Mississippi

State Poet Laureate 

In 1963, Mississippi established a state poet laureate position, which is currently held by Catherine Pierce, who was appointed to a four-year term in 2021. Pierce is the author of four books of poetry, including The Girls of Peculiar (Saturnalia, 2012), which won the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Poetry Prize. 

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Mississippi poet laureaute
Catherine Pierce

Catherine Pierce was born in Delaware. She received a BA from Susquehanna University in 2000, an MFA from Ohio State University in 2003, and a PhD from the University of Missouri in 2007.

She is the author of The Tornado Is the World (Saturnalia, 2016); The Girls of Peculiar (Saturnalia, 2012), which won the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Poetry Prize; and Famous Last Words (Saturnalia, 2008), winner of the Saturnalia Books Poetry Prize. She is the recipient of a 2019 Creative Writing Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Of her work, Aimee Nezhukumatathil writes, “With a jeweler’s eye and an uncanny knack for embracing devastating truths and desires, Pierce rewrites what it means to sift through wreckage of both heart and land.”

The co-director of the creative writing program at Mississippi State University, Pierce was appointed the poet laureate of Mississippi in 2021. She lives in Starkville, Mississippi. 


Bibliography

The Tornado Is the World (Saturnalia, 2016)
The Girls of Peculiar (Saturnalia, 2012)
Famous Last Words (Saturnalia, 2008)

Catherine Pierce

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The Idea of Ancestry

1

Taped to the wall of my cell are 47 pictures: 47 black
faces: my father, mother, grandmothers (1 dead), grand-
fathers (both dead), brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts,
cousins (1st and 2nd), nieces, and nephews. They stare
across the space at me sprawling on my bunk. I know
their dark eyes, they know mine. I know their style,
they know mine. I am all of them, they are all of me;
they are farmers, I am a thief, I am me, they are thee.

I have at one time or another been in love with my mother,
1 grandmother, 2 sisters, 2 aunts (1 went to the asylum),
and 5 cousins. I am now in love with a 7-yr-old niece
(she sends me letters in large block print, and
her picture is the only one that smiles at me).

I have the same name as 1 grandfather, 3 cousins, 3 nephews,
and 1 uncle. The uncle disappeared when he was 15, just took
off and caught a freight (they say). He's discussed each year
when the family has a reunion, he causes uneasiness in
the clan, he is an empty space. My father's mother, who is 93
and who keeps the Family Bible with everbody's birth dates
(and death dates) in it, always mentions him. There is no
place in her Bible for "whereabouts unknown."

 

2

Each fall the graves of my grandfathers call me, the brown
hills and red gullies of mississippi send out their electric
messages, galvanizing my genes. Last yr/like a salmon quitting
the cold ocean-leaping and bucking up his birth stream/I
hitchhiked my way from LA with 16 caps in my pocket and a
monkey on my back. And I almost kicked it with the kinfolks.
I walked barefooted in my grandmother's backyard/I smelled the old
land and the woods/I sipped cornwhiskey from fruit jars with the men/
I flirted with the women/I had a ball till the caps ran out
and my habit came down. That night I looked at my grandmother
and split/my guts were screaming for junk/but I was almost
contented/I had almost caught up with me.
(The next day in Memphis I cracked a croaker's crib for a fix.)

This yr there is a gray stone wall damming my stream, and when
the falling leaves stir my genes, I pace my cell or flop on my bunk
and stare at 47 black faces across the space. I am all of them,
they are all of me, I am me, they are thee, and I have no children
to float in the space between.

Riverbank Blues

A man git his feet set in a sticky mudbank,
A man git dis yellow water in his blood,
No need for hopin', no need for doin',
Muddy streams keep him fixed for good.

Little Muddy, Big Muddy, Moreau and Osage,
Little Mary's, Big Mary's, Cedar Creek,
Flood deir muddy water roundabout a man's roots,
Keep him soaked and stranded and git him weak.

Lazy sun shinin' on a little cabin,
Lazy moon glistenin' over river trees;
Ole river whisperin', lappin' 'gainst de long roots:
"Plenty of rest and peace in these . . ."

Big mules, black loam, apple and peach trees,
But seems lak de river washes us down
Past de rich farms, away from de fat lands,
Dumps us in some ornery riverbank town.

Went down to the river, sot me down an' listened,
Heard de water talkin' quiet, quiet lak an' slow:
"Ain' no need fo' hurry, take yo' time, take yo'
time . . ." Heard it sayin'—"Baby, hyeahs de way life go . . ."

Dat is what it tole me as I watched it slowly rollin',
But somp'n way inside me rared up an' say,
"Better be movin' . . . better be travelin' . . .
Riverbank'll git you ef you stay . . ."

Towns are sinkin' deeper, deeper in de riverbank,
Takin' on de ways of deir sulky Ole Man—
Takin' on his creepy ways, takin' on his evil ways,
"Bes' git way, a long way . . . whiles you can. Man got his
sea too lak de Mississippi Ain't got so long for a whole lot longer way,
Man better move some, better not git rooted Muddy water fool you, ef you stay . . ."

On the Mississippi

Through wild and tangled forests
   The broad, unhasting river flows—
   Spotted with rain-drops, gray with night;
     Upon its curving breast there goes
A lonely steamboat's larboard light,
       A blood-red star against the shadowy oaks;
Noiseless as a ghost, through greenish gleam
Of fire-flies, before the boat's wild scream—
          A heron flaps away
          Like silence taking flight.