For nearly twenty years Aleda Shirley taught at Mississippi universities and public schools while publishing her poetry. Her efforts won awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Mississippi Arts Commission, and the Kentucky Arts Council, and she helped establish and promote literary programs.
Aleda Shirley was born in Sumter, South Carolina, on 2 May 1955. Her father, Guy Shirley, served in the military, and the family moved frequently during her childhood, which included stints in Tennessee, Texas, the Philippines, and elsewhere. After graduating from the University of Louisville in 1975, she wrote and taught in Kentucky while pursuing a master of fine arts degree at Indiana University. Over the next fifteen years, she worked to promote education and arts-based programs in Kentucky. With grants from the Kentucky Arts Council and the Kentucky Foundation for Women, her position as poet in the schools served as a national model. In 1988 she received a twenty-thousand-dollar grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. She moved to Mississippi in 1990, settling near Jackson with her husband, architect Michael McBride.
Shirley’s first book of poems, Chinese Architecture (1986), won the Poetry Society of America’s 1987 Norma Faber First Book Award. Rilke’s Children followed in 1987, and Silver Ending won the St. Louis Poetry Society’s Stanley Hanks Chapbook competition in 1991. In 1995 she coedited the Mississippi Writers Directory and Literary Guide for the University of Mississippi’s Center for the Study of Southern Culture, and a year later she published another book of poems, Long Distance. Shirley also edited The Beach Book: A Literary Companion (1999) and released Dark Familiar: Poems (2006). Shirley received a Mississippi Arts Commission grant, served as writer in residence at Millsaps College, taught at the University of Mississippi and in public schools, and helped create and direct All Write!, a Mississippi Arts Commission project designed to help students in literacy programs and correctional facilities obtain high school degrees.
Shirley’s poems are noted for their sensory and sensual words and images, evoking taste, sound, and texture. Dark Familiar, her most acclaimed collection, also addresses Mississippi and greater American culture. The collection’s opener, “The Star’s Etruscan Argument” (a title taken from an Emily Dickinson poem) takes place
in the hotel of a casino
on an Indian reservation in the deep south,
a sovereign nation in a county still unable
to resolve a murder forty years old.
It describes “the sound of waitresses / pushing drinks, the click of disposable lighters / the muscular toll of coins hitting metal tray.” Her poems frequently troll the dark overlap of life and death and the rituals, artifacts, visions, and encounters that express this relationship. “The Customary Mysteries” begins,
When they transferred the site of Hades to the air
the Stoics brought the dead into closer proximity
with the living & so for a time the sky
was full of souls.
Transitioning to the present, the poem ends on the modern-day Mississippi Gulf Coast, where the narrator likens a slip of newspaper floating on air to a “soul ascending,” until the scene becomes “littered with planes / pulling banners advertising happy hours & water parks.”
After a long battle with cancer, Aleda Shirley died in Jackson on 16 June 2008. A memorial in her honor was held at the Mississippi Museum of Art.
- Bowling Green Daily News (24 February 1988)
- Glasgow Daily Times (9 July 2008); Mississippi Writers and Musicians website, www.mswritersandmusicians.com
- National Assembly of State Arts Agencies website, http://www.nasaa-arts.org