A Wreath for Emmett Till
Pierced by the screams of a shortened childhood,
my heartwood has been scarred for fifty years
by what I heard, with hundreds of green ears.
That jackal laughter. Two hundred years I stood
listening to small struggles to find food,
to the songs of creature life, which disappears
and comes again, to the music of the spheres.
Two hundred years of deaths I understood.
Then slaughter axed one quiet summer night,
shivering the deep silence of the stars.
A running boy, five men in close pursuit.
One dark, five pale faces in the moonlight.
Noise, silence, back-slaps. One match, five cigars.
Emmett Till’s name still catches in the throat.
Emmett Till’s name still catches in my throat,
like syllables waylaid in a stutterer’s mouth.
A fourteen-year-old stutterer, in the South
to visit relatives and to be taught
the family’s ways. His mother had finally bought
that White Sox cap; she’d made him swear an oath
to be careful around white folks. She’s told him the truth
of many a Mississippi anecdote:
Some white folks have blind souls. In his suitcase
she’d packed dungarees, T-shirts, underwear,
and comic books. She’d given him a note
for the conductor, waved to his chubby face,
wondered if he’d remember to brush his hair.
Her only child. A body left to bloat.
Your only child, a body thrown to bloat,
mother of sorrows, of justice denied.
Surely you must have thought of suicide,
seeing his gray flesh, chains around his throat.
Surely you didn’t know you would devote
the rest of your changed life to dignified
public remembrance of how Emmett died,
innocence slaughtered by the hands of hate.
If sudden loving light proclaimed you blest
would you bow your head in humility,
your healed heart overflow with gratitude?
Would you say yes, like the mother of Christ?
Or would you say no to your destiny,
mother of a boy martyr, if you could?
From A Wreath for Emmett Till, by Marilyn Nelson. Text copyright ©2005 by Marilyn Nelson. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
Born in Cleveland, Ohio, Marilyn Nelson is the daughter of a member of the last graduating class of Tuskegee Airmen. She is the author or translator of 17 poetry books, including Faster Than Light, winner of the 2013 Milton Kessler Poetry Award; The Fields of Praise: New and Selected Poems, winner of the 1998 Poet’s Prize and a finalist for the National Book Award; Carver: A Life in Poems, winner of the 2001 Boston Globe/Hornbook Award and the Flora Stieglitz Straus Award; and Fortune’s Bones, a Coretta Scott King Honor Book and a Newberry Honor Book. Nelson’s many honors include two NEA creative writing fellowships, the 1990 Connecticut Arts Award, a Fulbright Teaching Fellowship, a Guggenheim fellowship, the Frost Medal, and the Lion and the Unicorn Award for Excellence in North American Poetry. She was the Poet Laureate of Connecticut from 2001 to 2006.
I was nine years old when Emmett Till was lynched in 1955. His name and history have been a part of most of my life. When I decided to write a poem about lynching for young people, I knew that I would write about Emmett Till . . . lynched when he was the age of the young people who might read my poem. After revisiting what I knew about lynching, reading more about it, and growing increasingly depressed, I knew that I would write this poem as a heroic crown of sonnets. . . . When I decided to use this form, I had seen only one heroic crown of sonnets, a fantastically beautiful poem by the Danish poet Inger Christensen. Instead of thinking too much about the painful subject of lynching, I thought about what Inger Christensen’s strategy must have been. The strict form became a kind of insulation, a way of protecting myself from the intense pain of the subject matter, and a way to allow the Muse to determine what the poem would say. I wrote this poem with my heart in my mouth and tears in my eyes, breathless with anticipation and surprise. [The foregoing remarks are drawn from “How I Came to Write this Poem,” introduction to A Wreath for Emmett Till—Editor.]