HomeSouthern VoiceTwo Poems by William Heath

Two Poems by William Heath

The Delta

Above Yazoo City a fertile crescent
covers Mississippi’s northwestern corner.
Here for eons floodwaters left a rich
alluvial soil yielding crop after crop
of cotton. When I drove across the Delta
I thought how easy it was to believe
the world was flat and ended at the levee.
For monotonous miles a narrow road,
shimmering in the heat like a mirage
of distant water, faded in front of me
as cotton fields blurred by on both sides.
An occasional weatherboard shack,
tin roof flashing in the sun, broke
this deep green sea of sameness.
A haze of dust hung over the land,
sticking in the throat, coating my skin
the same rusty brown as the earth.
Scattered far back among the rows,
my sweat-stung eyes glimpsed another part
of the picture—heads protected by caps,
hats, handkerchiefs from the relentless sun,
black sharecroppers dragging white sacks.
Then I realized that all those dark
cruddy balls scattered by the roadside,
like thousands of discarded Kleenex,
were old puffs and snarls of cotton too.

A Lynching in Mississippi

December 15, 1923

We sat in shade on the back patio,
sipping lemonade, talking of lynchings
in the Delta. Joe Pullen’s name came up.
A tenant dispute with his landowner,
W. T. Sanders, over who owed what.
Joe used money he saw as his due
to fix his house, buy food for his family.

Sanders rode out to Pullen’s place
along with J. D. Manning, a family
now known for star quarterbacks.
Joe met them, right hand in pocket,
on the front porch. They had a fifty-
dollar dispute; Joe pulled out a pistol,
shot him in the heart.

Some say Sanders had a gun, too,
may have fired first. Manning raced
into Drew, sending a sheriff’s posse
of a hundred men in hot pursuit
of Joe, hiding deep in a bayou.
When hounds sniffed out his lair
he opened fire with deadly effect.

Three men dropped on the spot, others
badly wounded. Manning, hit in the face,
died the next day. Joe had taken his stand
inside a hollow stump half-sunken
in a ditch. To burn him out the mob
poured gallons of gasoline, lit a match,
a machine gun mowed him down.

Still alive, he was tied by his ankles,
dragged through the dusty streets of Drew
to cheers, honking horns, a gruesome
procession. His body left by the road,
a severed ear, preserved in alcohol,
on display in a storefront window
for a long, long time.

As a girl in Ruleville, Fannie Lou Hamer
recalls that Joe was a local hero.
He had killed him some white men.
Drew imposed a curfew—any blacks
seen after sundown were fair game.
Landlords became more circumspect
“settling up” debts with sharecroppers.

William Heath has published two chapbooks, a book of poems, three novels, an award-winning work of history and a collection of interviews with Robert Stone. Visit his website here.

Grief in Polite Soci
Mighty Mimosas