Mississippi

In 1963, Mississippi established a state poet laureate position, which is currently held by Beth Ann Fennelly, who was appointed to a four-year term in 2016. Fennelly is the author of three books of poetry, including Unmentionables (W. W. Norton, 2008).

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Mississippi poet laureaute
Beth Ann Fennelly

Beth Ann Fennelly was born in New Jersey and grew up in the Chicago area. She received a BA from the University of Notre Dame in 1993 and an MFA from the University of Arkansas in 1998. From 1998 to 1999, she attended the University of Wisconsin as a Diane Middlebrook Poetry Fellow.

Fennelly is the author of the poetry collections Unmentionables (W. W. Norton, 2008); Tender Hooks (W. W. Norton, 2004); and Open House (Zoo Press, 2002), winner of the 2001 Kenyon Review Prize. The Harvard Review notes, “Beth Ann Fennelly’s poems are consistently dramatic, complex in their perceptions and formal unfolding, and enthralled with language.”

Fennelly has also published two books of nonfiction, including The Tilted World: A Novel (HarperCollins, 2013), which she cowrote with her husband, Tom Franklin.

Fennelly has received grants from the Mississippi Arts Commission, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the State of Illinois Council, among others. She directs the MFA program at the University of Mississippi, where she has taught since 2002. In 2016, she was named Mississippi’s fifth poet laureate. She lives in Oxford, Mississippi.


Bibliography

Poetry
Unmentionables (W. W. Norton, 2008)
Tender Hooks (W. W. Norton, 2004)
Open House (Zoo Press, 2002)

Prose
The Tilted World: A Novel (HarperCollins, 2013)
Great with Child: Letters to a Young Mother (W. W. Norton, 2006)

Beth Ann Fennelly

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Vicksburg National Military Park

Just this—

When they were my sons
I would pull the covers up
around their ears
and tuck them in,
smooth their hair,
kiss their salty eyelids.
Now gingko leaves
make golden blankets
around the tombstone
of a boy from Iowa
and another I can’t read,
and another another
another another another
as far as I can see
scattered across the hillside
this autumn and every
autumn beyond counting.

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 . . ."