Wednesday, April 18, 2018

A Wreath for Emmett Till

My friend who died recently, and whose memorial service I attended during Saturday's snow storm, was a children's book expert and former editor. At her service, she asked that some of her books be available for people to take home and share. Many of them were picture books.

One that I picked up was new to me, A Wreath for Emmett Till by poet Marilyn Nelson (Houghton Mifflin, 2005).

Nelson describes in the introduction how hard the book was to do, and I can only begin to imagine: the challenge of writing about Till's horrific murder, and especially to write about it for children. It's inexplicable in the same way that racism is inexplicable, except it isn't.

She wrote the book in the form of a heroic crown of sonnets, which means a series of 15 interlinked poems where the last line of each becomes the first line of the next, and the last poem is made up of the first lines of the preceding 14. That difficult framework made it possible to deal with the impossible story she had to tell, she says: "The strict form became a kind of insulation, a way of protecting myself from the intense pain of the subject matter."

It's a beautiful book (with illustrations by Philippe Lardy) that ties many kinds of plants into the tragedy to make a wreath. That made it extra resonant for me. Rosemary, bloodroot, Indian pipe, mandrake, trillium; the oak trees used to hang lynched black men.

This is one of the poems:
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.
That duality of the American story — liberty for some but oppression and death for others — is our country's constant refrain, though all too often unknown to white people. I appreciate Nelson's service in making it apparent.

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