April 2005

Sonnets to honor a young martyr

By Marilyn Nelson, illustrated by Philippe Lardy
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Emmett Till was a 14-year-old African-American boy from Chicago visiting cousins in Money, Mississippi, in 1955. Upon leaving a country store, Emmett allegedly said Bye, baby to the white store clerk and whistled on his way out. Five white men, angered by Emmett's boldness, murdered Till and threw his mangled body into the Tallahatchie River. When Emmett's mother demanded an open casket, photos were published in papers nationwide, and the Emmett Till case galvanized the civil rights movement.

Poet Marilyn Nelson, whose previous remarkable works include Fortune's Bones: The Manumission Requiem and the Newbery Honor-winning Carver: A Life in Poems, offers a memorial of enormous power and beauty in A Wreath for Emmett Till. Nelson chooses to write in an unusual form a heroic crown of sonnets as a strict and demanding structure that might insulate her from the pain of her subject. A heroic crown of sonnets consists of 15 interlinked sonnets, the final line of each one becoming the starting line of the next. The 15th sonnet is made up of first lines from the preceding 14 poems. If the form is complicated, the poems themselves are rich and allusive. Appropriately, the first poem begins, Rosemary for Remembrance, Shakespeare wrote, remembrance being the spirit behind this volume. Allusions to nature, parallel universes and wormholes, to Rwanda, Nazi gas chambers, the World Trade Towers, and to such writers as Shakespeare, Whitman, Dunbar and Frost make this a superb choice for reader's theater with older students.

The art complements and expands the meanings of the poetry, having its own layers of meaning. Sprigs of rosemary, wreaths of spring flowers, trees bearing strange fruit, and a full moon that smiled calmly on his death counterpoise the innocence of nature with the nature of mankind, the fruited plain with the undergrowth of mandrake. Of particular poignancy are the sonnets that imagine a better fate for Emmett Till, or at least an obituary for a life lived well. Through Nelson's extraordinary poetry, we remember Emmett Till bearing witness and believing in grace.

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A Wreath for Emmett Till

A Wreath for Emmett Till

By Marilyn Nelson, illustrated by Philippe Lardy
Houghton Mifflin
ISBN 9780618397525

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