Letter from Oxford, Mississippi

Home again, I sink in this wet air.
The ceiling fan stirs the same thick juices
of summer. My garden, grown rank in daily rain,
sprawls and rots, this steaming August.
Eggplants and peppers fester. Marigolds blacken.
The sun, where the worm has eaten,
splits and gouges my tomatoes. Black and yellow,
mildew blossoms in the drainboards.

Beautiful, big as my thumb,
pincer-tipped legs cradling her gauzy egg sac,
web with its zigzag Jacob’s ladder
stretching to fill my kitchen window,
the spider starves,


Something wants me to sleep, to sink
heavy into the bonedrowse of summer, wants me to
live in this place and not tell its story…
to roll my window up, ignore the swollen stench
of roadkill on the road, putrefaction
thick and sweet, swaddled by kudzu in ditches…
to forget what I have driven by
and dreamed: mud, earthsprawl, tangle
of thicket, they led the three men out
where night boiled with cicadas;
they had dug the earthen dam
for Schwerner, Chaney, Goodman
near the fairgrounds in Neshoba­–

and Jordan, left guarding the entrance,
came running, shouting, “Save one for me!”
and Chaney, the black man,
was last to die, and Jordan, wiping his gun
on his pants, said, “You didn’t leave me
nothing but a nigger, but at least
I got a nigger.”


I want to tell you.

Seven white men
have taken Henry Lowry
from Sardis, Mississippi
to Wilson, Arkansas.
It is 1921. En route
they stop for lunch.
(Do they chat with the
reporter? He
writes in medias res:
“Nothing has occurred
to mar the serenity
of the party’s journey.”)
It is January. The vines
have no leaves, the unpicked
bolls of cotton hang
from brittle stalks, the
ground perhaps has frozen.
With the Mississippi
on one side and a huge lake
on the other, five hundred
people watch him as,
lit by small leaves and
gasoline, once or twice
he tries to reach and eat
hot coals to die
faster as flesh drops
from his legs but they
kick the coals away and
then when the flames lick
his abdomen two men begin
to question him, Yes, he says,
Yes he killed the man who owned
the farm where he was tenant,
Yes he killed the daughter.
Among those in
the crowd are Lowry’s wife
and children. Words fail
to describe– ­the second
reporter notes­– words fail
to describe the sufferings
of this man. He burns
for forty minutes, care-
fully ignited, inch
by inch. Only once
does he cry out.

The townsfolk came
to “converse” with him
while the white men
ate that leisurely lunch.
And he was all alone.

Nerve end
by nerve end.
Minute by minute.


I walk past the jail near my house.
Black men lean on the chainlink fence,
too hot and listless for trouble.
Bone-heavy with death, all you can think in the summer is
this land wants to climb on me and kill me.
And again and again, when I drive up the road
past the gully, I see the ghost,
Joe Christmas, hands manacled, running
and dodging through the kudzu, through the snakes
and briars, the wet thick lethal Mississippi August.
Fatherless, fugitive, he runs and feints
toward his only hope, the defrocked man of God,
only to discover that he has
already failed him. Done damned in Jefferson, I tell you,
and as we shuffle through these streets
where sun blisters the tar
till it smells of sweet sharp sin
and shines like the wings
of the fallen angels,
we know it.

– ann fisher-wirth



"Letter from Oxford, Mississippi" was first published in The Georgia Review and appears in Ann Fisher-Wirth's Blue Window (Archer Books, 2003).