministry. I googled that voice and found it was Beth Ann Fennelly, a poet and associate professor at Ole Miss. I told her I had remembered one of her poems I had once heard on a local radio station, and did she know the one I meant? She most definitely did. We arranged for me to buy a couple of her poetry books at Square Books in Oxford so she could sign them for me, and Square Books would ship them to me in Kentucky.
I like Square Books because it is an independent bookstore, and the story goes that when John Grisham was just starting out, Square Books was about the only bookstore who would give him the time of day and space in their bookstore. As an author I really appreciate that. Square Books is on the corner in the actual square of Oxford, Mississippi. On another corner of the square, you can sit on the bench next to William Faulkner - well, a statue of him anyway.
This morning I received my books and want to share with you one of Ms. Fennelly's poems. She is only one year younger than I am, so that may be why I recognize her voice so very well. I won't tell you which poem made me contact her, but the one that brought tears to my eyes and made me smile as well is called
"Elegy for the Footie Pajamas"
No snap between your legs,
for months. But how? When did I last
gnaw sausages cased in terry-cloth?
When did I last unsnap-snap-snap?
I've gone to the door and I've shouted.
I am missing some-ping. Hey, you,
in your big-girl pj's, don't you have
a little sister? You're giant,
lying down, musing on beanstalks.
What is Mommy doing? I am reading
in a disco. No, it's not a disco,
it's my office with your finger on the switch.
Two years lived under a strobe light-
when I look up, you're there,
then there and there. When I look up,
you've nailed the cha-cha, the fox-trot.
What is Mommy reading?
A book with pages torn out
by Kenny Mullins in grade four.
Kenny Mullins why do you do that I said
he said Because you're fat.
Twenty years later in Starbucks
Kenny Mullins says Sorry about the book
it was a joke! He says Ha-ha-ha!
He says Don't put me in a poem!
Now he's fat, and also bald. Yes,
now I say Ha-ha-ha. I don't like
myself like this. I am leaving
some-ping out. Like me. Do you? Tomorrow
you'll ask for the keys. Answer's no.
buttering me up, you say, Let's play,
Mommy, I be the snake, you be the dark.
Fast child of a fast mother,
it's been years but I haven't forgotten
being the dark. It comes right back. It's like
pushing someone off a training bike.
It is from Beth Ann Fennelly's book called Unmentionables.
If you ask really nicely, I may let you see my signed copy.