Friday, August 07, 2009

A Wreath for Emmett Till

By Marilyn Nelson, illustrated by Philippe Lardy. Houghton Mifflin Books for Children, 2005. (Library copy.) Ms Nelson had created an amazing tribute to Emmett Till, a 14 year old boy who was lynched in 1955. His murderers were identified but acquitted. His heartbroken mother held an open casket funeral, drawing the attention of the whole world to his brutal torture and murder, and sparking the Civil Rights movements of the '50 and '60.

A heroic crown of sonnets is a collection of 15 sonnets, 14 of which connect in a circle with the last line of each sonnet transformed into the first line of the next. The 15th sonnet is made up of the first lines of the other 14. Mind boggling. Last year I participated in a crown sonnet project with six other poets. We each wrote a sonnet starting with the last line of another poet's previously written sonnet. The seventh sonnet begins with the last line of #6 and ends with the very first line of the first sonnet as it's last line. A perfect circle. Working with the other poets on editing and revising was so stimulating and rewarding. I learned so much from them as we challenged and encouraged each other to complete the work.

Nelson says of her heroic crown: "the strict form became a kind of insulation." I can see how that works to both express and comfort the wrenching grief of this one sharp example of the evil of racism in our history.

A Wreath for Emmett Till weaves classical literary illusions with traditional flower associations (rosemary for rememberence, willow twigs for sadness...) as it tells the story and mourns the loss of a young man with untold potential. The author's note in the back of the book briefly explains the literary connections and references, making the depth of the work clear. I have great admiration for Ms. Nelson as a poet. She has taken a tragedy too huge for words and wrestled it into a work of beauty and power.

Teacher's Guide at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Interview with Marilyn Nelson at NPR
Interview on TeachingBooks.net (PDF)

This week's Friday Poetry round up is hosted by
Tricia at The Miss Rumphius Effect.
Next week it will be right here at A Wrung Sponge. Enjoy your weekend!

14 comments:

tanita davis said...

This was ...a really... amazing feat, wasn't it? I was astounded, awed, and ...horrified, on many levels, for the writer. To have to marinate in that event for so long -- the horror. And yet, she comes away with a gift, with closure for us, with... a bittersweet joy. The whole crown just blew me away.

Andromeda Jazmon said...

I know Tanita! It is overwhelming to think how she must have immersed herself in the horror, and then come out with something so wrenching and beautiful to share.

Color Online said...

Andromeda,

Great review for Poetry Friday. A friend shared this work with me about two years ago. It was before we went to hear Ms. Nelson read. She briefly talked about this work. She is a poet's poet, classically trained and dedicated to her craft.

Please post your link to Color Me Brown Challenge.

eisha said...

I dearly loved this book. The poems are astounding, and do great justice to the subject. The illustrations, in turn, do great justice to the poems. Thanks for highlighting it.

Janet said...

This sounds like a truly amazing book... a genuine tribute.

rhapsodyinbooks said...

I've seen this book talked about before, but I've always been afraid to read it. There are pictures on the web of him from the open casket and it is just so devastating. But it sounds like from your review that there is nothing to be afraid of with this book. Thank you for sharing that!

Jules at 7-Imp said...

Thanks for this reminder. Haven't read it yet. Gonna hit my library now!

Kelly Fineman said...

I adore this book - the way she moves around to different perspectives (including the tree's!), and how it all works so well together. Not only does she write a heroic crown, but her final poem is an anagram as well. I think she must have started with that one and split it all out after that, in order for it to work at all. So great.

Lone Star Ma said...

Wow - I need to read that.

Andromeda Jazmon said...

You are right, Kelly, the perspectives are amazing. It is so tender, and then brutal - just like a mother's love that would leave the casket open to force the world to see what they did to her boy. You know she (his mother) lived to be 91 and always worked for Civil Rights after his death. In the back of the book Nelson talks about her and her impact, as well as wonders what potential Emmett never got a chance to meet. The more you think about it the more tragic it is. This book of poems brings it all out layer by layer.

Andromeda Jazmon said...

rhapsodyinbooks I wouldn't be afraid to read it - it's very lovely. The illustrations are just the right colors and forms to extend the words. It has sadness, and rage, but is also fully respectful. I recommend it!

Doret said...

This is book is amazing.

Mary Lee said...

Amazing seems to be the operative word about this book...I can't think of another that's more fitting.

Sally said...

Hi, I heard about this book awhile ago; a friend showed it to me. Thanks for the post on it!