LaWanda Walters discusses the psychology of civil-rights era Mississippi—drawing parallels between the injustices of segregation and a childhood friend’s illness from anorexia nervosa—and her use of a form of poetry called “the golden shovel” in her Winter 2013 poem “Goodness in Mississippi.”
I am grateful to Terrance Hayes for inventing “the golden shovel,” a form based on Gwendolyn Brooks’s “We Real Cool,” which is subtitled “The Pool Players. Seven at the Golden Shovel.” There are many reasons to invent a poetic form, but this one struck me in the generosity of its inception—its witty homage to Gwendolyn Brooks, its making of a new kind of elegy based on circumstance, race, and fate. In Hayes’s poem, which appears in Lighthead (Penguin, 2010), every line ends with one of the words from Brooks’s poem, in order. If you read the end-words as they progress down the page, you have the text of “We Real Cool.” The result is a kind of fugue, with Brooks’s poem the ground bass—its encompassing tragic limits echoing and commenting on the immediate, personal story of Hayes’s outings with his dad:
He’d been defending his ma, trying to be a man. We
stood in the road, and my father talked about jazz,
how sometimes a tune is born of outrage. By June
the boy would be locked upstate. That night we
got down on our knees in my room. If I should die
before I wake, Da said to me, it will be too soon.
What right did I have, though, to use a form invented by an African American poet to write my “Goodness in Mississippi,” a poem about anorexia nervosa, which has been called “a white girl’s disease”? What right did I have to use the “we real cool” to “we die soon” template to speak of my friend Barbie’s death, years after I knew her, of complications from the disease? But something about the form—perhaps how it acknowledges its debts—gave me the courage to write about a particular “we,” two friends from “school,” one of whom did “die soon.” It allowed me to finish a poem I’d worked on for twenty years.
The original impulse had to do with my realization that the goodness I saw in my friend could be dangerous, a perfectionism carried to extremes, a trait that’s characteristic of anorexia. My daughter was four years old when I started the original poem, and it occurred to me that she looked a little like Barbie—and that, like her, she was much too good. Weren’t the reports from her preschool teachers a bit too positive? “Plays well with others” sounded like a possible symptom. I realize, now, that I wrote about anorexia because I confused what happened to my first friend with the almost superstitious, overwhelming love a parent has for her children. How can I be so lucky? asks the parent who continues to be lucky. Underneath one’s love for a child, there is Ben Jonson’s elegy for his son—the sin of having “too much hope of thee, loved boy.” So I was ripe to hear, in the summer before my girl turned five, news about my old friend that I would take as another thing that can happen to one’s child.
The coincidence of hearing about Barbie felt like fate. I was living in Cincinnati and vacationing in Hilton Head—so many years and miles away from Hattiesburg, Mississippi, when I heard fresh news. My husband and I had taken our daughter and our two-year-old son to Hudson’s, a popular seafood restaurant, the shrimp boats docked just outside by the wharf. Mississippi, by then, was a different planet to me—a place in space and time I no longer knew. I had learned exactly what the teachers had warned us against in Sunday School, how when we went to college the professors would get us not to believe in God and would lead us straight to Hell. I had married a Jewish man and had learned exactly what racism meant. I was enjoying a gin and tonic and the restaurant’s atmosphere, which included the juicy fact that the woman at the next table, with that southern drawl, sounded like she was having a fight with her husband.
But no, I realized as I continued to eavesdrop, they were just a bit drunk and loud. And I decided I really had just heard her say “Hattiesburg.” I hadn’t heard from my friend in twenty years—since my last visit to my grandparents, when she had acted strange on the phone but said yes to lunch the next day, and then stood me up. But I had to ask the woman whether she knew my friend. “Hell, yes, I do,” she said right back. “Whoa, honey, all of Hattiesburg is talking about her. How long have y’all been gone from there? She’s been an anorexic for years—in and out of the hospital. Her husband—that long-suffering, sweet man. He had to bring up their daughter by himself. Oh, yes, he got a divorce from her.”
