Please note, ladies and gentlemen: ‘One would like to be a Medusa’s head’ to…seize the natural as the natural by means of art!
One would like to, by the way, not I would.’
This means going beyond what is human, stepping into a realm which is turned toward teh human but uncanny–the realm where the monkey, the automatons and with them…oh, art, too, seems to be at home.” Paul Celan, The Meridian
Heading due West out of Atlanta on interstate 20, past Birmingham, then past Tuscaloosa the four lane stretches and throws off all giant billboards, commercial signs, and forsakes most exits. There are several exits that throw the driver into pure country roads, where GPS can pause in confusion for a bit (Take exit 40 and wind slowly though nowhere, few houses, many trees). Burn straight though to Meridian (unlike Atlanta which announced itelf by congestion 50 miles outside the city prope) a gign says Meridian, you crop the hill and well, there it is Meridian, hometown of the legendary singing brakeman Jimmie Rogers and most recently actress Sela Ward, and not to forget Weidman’s a 100 year old restaurant, where we had one of the best meals in recent memory. Oddly enough Meridian was also featured in the opening scenes in the first Fantastic Four movie, home to a yet to be recruited mutant. I know the feeling. A town with population somewhere around forty fire thousand when he would visit it as kid. He thought it a raging metropolitan area. It’s also the title of a prose piece by Paul Celan which is neither here nor there but you may encounter snippets from it as we go along. If for no other reason than it is one of my favorite essays.
Turning off of interstate 20 you take state route 19 all the way to Philadelphia for some 35 miles or so. Coming out of Meridian, you stay on 4 lane before it gets serious and chugs down to two lanes. Not too long ago it was all two lane, dribbling out of Meridian and then drilling straight though gothic southern forests, past abandoned ESSO gas stations. Small clapboard houses, and Kudzu (should be the official plant of MS, not the Magnolia. Brought in as a foraging crop for cattle and erosion control in the thirties, it, like another Mississippi crop, the blues, found its true home and began to conquer the world in earnest. And of course much earlier there was cotton. I guess they all fit together.)
A few miles before you enter Philly on 19 is a non-descript dirt road. Down aways was the burial site of Michael Schwerner, James Earl Chaney, and Andrew Goodman in an earthen dam, three kids killed by racist bigots during Freedom Summer in MS in 1964. (The story is well told elsewhere; only recently has there been some closure of the case). Suffice it to say that it was a kindling sort of environment, brutal, incendiary, the feeling everywhere (so hard to describe now, textures spoken as well as unspoken were ringing chords all over) that Something Big was happening or at least on the way. Revolution and a feeling of fatefulness and watchful expectation was everywhere. Politics was in turmoil (the brutality of the Chicago Democratic Convention was coming). Assassinations were the order of the day. A man on the moon was due coming up, riots seemed to be everywhere, the psychedelic revolution was underway, Timothy Leary meeting with the Black Panthers, a feeling of the arrival of a cosmic conscious was ubiquitous.
During that same period, 1963 to be precise, his cousin Ricky, four years his senior, Nineteen years old, living in the Delta with his parents, was murdered on a frog gigging expedition in swamp area outside of Oxford MS. His companion was shot and mutilated, Ricky was shot in the head. Nothing was ever discovered (or told anyway) about what happened. The FBI came down to investigate and left just as promptly as they came, having come to no conclusion. It
remains a mystery down to this day. One newspaper reporter called it ‘the dirty deltasecret’.
Grandparents died or were killed in auto accidents. It began to feel like a slaughterhouse down here. The general and the specific turmoils seemed to collide in a very close everyday manner. My father would never tell folks where we were from. In 1961 the Bennie and Martha Cheatham family got the hell out of Dodge, but still coming back at every opportunity, holidays and funerals alike.
Things seemed to be exploding and imploding simultaneously everywhere.