I live just outside the Mississippi Delta in Oxford, MS. Oxford is colloquially referred to as the Velvet Ditch—the idea is that Oxford is comfortable like velvet but hard to climb out of like a ditch. The phrase is evocative enough that it suggests authenticity. And even though some people in Oxford have apologetically embraced the idea as uniquely defining (one can purchase a t-shirt with the words screen printed across the chest from a local boutique on the town’s square) it’s a sentiment not unlike a number of small towns throughout the United States and the American South. The sentiment is similar with regard to the title phrase of Phyllis B. Dooney and Jardine Libaire’s Gravity Is Stronger Here. The phrase is in reference to Greenville, another Mississippi town located approximately two hours southwest of Oxford in the Mississippi Delta but perhaps without as much downy comfort—like being pulled back down slowly to the craggily surface of the moon. The Mississippi Delta is often understood—by deeply held religious beliefs, plain-spoken discrimination, and simple but earnest working class living—as on the periphery of the larger American culture but mythological enough to effect tidal shifts throughout the country. The idea of the Mississippi Delta being of cultural significance however, isn’t necessarily explicitly evidenced in these photographs. But these American characteristics are markers in the lives of the Browns—the family upon whom Dooney focuses the narrative of the book.
One photograph in Gravity Is Stronger Here depicts hands holding an open bible. The book is as worn as the feet in the background are dirty and more lines of scripture are underlined than not. If every line is of such significance, then why bother underlining any? Why not just commit the entire gospel to memory? Perhaps it’s an accumulation—lines of scripture relevant at different times throughout the years, or perhaps it is a difficulty to centralize one’s beliefs because everything piles up like butts in an ashtray in a place like the Mississippi Delta. Count the number of cigarettes (approximately forty including two overflowing ashtrays in 107 photographs) in Gravity Is Stronger Here and that seems more likely the case. The cigarettes, drugs, alcohol, and boredom accumulate like proof of escapism. But if the title of the book is a phrase “a smoker once said” as indicated by the books epigraph then this town sucks you in and holds you in its lungs and the only thing escaping is the puff of smoke from each drag of nicotine, tobacco, and tar; poverty, drug abuse, and lack of opportunity.
Other than poverty, what exactly the cigarettes (and alcohol and drugs) throughout Gravity Is Stronger Here help Dooney’s subject matter escape isn’t fully on display in the photographs alone. Not that poverty is not oppressive enough. Not that it doesn’t promote a feeling of ineptitude. The Browns appear to be stuck and at times seem to not know what to do with their situation any more than what to do in front of the camera. At times they feel very aware of the camera’s presence, mugging unnaturally through their drugs, God, boredom, and a whole lot of doing nothing. But in text and visual clues one learns that the Browns have internal and external struggles. They deal with difficult situations with great self-awareness and honesty. Accompanied by Libaire’s poems the sometimes overly dramatic feels sincere. Halea Brown’s gaze off into distance seems genuine and deeply contemplative. Halea, the protagonist and central character of the family, is a lesbian and is not fully accepted by some members of her family as a result. Jardine Libaire’s poetry tells of domestic abuse—the man who built a hot tub in the house beats the women in his life. The poetry keeps the whole story tethered to an account of what has happened to this family in particular—spousal abuse, drugs, running out of food stamps, segregated living, and non-acceptance of homosexuality. Direct quotes like court testimony are incorporated into most of the poems. Strategies for Joy on Lame-Ass Days is a list of 30 things to do to fight boredom including a basketball hoop in the yard, a friend’s auto-tune app, drugs, marinated steak, and sour candy spray. The poem Call of Duty® includes the stanza:
We Do the Impossible Every Day.
The face of Satan is Obama.
Pope Francis is the Antichrist.
Jupiter Ascending will open your mind.
There’s no way we’re the only
life forms on Earth. Smoke cigarette.
Stare out the window at other doublewides.
This transpires over video games and a crushed pill on the coffee table. Everything that happens inside the Brown’s double wide trailer feels equally dark and difficult. Halea pours a plastic cup full with water over her head in a bathtub missing a curtain or shower head. The only light in the room comes in from the window above. Water is prevalent throughout Gravity Is Stronger Here. Outside the trailer, members of the Brown family spend time in lakes and other natural water ways. Perhaps the weightlessness of being in water is as close to not being pulled in by the gravity as one can get.
In Libaire’s poem Boxing Lesson a verse reads “Don’t think about the match. / Just focus on the form.” Advice from a trainer to not get caught up in the moment. The Brown’s form of dealing with constant oppression is as cyclical as sunrise and sunset. There is a photograph early in the book of train tracks that disappear into the horizon with the sun low in the sky. It is difficult to tell if the tracks point into the town of Greenville or are on their way out or if the sun is rising or setting. Similarly, a photograph late in the narrative of a tricycle and its reflection in a puddle of water suggests that the two tricycles exist in two worlds like day and night simultaneously. The photograph evokes another tricycle photograph—William Eggleston’s famous photograph of a tricycle parked outside a seventies ranch style suburban home. The photograph was taken in Memphis, TN which is two and a half hours north of Greenville, MS.
Eggleston’s tricycle is rusted and slightly worn but is photographed at an angle that suggests new opportunity and growth will prevail and opportunity is waiting if you’ll come find it. Memphis is Eggleston’s adopted home and the largest metropolitan area near the Mississippi Delta. The city is where one can find a job the rural folk are told. It is where one might go to be a part of the American working class, it is one’s Canaan for a paycheck. But what about those without the means to seek it out? Those stuck in their situation. Are they stuck or are they unwilling or ignorant? This is another sentiment that divides our country—to pull oneself up by the bootstraps or to rely upon the assistance of someone else. The Mississippi Delta through Eggleston’s photographs has been much more beautiful than it has been depicted elsewhere, including Dooney and Libaire’s Gravity Is Stronger Here. One delta is a place you might want to live a romantic life of simplicity. The other is a delta where you’ll find nothing to do and little opportunity to get out. Photographs of one delta might lead one to ask, is it really that romantic? The other, one might ask is it really that bad? This is the duality of mythology. The answer to both is yes. A velvet ditch. Mythology, like the photograph, exaggerates. It focuses often upon the extremes—sometimes widely held false beliefs and sometimes a legitimate explanation of phenomenon, often involving the supernatural. Sometimes it’s by God and sometimes it is the temporary eclipse of a crack pipe but almost always Gravity Is Stronger Here depicts attempts to transcend the pull of one more moon phase, one more sunrise and one more sunset.