I had that sense you get in a bad elevator ride—that sudden drop—and, though I couldn’t believe it, I took it in. How could that precious, beautiful girl, whom I’d expected to become a doctor or a famous artist, who was good but never a “goody-goody,” never judgmental or petty, never closed-minded . . . I mean, how did this fit? Later I saw that she did fit the “profile”—a white girl in a well-off home who made the best grades, who participated on committees and in after-school clubs, who, to my disbelieving eyes, used to say she could stand to lose some weight. But it hurts when you have loved a person’s particular kindness and spirit, and then hear that goodness reduced to a stereotype.
Barbie had been my first real happiness outside of home. (School was hell—it was Lord of the Flies for me with my naturally curly hair and the glasses that made my nose look longer.) As I mentioned, it took me years to write this poem. At first I was writing about my anorexic friend. And, as I heard in an early poetry workshop, “You can’t write another ‘Barbie’ poem after Marge Piercy!” Over the years my focus began to zoom in and out. There were details that came to seem so ironic (many no longer in the poem), such as the topic of our first science project together: the basic food groups. There was the red flag of how Barbie never stopped trying to handle things as someone older might have been expected to. When her mother was so suddenly, shockingly dead—her body like a replica in the coffin beside the couch where Barbie and her father sat, being gracious to all of us gawkers at the funeral home—she answered questions for her dad, explaining to people that her baby sister was okay, was in the hospital for “observation.” Where was her sixteen-year-old’s terror and anger at what happened? At the time I just thought how very good she was, how I’d have been screaming at people. She was red-eyed, as was her father, but I saw her working, already, at being a little substitute wife for her dad. I don’t mean anything sexual. But she tried to take her mother’s place—her mother who had chosen to have five more kids after Barbie. I never heard her complain out loud about being the oldest child. I remember her carrying her baby sister around. Her father called her “little mother” once, and I thought he meant it as a sad kind of praise. He married someone else, a divorcée with children, pretty soon afterwards. I think he did it because he thought it would help. Some schoolmate of ours got to be her new sister (I remember feeling usurped, jealous). And I don’t think this effort helped my friend. She didn’t complain, so I think her body started complaining.
When I began to write the poem I did not know that she would die because of anorexia. So “Her life was just beginning” is in the poem because of what I learned years later. Writing that poem and getting older and suddenly realizing I might not ever get to talk to her again made me call up her ex-husband (the steady boyfriend I had known back then) and ask if he knew her phone number. The sense of an ending—to take the title of Frank Kermode’s great critical work—does run the show.
At the same time, I had become more obsessed with my old state, Mississippi. The ironies of not knowing the danger of my friend’s goodness turned into the larger ironies of what goodness itself could even mean in Mississippi when I was there. We went to Hattiesburg High—a segregated school. The years of my intense friendship with Barbie lasted from 1962 through the middle of 1966. The best way for me to describe what Mississippi was like is not to say it in my own words because I was not awake to see it yet; I found the place where I used to live by reading about it—in the memoir of the civil rights activist Dorothy Height, Raise High the Freedom Gates. In it Height discusses the “Wednesdays in Mississippi’ program, which involved a biracial mission of Northern women visiting Mississippi in the 1960s during what were called “freedom summers”:
Mississippi that summer was a nightmarish place, a lawless society in which any white man could appoint himself an enforcer of the “rules”—an ugly, surreal situation in which outsiders were in constant peril.
None of us who were part of WIMS that summer returned home unchanged. What all of us saw of life behind the “cotton curtain” shocked and outraged us. I remember especially one report from a highly successful Negro woman from New York. She wrote:
The thing that touched me the most was the utter lack of communication between the [local] whites and Negroes. I found it stunning. From the time we walked down the ramp until we were back on the plane we had no communication, not even by looks. Their eyes were simply dead. Now I understand why people who have lived in the South have a difficult time adjusting when they come to the North. They have been treated as nothing, and there is nothing so deadly or so chilling as to have a man look at you and not see anything.
