It’s probably safe to say that no state is burdened with a more complicated reputation than Mississippi’s. In the minds of some, the Magnolia State is a bleak, poverty-plagued region, irrevocably warped by a particularly deranged strain of racism. For others, it’s a place of almost mythic beauty and cultural richness, where the ghosts of a brutal past have helped foster the genius of artists ranging from Robert Johnson to William Faulkner to Jesmyn Ward. In Mississippi, poet Ann Fisher-Wirth and photographer Maude Schuyler Clay collaborate to create a nuanced portrait of the state, one that transcends the usual stereotypes and captures its compelling character.
Clay, a Mississippi native who lived for a time in Memphis, is known for her haunting black-and-white photographs of the state’s landscape and its free-roaming canine population , as well as for her superb color portraits. The forty-seven photographs in Mississippi, all of them color, are a mix of landscapes, interiors, and still lifes, with only a single portrait. These photos are less dream-like than her black-and-white work, but her intimate understanding of Mississippi’s strange beauty is evident throughout—in the tangled reflections and shadows of a cypress swamp, a glimpse of a decaying old house through bare winter trees, and the play of light between the plowed rows of a waterlogged field.
Water is a dominant element in many of the shots, especially in one extraordinary image of a small wooden church surrounded by what seems to be a receding flood. The odd roofline of the building is stark against a gray sky, and the picture evokes a sense of Biblical calamity beyond the ordinary vagaries of the Delta climate.
The poem that accompanies the photo of the flooded church is, like much of Ann Fisher-Wirth’s exquisite work in Mississippi, a character piece, delivered in the local vernacular. In this case it’s a brother’s eulogy that draws heavily on conventional rural virtues:
He built his house when he was young
chose every nail and drove it straight
and when he got it built he saw a little redhead
and determined he would marry her
Jimmy and Lorrie praise God amen
was married in peace for nearly 28 years.
This speech, especially to non-Southern ears, might seem to venture too near the edge of caricature, but Fisher-Wirth is simply rendering the voice with unapologetic accuracy. A native of Washington, D.C., Fisher-Wirth came to Mississippi thirty years ago to teach in the University of Mississippi’s creative-writing program, and she has a transplant’s keen ear for the rhythms and oddities of the local dialect-or rather, dialects. As she says in the book’s introduction, “I honor the voices, no matter whose they are, both white and African American. I love the rich orality of Mississippi culture, and have tried to express it.”
Her poems and Clay’s photos are in lively dialogue with one another, and the words and images combine to create richer stories than either would alone. Clay’s shot of an eccentric wall display that appears to be a memorial shrine to a Bichon Frise is placed opposite a woman’s funny/mean recollection of a failed romance: “Had to dump him after that. Jig Jig / dumb as an egg. Me with my literary future.”
Not all the stories are lighthearted. There’s no shying away from Mississippi’s enduring association with racism. The Confederate flag and Emmett Till come up, but there are more subtle references as well. A photo of serene crystal swans gazing at their reflection in a mirrored base accompanies another of Fisher-Wirth’s voices, this one white and feminine, fretting over the hatred that might lurk within:
I’m scared if I get senile
like my mama
I’ll start thinking, like she did,
that every black man is out to rob me.
Not all Fisher-Wirth’s cultural observations are so grim. There are youthful voices here, and contemplative and happy ones, as well. Many of Clay’s photos, especially the still lifes, are simply beautiful. Considered as a whole, Mississippi is a mindful celebration of a difficult place. It’s a true portrait, clearly done with love.
Maria Browning is a fifth-generation Tennessean who grew up in Erin and Nashville. Her work has appeared in Guernica, Literary Hub, and Still. She is the managing editor of Chapter 16.