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Incendiary Art

Photo Credit:  Northwestern University Press

Emmett Till—Choose Your Own Adventure

This month we begin a year of featuring dynamic American poets whose work often focuses on politics, race, injustice, fascism, war, and human rights, reminding us, as poet Ellen Hinsey asserts, that, “No individual poem can stop a war—that’s what diplomacy is supposed to do. But poetry is an independent ambassador for conscience: it answers to no one, its crosses borders without a passport, and it speaks the truth. That’s why, despite talk about its marginalization, it is one of the most powerful of the arts.”
­—C.C.

In Incendiary Art, Smith’s award-winning 2017 book of poems, she composes five interconnected sonnets in tribute to Emmett Till, the 14-year-old boy whose abduction and murder shook the nation in 1955. As Adam Tavel notes in Plume, the sonnets take the form of “choose your own adventure” narratives. Smith ponders the various outcomes had Till never entered that fateful store where he was later accused of whistling at a white woman, or never visited Mississippi in the first place. The most commanding among these conjectures imagines Till’s mother, Mamie, holding a closed casket service instead of defiantly showing the carnage suffered upon her child to the world.

 

Emmett Till—Choose Your Own Adventure

We’re curious, but his imploded eye,
the bullet’s only door, would be the thing
we wouldn’t want to see. We justify
his childish glint, and sigh, imagining
the knotted tie, the scissored naps, those cheeks
in rakish bloom, perhaps a scrape or two
beneath his laundered shirt. The mourners’ shrieks
are tangled with an organ’s point of view,
and someone moans Mahalia. Mamie’s fanned
and comforted, her gorgeous fallen son
a horrid hidden rot. Her tiny hand
starts crushing roses—one by one by one
she wrecks the casket’s spray. It’s how she mourns—
a mother still, despite the roar of thorns.

-Patricia Smith

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