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A Wreath for Emmett Till
Transcript of A Wreath for Emmett Till
Rosemary for remembrance, Shakespeare wrote:
a speech for poor Ophelia, who went mad
when her love killed her father. Flowers had
a language then. Rose petals in a note
said, I love you; a sheaf of bearded oat
said, Your music enchants me. Goldenrod:
Be careful. Weeping-willow twigs: I’m sad.
What should my wreath for Emmett Till denote?
First, heliotrope, for Justice shall be done.
Daisies and white lilacs, for Innocence.
Then mandrake: Horror (wearing a white hood,
or bare-faced, laughing). For grief, more than one,
for one is not enough: rue, yew, cypress.
Forget-me-nots. Though if I could, I would 2
Forget him not. Though if I could, I would
forget much of that racial memory.
No: I remember, like a haunted tree
set off from other trees in the wildwood
by one bare bough. If trees could speak, it could
describe, in words beyond words, make us see
the strange fruit that still ghosts its reverie,
misty companion of its solitude.
Dendrochronology could give its age
in centuries, by counting annual rings:
seasons of drought and rain. But one night, blood,
spilled at its roots, blighted its foliage.
Pith outward, it has been slowly dying,
pierced by the screams of a shortened childhood. 3
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. 4
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. 5
Her 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? 6
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 multiplies to infinitude,
like mirrors facing each other in hell.
You were a wormhole history passed through,
transformed by the memory of your victimhood. 7
Erase the memory of Emmett's victimhood.
Let's write the obituary of a life
lived well and wisely, mourned by a loving wife
or partner, friends, and a vast multitude.
Remember the high purpose he pursued.
Remember how he earned a nation's grief.
Remember accomplishments beyond belief,
honors enough to make us ooh, slack-jawed,
as if we looked up at a meteor shower
or were children watching a fireworks display.
Let America remember what he taught.
Or at least let him die in a World Trade tower
rescuing others, that unforgettable day,
that memory of monsters, that bleak thought. 8
The memory of monsters: That bleak thought
should be confined to a horror-movie world.
A horror classic, in which a blind girl
hears, one by one, the windows broken out,
an ax at the front door. In the onslaught
of terror, as a hate-filled body hurls
itself against her door, her senses swirl
around one prayer: Please, God, forget me not.
The body-snatchers jiggle the doorknob,
werewolves and vampires slaver after blood,
the circus of nightmares is here. She screams,
he screams, neighbors with names he knows, a mob
heartless and heedless, answering to no god,
tears through the patchwork drapery of our dreams. A sonnet is a 14 line lyric poem,
usually written in iambic pentameter.
There are two major types of sonnets. A Wreath for Emmett Till is written in Italian or Petrarchan Sonnets. The English (or Shakespearean) Sonnet
has three quatrains (four-line units) followed by a concluding couplet (two-line unit).
The three quatrains often express related ideas or examples; the couplet sums up the poet's conclusion or message.
The rhyme scheme is abab cdcd efef gg. The Italian (or Petrarchan) Sonnet contains one eight-line octave and a six-line sestet. The rhyme scheme is abbaabba
a regular pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables in poetry.
Meter is measured in units called feet.
A foot usually consists of one stressed and one or more unstressed syllables.
The different metrical feet found in English poetry are iambs, trochees, anapests, dactyls, and spondees.
metrical line is named for the type of foot and the number of feet in the line. Diameter is two feet, trimeter three feet, tetrameter four feet, and pentameter five feet.) Iambic Pentameter is a line of five feet with each foot containing one unstressed followed by one stressed syllable.
A Wreath for Emmett Till is written in iambic pentameter. A symbol is a person, place, thing, or event that
stands both for itself and for something beyond
itself. Allusion is a reference to a statement, a person, a place,
an event, or a thing that is known from literature,
history, religion, myth, politics, sports, science, or the arts.
