A Wreath for Emmett Till

I can’t remember the last time a book grabbed on to me and refused to let go like this.  With her heroic crown of sonnets, poet Marilyn Nelson lays A WREATH FOR EMMETT TILL (Houghton Mifflin, $17).  This stunning book is an elegy for the young African-American man who was lynched in Mississippi in August 1955 after he allegedly wolf-whistled at a white woman.  It is a poetic masterpiece and an emotional introduction to an often-forgotten figure in American history.

Emmett’s story is often left out of standard American history classes, but it is well-known in the African-American community and was a galvanizing event for the civil rights movement.  This was the perfect way to encounter his story for the first time.  It is a human story of grief over one person’s death, and also a call to pay attention to injustice all around us in America and in the world at large, today and in the past.  The poem makes reference to everything from Shakespeare and the Bible to twentieth-century genocides and September 11.

The poem is a catharsis for the author, who grew up with Emmett’s story all around her in Chicago’s African-American community.  Its complicated form is almost a protective measure: concentrating on crafting a marvelous piece of language allows Nelson to deal with the pain of thinking about a young man’s senseless death.

The form is truly an incredible achievement, and the book is an education in the art of creating a sonnet.  A sonnet is fourteen lines of iambic pentameter which follow a specific rhyme scheme.  Each poem takes up Emmett’s story from a different perspective.  Then, because this is a heroic crown of sonnets, each poem forces you forward as last line of one sonnet becomes the first line of the next.  The final lines of the first fourteen sonnets fall together perfectly to create the fifteenth sonnet in a closing moment of grief.

Nelson includes notes on each sonnet and a page on Emmett Till’s story in the final pages.  There is also a note on the illustrations, by Philippe Lardy, which are carefully paired with the text.

I wanted to know more, so I picked up Getting Away with Murder: The True Story of the Emmett Till Case (Dial, $18.99), a nonfiction history book that tells Emmett’s story and explains its repercussions.  You can also listen to an interview with Marilyn Nelson on NPR and listen to her reading of the poem.

-Dana Chidiac

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~ by Dana on August 6, 2010.

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