It was when I found this passage that some of the shame I feel at having grown up in this atmosphere—having been influenced by it—was somewhat lightened. Oh, I still feel ashamed, but having read the passage by the woman from New York I understand how thick the fog was that we were in. I remember the mosquito trucks that used to drive around the streets, spraying bug poison against the mosquitoes. We breathed it in without questioning it. I even have a bit of a Proustian thing for that old DDT smell. My parents would slather mosquito repellent on my sister and me before we’d go to see a movie at “The Beverly Drive-In.” Our state was cut off from the breeze, the moving air, like a plant in a humid bell-jar. We were protected from seeing others as we saw ourselves—from understanding the selective application of “The Golden Rule” we heard about on Sundays.
This “not knowing” is the heart of my poem. The most important thing I found out during the years between learning about my friend’s illness and writing the poem was my belated knowledge about the murder of a civil rights hero, Vernon Ferdinand Dahmer (the first syllable is pronounced to rhyme with “day”). I was there when it happened. My uncle was the sheriff of Forrest County, so obviously he knew. But I didn’t. There is a terrible blankness in my memories of Mississippi. I don’t remember seeing anyone of color except for our church janitor, a kindly man whom I liked, but whom I also remember because of the gossip I heard about him: “Oh, he sure does like his Coca-Colas” and “He’s addicted to them from back when they made them with cocaine.” Yes, people noticed how much he liked Cokes from the machine because they noticed any time he wasn’t mopping up or cleaning bathrooms. I remember that Coca-Cola machine, and I remember his giving me a quarter so I could have one myself. But it didn’t matter that all of us liked to drink it. Coca-Cola was the watermelon in our church—the myth of laziness and simple joys and no blues. In the meantime, in the part of town called “Palmer’s Crossing,” where many of the African American citizens then lived (most of them not allowed to vote), there was this place called the “Hi-Hat”—now known as a home of the blues, and where B.B. King and Ike and Tina Turner and so many greats from the “Chitlin’ Circuit” appeared. Yes, indeed, the “others” outside the white man’s narrow gaze were there in Hattiesburg.
An African American friend in a poetry workshop, long after I’d grown up, asked me, because I’d written a poem about having a real southern sheriff as an uncle, “Are you related to Gene Walters?” I was relieved when she said, after saying “he arrested my brother one time,” that he was, for a sheriff, “a cool guy.” Later on I heard the same thing from another friend—white, this time—who got arrested by him. So I can hope that he was, at worst, the “moderate white person” King discusses as a problem in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”
I found out about Vernon Dahmer only because I was Googling my Uncle Gene, whose photograph had appeared in the Hattiesburg American (26 January 1968, page one). He looked a little like a movie star, and there he was talking to the prosecutor at a big trial outside the Courthouse. It was 1968 (our family had moved by then), and the police had caught one of the Klansmen responsible for Mr. Dahmer’s death. I started reading about this hero, and I don’t plan ever to stop thinking about this man who lived in our town.
Dahmer, whom Sam Bowers sent eleven Klansmen to assassinate, died because of his concern for others. He was a prominent businessman who had managed the barrier of race well enough to be the owner of a 300-acre commercial cotton farm, a logging camp, and a general store. He’d been targeted by the Klan because he helped people register to vote by letting them sign the forms in his store, thereby helping them avoid the harassment of the racist registrar at the courthouse, and he also offered to pay the poll taxes of those African Americans who could not afford it. Sam Bowers was a particularly hideous segregationist who had been one of the murderers of Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney. He owned “Sambo’s Amusements” in Laurel, Mississippi, and held Klan meetings in the back offices of his store. He was the Imperial Wizard of the White Knights of the Mississippi Ku Klux Klan, the man who gave the order for “either a Project 3 or a Project 4” on Vernon Dahmer’s “case.” Three meant a firebombing and four meant murder.
“If you don’t vote, you don’t count” were Dahmer’s last words in the hospital. He died the day after the night two carloads of Klan members threw bottles full of gasoline through the windows of his home. The family woke at two in the morning to suffer cars honking, gunshots, explosions, and finally the burning of their house. Dahmer broke a back window and got his children, wife and aunt out, but he stayed inside, shooting back at the two cars to give his family time to make it to the barn. One of his bullets hit a car tire, and that was used, later, as evidence for the prosecution. For some reason, on this particular night, Dahmer and his wife had fallen asleep at the same time; for years they had had a system of one staying up on watch while the other slept.
