A couple of years later, she “escaped” her small southern town for the Capital (and Capitol), then attained her lifelong dream, marriage and motherhood – as it happened, in Memphis, where I was born.

Now I’m starting the part about Memphis in the 60s. Interesting times, right? Well, this is as far as I’ve gotten:

Another fucking poem

about a city and a woman


Time gives the live

to our mental geography


but still towers suddenly

rise from rice paddies


Troy, Rome, Paterson – don’t go there! Don’t go there! It’s supposed to be about her, not it – and definitely not me. There really is something about approaching the city from Arkansas: you’re riding through the bottomlands and, at some point, you suddenly see these tall buildings, as though a city were emerging on some kind of floating island that had been submerged ’til now. Memphis Under-the-Wave. With its goddam submersible pyramid.



The kicker is that there’s no there there. I expected the Memphis part of this biography project to be easiest: the most people still alive to talk with, the most documentation, the fewest decades between here and there. But quite the reverse: many of her childhood friends in Dyersburg, Tenn. stayed in Dyersburg, Tenn. and had been Part of the Town. And then she had a community of unmarried women in Washington, D.C. But in Memphis, her story is like a lot of middle-class women’s stories in the 1950s and 60s coast-to-coast: a relatively isolated housewife in a nuclear family in the atomic age in a quasi-neighborly neighborhood. She wasn’t active in the Civil Rights Movement (or in the anti-Civil Rights Movement). She was not a person who was documented in any detail. But what happened to the politics? What happened to the art? In that time and place, most women were in their place, which wasn’t any place. Bye bye bye.



Pic-Pac. Big Star. The Chicks. Cotton Carnival. The Brooks. Forrest and his wife in the pediment in the Park. The Pinch. Loeb’s Cleaners + Barbecue. Henry Loeb. Whitehaven. Southaven. Other havens. Soon only I will know what any of this means.



Your childhood is its own geographical location that nobody understands. Place feeds on memory (story).



Beer distributor: “Memphis is a quart town.” FB Friend: “Can a black man take his son to the park without being harassed by the police? Apparently he cannot. That’s a strike against you, Memphis.” Memphis Commercial-Appeal, June 14, 1961: “Major Inquiry Of Police Eyed By Grand Jury: Burglary, Whisky Selling Charges To Be Reviewed In Study Under Way.” CIA psy-ops experiment + a thousand thousand fucking minstrel shows.



“I saw the same signs  . . . on patios in Memphis . . . ‘What do I do?’ you hear her say. ‘Why nothing. I’m just a housewife.’”[i] The “Women’s Section” or “Society Page” wasn’t peculiar to Memphis, but that’s where she lived, not on the front page. She attended the Second Lady’s visit. [music:] “Up, up and away in my beautiful, my beautiful baloooon.” I wore a pilot’s uniform when we went to the airport to pick someone up. We were a happy family, so we all resembled one another.  Perhaps that’s why [I] don’t remember much about her, from the time I started school until the time she got sick: “You’re being silly, Joe,” she says, disapprovingly.



In an earthquake, a River runs backwards, the pull past an event horizon. Their euphemism for African-American humans: “Democrats.” Aristocrats: descended from cotton factors: they wiped it off the m-p so they could cancel the debt. Aristotle. Sociologist friend who works on genocides in Africa, comparing North Memphis to places he’s seen in third world. Well, yeah. Artesianal water. Cobblestones on the bank. The Panther Burns. FB friend’s link: “The Most Miserable City in America.” Me: “You had to read that in a magazine?” FB friend’s cousin: “Joseph, I don’t know you, but that’s my sentiment exactly!” The Well: Never Run Dry. Well, yeah.



They “ceased quite believing that the postcards showed the same city.”[ii] They killed and maimed in the name of a homeland that wasn’t theirs and wasn’t extant. Of course. They can tear down the actual house, sell the farm to Cargill, but even strangers know it’s still the home-place. You take it with you, whatever you are. You can’t imagine how sad all of this really is.



Bluesman: “Memphis is the source of all evil things in the world.” I learned Graceland, Lorraine. I learned “sesquicentennial.” Then we started bussing, and everything changed. Aloha so.



[i]Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique (New York: W.W. Norton & Company), 1997 [orig. pug. 1963].

[ii]Oliver Bullough, “Beslan Meets Columbine.” New York Times Op-Ed Page, 19 April 2013. Web.







Photo by Bethany Ann Khan


About Author

Joseph Harrington is the author of Things Come On (an amneoir) (Wesleyan Univ. Press 2011), a mixed-genre work relating the twinned narratives of the Watergate scandal and his mother's cancer; it was a Rumpus magazine Poetry Book Club selection. He is the author of the chapbooks Earth Day Suite (Beard of Bees 2010) and Of Some Sky (Bedouin, forthcoming), as well the critical work Poetry and the Public (Wesleyan 2002). He is the recipient of a Millay Colony residency and a Fulbright Distinguished Chair.

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