A heroic crown of sonnets

9780618397525One of the coolest things about strict poetic form, to me, is the way it forces the writer to choose carefully, stretch her brain, and bend language into just the right shape without breaking it. And so, here’s Marilyn Nelson’s A Wreath for Emmett Till.

First, a note on content: Like many of Marilyn Nelson’s other (award-winning, brilliant) books for children and young adults, A Wreath for Emmett Till tells a nonfiction story through poetry. This, obviously, is the story of Emmett Till, the African-American boy who was murdered in 1955 by two white men when he was visiting Mississippi and allegedly whistled at a white woman. Somehow, I managed not to encounter Emmett Till’s story until I was an adult and I picked up this book, which sent me off to read everything else I could get my hands on about this horrifying case.

And I think that visceral response on my part was because of this form. Nelson tells Emmett Till’s story through a heroic crown of sonnets. The book contains fifteen poems. In the first fourteen, the last line of one poem becomes the first line of the next. The fifteenth sonnet is composed of those fourteen linking lines. It’s also an acrostic, so the first letter of each line read vertically spells out “RIP EMMETT L TILL.” Altogether, the poem forms a circle, almost like a wreath of word-flowers. It’s also just the most incredible feat of verbal engineering I’ve ever seen.

In her introduction, Nelson says: “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.”

You need to read the entire poem to get the full effect, but to tide you over, here’s the closing sonnet:

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.

(In addition to the opening author’s note [“How I Came to Write This Poem”], the book includes excellent back matter: a historical note on Emmett Till’s story; individual notes on each of the sonnets and their literary, historical, and biographical allusions; an artist’s note; and references for further reading. Librarians love it.)

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