A Wreath for Emmett Till

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Citation:  Nelson, M., & Lardy, P. (2009). A wreath for Emmett Till. Boston, MA: Graphia.

Overall Review:  A Wreath for Emmett Till opens with an author’s note which explains some of the history of Emmett Till’s lynching, Nelson’s connection to the subject, and an explanation of the poetic form she used (the heroic crown of sonnets). A short biography of Emmett Till, notes on each of the included sonnets, references, and an additional author’s note can be found at the end of the book to supplement the reading of this poem.

Each sonnet highlights the first line (as it is repeated from the previous sonnet) and incudes an accompanying illustration, most of which include a ring somewhere in them that tie the illustration to the poetic form and to the idea that all people are connected and hate must stop or that the circle of life will continue, depending on one’s interpretation. Almost every illustration also includes some of the flowers discussed in the wreath, though some take a bleaker view.

Though each poem is uniquely moving and takes the reader through the rollercoaster of emotions one experiences after hearing of such a tragedy, I had a difficult time relating this to children. The subject matter might, sadly, be something to which they can relate, but the themes are quite mature and complex. I think the young reader would be challenged in interpretation, content, and language. Though this is classified as a children’s poem, and the author mentions writing these sonnets for children, I would see this best suited to older children, perhaps middle school and older to truly be able to grasp the themes and references.

Spotlight Poem:
Rosemary for remembrance, Shakespeare wrote.
a speech for poor Ophelia, who went mad
when her love killed her father. Flowers had
a language then. Rose petals in a note
said, I love you, a sheaf of bearded oat
said, Your music enchants me. Goldenrod:
Be careful. Weeping-willow twigs: I’m sad.
What should my wreath for Emmett Till denote?
First, heliotrope, for Justice shall be done.
Daisies and white lilacs, for Innocence.
Then mandrake: Horror (wearing a white hood
or bare-faced, laughing). For grief, more than one,
for one is not enough: rue, yew, cypress.
Forget-me-nots. Though if I could, I would.”

At first glance, this first poem in this crown of sonnets is about the language of flowers and how one could use these natural beauties to remember and heal from something as unnatural as the murder of an innocent child. It’s a poem of loss and of mourning. By reminiscing on the language of flowers, the poet harkens back to a more poetic and romantic past that we can never get back, much like the life of the subject and the innocence of those who have been touched by his story.

When the poem turns to arranging a wreath for Emmett Till, the overt tone turns to anger, a call for justice, and sorrow from the innocence of reminiscing seen earlier in the poem. The lines that stood out to me the most were “Then mandrake: Horror (wearing a white hood/or bare-faced, laughing).” By using this metaphor to tie the mandrake flower to Emmett Till’s attackers who laughed as he died and who hid behind white hoods, the poet drives home his message, purposefully exposing the hatred in the attackers’ hearts.

The last line that flows into the next sonnet also strikes a chord with me: “Forget-me-nots. Though if I could, I would.” It ties not only to the horrors of Emmett’s story but to the hatred of racism and the pain associated with race now. So much is loaded into that line that it is very appropriate that it resurfaces in the next and the last sonnet in this crown.

Take 5 Activity:

  1. Read the poem aloud slowly showing pictures of each flower as they are mentioned.
  2. Discuss things we typically use as symbolism like the language of flowers in the poem (i.e. colors, gemstones, etc.).
  3. Discuss why symbolism is used (a simple and nuanced way to express emotions, a way to add depth to a work, cultural associations, history, etc.).
  4. Read a picture book that discusses symbolism (like Kente Colors by Debbi Chocolate).
  5. Re-read the poem out loud together and talk about why each flower might be associated with the feelings listed.



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