This slim book of poetry was a surprise. At first, because it looks like a child’s picture book. Later, because of the poetry itself.
The name Emmett Till was vaguely familiar, but sadly, not enough to have been able to say who he was. The book description, above, has a short version of his story, for more, I offer you Wikipedia. As I write this, we are 5 days past the murders of 9 African Americans in a church, in a state that still flies the Confederate Battle Flag over its capitol building. Till’s death was a pretty key moment in the history of the Civil Rights Movement. Without going too much further into this rabbit hole, it’s pretty clear that Emmett’s story is still relevant today.
Setting aside the content of the poetry for a moment, the sheer technical artistry of this book made me gasp out loud at one point. It is structured as a heroic crown of sonnets: fifteen interlinked sonnets (a sonnet is a 14 line rhyming poem in iambic pentameter). A crown of sonnets are connected by their first and last lines: the last line of a poem becomes the first line of the next poem, sometimes with slight alteration. A heroic crown takes this one step further: the 15th poem is made up of the first lines of all of the poems. And! The first letters of those first lines in that final poem, spell out RIP EMMETT TILL.
I think that what amazes me about good poetry is the adherence to such specific rules, in a way that the rules become invisible, the words don’t feel shoehorned into the pattern, they were meant to be there, in that particular structure.
I read this book several weeks ago. I was looking through it just now to refresh my memory about the content. I’m going to include one of the poems without further comment, because I find myself unable to add anything else.
Mutilated boy martyr, if I could,
I’d put you in a parallel universe,
give you a better fate. There is none worse.
I’d let you live through a happy boyhood,
let your gifts bloom into a livelihood
on a planet that didn’t bear Cain’s curse.
I’d put you in a nice, safe universe,
not like this one. A universe where you’d
surpass your mother’s dreams. But parallel
realities may have terrorists, too.
Evil multiples to infinitude,
like mirrors facing each other in hell.
You were a wormhole history passed through,
transformed by the memory of your victimhood.
Source: Nelson, Marilyn. A Wreath for Emmett Till. Houghton Mifflin, 2005