Poor People begins with a “Hymn to the Tenants”:
I will learn the blues
and go down the tobacco-middles with little pay
climb the tierpoles in the curingbarns
go down to the creek where the stray dog
hunts a piece of meat
where the blind man cries How we do, Sweet Jesus!
But the hymn turns quickly to the dark part of the story Shelby’s been writing full-on since publishing Family Matters in 2007, with “Old Man Pip Fellers”
telling me how there were bloodstains–
slave-blood–on the railing going up stairs
and when I go back home
between Cleveland School and McGee’s Crossroads
I will ask the old people to tell
me what happened to these people–Marcelline and Marceleach
and I hear how
they could sing to make the tobacco button out better
and in their presence I could not sing at all.
No sign yet, in this 1998 chapbook, of July, the slave girl.
In its table of contents, Poor People is also a kind of cast-of-characters compilation for some who’ve lived on Paul’s Hill, in Shelby’s boyhood and before it :
Percy, the poorest man / I’ll ever know for sure. . . and his wife, Minnie, using a spoonhandle to pinch out the morning glory and mullein. . . and a host of others from the farm, eaters of “Potted Meat and Soda Crackers.”
And also poems named for Jad, Seth, Lula Morgan, Molly, Daphne, Millard, Henry and Thelma, Algie, Lee Terry, and near the end, in “Field Hands,” snapshots of Annie Mae, Mae Dinah, Hallie Sanders, and Buddy Dublin.