A Wreath for Emmett Till

by Marilyn Nelson and Philippe Lardy

Marilyn Nelson’s tremendous achievement in this heroic crown of sonnets is... read more

Marilyn Nelson’s tremendous achievement in this heroic crown of sonnets is to turn pain beyond words into poetry that minces no words and spares no image of brutality, even as it offers enlightenment. There can be no words to soften the reality of what happened to Emmett Till, the fourteen-year-old African American boy from Chicago who was lynched by whites in Mississippi when he was visiting relatives in 1955. For poet Nelson, choosing a heroic crown of sonnets to write about Emmett Till’s death was a way of insulating herself from the pain of that event as she focused on the strict needs of the form. But the pain and horror is there, pouring out in stark and startling images. In one poem, Nelson writes of the tree from which Emmett was hung. It might speak of the “strange fruit that still ghosts its reverie” were it not “slowly dying, / pierced by the screams of a shortened childhood.” In others, she writes of Mamie Till as a “mother of sorrows” who sent her chubby cheeked boy off on the train with a note for the conductor, and received a “bloated body” in return. With lines like these, Nelson pierces the hearts of readers. But she also engages their minds. Each sonnet is a fascinating puzzle, providing references to discover and allusions to ponder. The voices of Billie Holiday, William Shakespeare, Walt Whitman, and others echo across the pages, as do other earth-shattering events in history, such as the destruction of the World Trade Center. These extraordinary poems are ripe for discussion and discovery. Young adults can strive to unravel their mysteries (Nelson provides notes on each poem for those who want a little help), and locate their own truths within and beyond the words. In doing so, they may also find those moments where hope merges with despair. Philippe Lardy’s visual images are a stunning accompaniment to Nelson’s words, offering yet other levels of symbolism to contemplate in this complex and unforgettable volume. (Age 14 and older)

© Cooperative Children's Book Center, Univ. of Wisconsin - Madison, 2006

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