I Hear the Mississippi Summer Calling

The smell of a Mississippi summer is a dirt and weed smell, hot and bitter and full of insect noises and blaring sunlight and popping grass seeds that scent the air black and loamy so that your mind wanders to your toes and the dirt below and the small things that crawl inside the cool dark earth. But, in a flash, the blazing sun will bring you back to your world, the human world above, where the heat churns the growing smell, packing it into layers that fill the spaces between the draping honeysuckle and the broad-leafed hydrangea, the needly pines and the big-headed poison oak. Acrid, stringent, porous—the smell comforts like a green stem broken, weeping into my fingers.

Rain won’t make the smell bow out. Heavy clouds only re-form the scent into an uplifted storm, flooded grass waving in clear water, backyard mounds of rain-slicked clay.  

Or steam rising from baked concrete.  

Or magnolia blossoms ringing through the newly-drenched night.

A smell that dense, you’d think it could never be lost, but you’d be wrong. Its stamp is easily washed away by years of moderate lands, civilized places, articulated loves. And even if it lingers and is remembered, too often the mind will interrupt, the curtain of smell will part, the knowledge of the Mississippi past will invade and the sweet, dirty perfume of my home state will evaporate into righteousness, severity and decay.

If I’m blessed by its return, it arrives, patient but thickening, to round and throb the air until it hovers like a Genie just outside my stretching fist, grasped and released, grasped and released. And when it is finally grasped, I’m called back again, into the pine trees of Sunday afternoon, thick old pines whose branches begin at scrambling height and whose trunks are scarred with rutted sap—hardened, milky, streaked with reality. 

Up in the covering scent of the tree, I bend the rubbery branches until I can peer inside the green cones flowering with yellow pollen, then sit back into the vee and pick the layers of bark—crumpled and pleated on top, smooth as gray slate beneath—and drop them through the branches to the lacerated ground below.

Hot pine straw. Heated brambles. Lightly fluttering mimosa gowns.  

Mississippi, come back to me, quickly, this summer.

(I’m gonna credit WKNO-Memphis for first airing this essay, though for the life of me I can’t remember if they did or not. Happy Summer!)

Mississippi Summer, Summer 2018, summertime in the south

Comments (10)

  • Ellen, I love this. As a piece of writing it is intensely evocative of a place I have only visited in my mind but which, with your help I can touch and taste and smell as though I have known it all my life. As it happens, I have just crossed over to this USA from Europe for a long and maybe forever life. My husband and I (why do I sound like the blinking Queen of England all of a sudden when I write that?) are planning to fly down to Mississippi and drive south to Louisiana over several days staying where we stop and hoping to feel this place for ourselves that has so long niggled the back of my mind. Therefore, apart from being a superb piece of prose, this essay feels like kismet in my inbox 🙂

    • That is the coolest, most serendipitous thing. I know you will love south Louisiana–are you doing New Orleans or further toward the mouth of the river? If you’re in NOLA, try out our son’s restaurant–Peche. It really is good (a double James Beard award winner), and that would be even cooler for y’all to go there. And let me know what you think about Mississippi. It’s a complicated place, past and present. Safe, happy travels!

    • Thank you, Joanne. This is an old piece, and it made me wonder if I were more willing to play with language back then. I seem to have gotten so serous and didactic lately. But praise for language coming from a poet is really nice. 🙂

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