Both symbolism and allusion can be found throughout the
sonnets of A Wreath for Emmett Till. 9
Tears, through the patchwork drapery of dream,
for the hanging bodies, the men on flaming pyres,
the crowds standing around like devil choirs,
the children’s eyes lit by the fire’s gleams
filled with the delight of licking ice cream,
men who hear hog screams as a man expires,
watch-fob good-luck charms teeth pulled out with pliers,
sinners I can’t believe Christ’s death redeems,
your ash hair, Shulamith--Emmett, your eye,
machetes, piles of shoes, bulldozed mass graves,
the broken towers, the air filled with last breaths,
the blasphemies pronounced to justify
the profane, obscene theft of human lives.
Let me gather spring flowers for a wreath. 10
Let me gather spring flowers for a wreath.
Not lilacs from the dooryard, but wildflowers
I’d search for in the greening woods for hours
of solitude, meditating on death.
Let me wander through pathless woods, beneath
the choirs of small birds trumpeting their bowers,
disturbing their peace. I cling to the faith
that innocence lives on, that a blind soul
can see again. That miracles do exist.
In my house, there is still something called grace,
which melts ice shards of hate and makes hearts whole.
I bear armloads of flowers home, to twist
into a circle: trillium, Queen Anne’s lace... 11
Trillium, apple blossoms, Queen Anne’s lace,
woven with oak twigs, for sincerity...
Thousands of oak trees around this country
groaned with the weight of men slain for their race,
their murderers acquitted in almost every case.
One night five black men died on the same tree,
with toeless feet, in this Land of the Free.
This country we love has a Janus face:
One mouth speaks with forked tongue, the other reads
the Constitution. My country, ‘tis of both
thy nightmare history and thy grand dream,
thy centuries of good and evil deeds,
I sing. Thy fruited plain, thy undergrowth
of mandrake, which flowers white as moonbeams. 12
Indian pipe, bloodroot. White as moonbeams,
their flowers. Picked, one blackens, and one bleeds
a thick red sap. Indian pipe, a weed
that thrives on rot, is held in disesteem,
though it does have its use in nature’s scheme,
unlike the rose. The bloodroot poppy needs
no explanation here: Its red sap pleads
the case for its inclusion in the theme
of a wreath for the memory of Emmett Till.
Though the white poppy means forgetfulness,
who could forget, when red sap on a wreath
recalls the brown boy five white monsters killed?
Forgetting would call for consciencelessness.
Like the full moon, which smiled calmly on his death. 13
Like the full moon, which smiled calmly on his death.
Like the stars, which fluttered their quicksilver wings.
Like the unbroken song creation sings
while humankind tramples the grapes of wrath.
Like wildflowers growing beside the path
a boy was dragged along, blood spattering
their white petals as he, abandoning
all hope, gasped his agonizing last breath.
Like a nation sending its children off to fight
our faceless enemy, immortal fear,
the most feared enemy of the human race.
Like a plague of not knowing wrong from right.
Like the consciencelessness of the atmosphere.
Like a gouged eye, watching boots kick a face. 14
Like his gouged eye, which watched boots kick his face,
we must bear witness to atrocity.
But we are whole: We can speak what we see.
People may disappear, leaving no trace,
unless we stand before the populace,
orators denouncing the slavery
to fear. For the lynchers feared the lynchee,
what he might do, being of another race,
a great unknown. They feared because they saw
their own inner shadows, their vicious dreams,
the farthest horizons of their own thought,
their jungles immune to the rule of law.
We can speak now, or bear unforgettable shame.
Rosemary for remembrance, Shakespeare wrote. 15
Rosemary for remembrance, Shakespeare wrote.
If I could forget, believe me, I would.
Pierced by the screams of a shortened childhood,
Emmett Till’s name still catches in my throat.
Mamie’s one child, a body thrown to bloat,
Mutilated boy martyr. If I could
Erase the memory of Emmett’s victimhood,
The memory of monsters...That bleak thought
Tears through the patchwork drapery of dreams.
Let me gather spring flowers for a wreath:
Trillium, apple blossoms, Queen Anne’s lace,
Indian pipe, bloodroot, white as moonbeams,
Like the full moon, which smiled calmly on his death,
Like his gouged eye, which watched boots kick his face.