I was almost seventeen that January night in Hattiesburg, and my father was a minister of music at Main Street Baptist Church. There is no way to understand this innocence/ignorance—that my father, who is now ninety (he was forty at the time), says he doesn’t remember hearing about Mr. Dahmer’s death. “I was just interested in church music,” says my father. Of course, the main point of King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” is the danger of “the white moderate,” a person more dangerous, in a sense, than the members of the John Birch Society or the Klan because of his confusing the “status quo” with the acceptable.
The connection I made between what Dahmer suffered for paying other’s poll taxes and my friend’s anorexia makes sense for me (and, of course, I found the internal rhyme of these “twin causes” useful) because Mississippi was a place where appearances felt more important than honesty and love. I don’t even know what the white churches were there for, frankly, except as places to go to show that one was part of a certain group. I think of the beauty of the music my father directed and sang—Bach and Handel and Menotti—music expressive of goodness, but those who sang the choruses and recitatives were untouched by the need for harmony outside, in the real Mississippi air.
So instead of finding things out from my dad I turned to Google, and I have come up with some shocks. There are photographs of the march to the courthouse in protest after Mr. Dahmer’s killing. The white faces are either the policemen arresting people or those famous “outsiders coming in.” There is the funeral. It is January in Mississippi, a place where winters are often so mild that it was, for me, my favorite time. The girl in the coat, who seems to be a relative of the family, and who looks just the age Barbie and I were then, is wearing a winter coat in the same style as mine. Her hairdo is bouffant like mine was at the time—I am sure we must have both worn brush rollers to sleep at night—but her features are prettier, more regular. You can see, even in the black-and-white photograph Winfred Moncrief took of her, that her nose and eyes are just slightly swollen from her tears. She has a handkerchief at her mouth in one of the shots. But she is trying to be good. She is standing there, letting the photographer shoot her picture on a miserable day. She is close to the canvas tent with its scalloped edges hanging against the gray sky. You can see one edge of the coffin the men are carrying into that tent. You can see the real heaviness of hearts in that photograph.
My implication in all of this is extraordinary to me. My uncle was the sheriff, my parents were there, and the photographer whose work I so admire was, for me, back then, just the father of a friend who had been the head of our Beatles’ Fan Club in the ninth grade. There is an amazing collection of photographs at the University of Southern Mississippi, and now I know what an artist he was and the significance of the photographs he took. If you look up “civil rights and Mississippi,” you will see his pictures.
Writing the poem on my childhood friend, I found myself writing about living in time and therefore forgetting the time. Yeats said that man “can embody truth, but cannot know it,” and what the girls in the poem don’t know is of tragic dimensions. They worry about the wrong things (just as I worried wrongly, later, that my daughter would become anorexic because she was good). It is chilling to remember myself washing dishes as a girl, using the night-mirroring window as a pretend television screen, filling a glass with detergent and pretending to drink, in front of the camera, a glass of champagne. The blue-black night window seemed so safe to me—but in fact, outside that window glass, not too far from my backyard, there were Klan meetings, complete with crosses on fire, held in a “pasture” outside of town. I have stared at a photograph of one of those meetings and have wondered whose farm it was. My grandfather owned a farm in Macedonia, just outside Hattiesburg. I wonder how close that Klan meeting was to my grandfather’s farm with its pecan grove and tractor rides.
The coincidence of people living so separately and differently at the same time is a stunning thing. And so I have made use of coincidence in my poem. Even the form was a coincidence—the wonderful poet, Marilyn Nelson, who is a friend on Facebook, talked about Terrance Hayes’s “golden shovel” one day. I had just read Hayes’s book, as well, and so I wanted to try out his invention—I did so with the story of my friend and it worked. I was able to write about those days I hadn’t really known when I lived them. As James Cummins says in his essay on the sestina, you don’t master a form—you “engage” it. And then it may take you for a ride:
It may sound silly, but the sestina taught me how to think in poetry. It taught me what comes next—instead of having to wait for months, or years, while I figured it out for myself.
—from The Best American Poetry 1994, edited by A. R. Ammons and David Lehman (Scribner’s, 1994), pp. 214-15
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