19 January 2015

Poem of the Week 2015/3

The Last Quatrain of the Ballad of Emmett Till

                                      after the murder,
                                        after the burial

Emmett's mother is a pretty-faced thing;
                         the tint of pulled taffy.
She sits in a red room,
                          drinking black coffee.
She kisses her killed boy.
                           And she is sorry.
Chaos in windy grays
                            through a red prairie.

Gwendolyn Brooks

Emmett Till was a fourteen-year-old black youth from Chicago who went down to Mississippi, to a small town on the delta called Money, to visit some of his mother's relatives. This was in 1955. He went into a corner store, where he was accused of flirting with the twenty-one-year-old white woman at the counter. That night her husband and his half-brother hunted him down. They ended up killing him and throwing his body in the Tallahatchie River, but only after beating him so savagely that there were problems identifying the corpse when it was found several days later. It was sent back up to Chicago for burial. His mother had warned him to be careful down south; she was familiar with Mississippi manners, having been born there (her family had moved north in the 1920s as part of the Great Migration of southern blacks to northern cities), She had raised him mostly on her own, and when it came time to bury him, she insisted on a public service and an open casket so that the world could see what had been done to her son (and, by extension, to thousands of other young black men in the South). Photographs of the brutalized corpse ran first in the black press and then in other American and international newspapers and magazines. The public outcry forced local authorities in Missippi to charge the two men with murder. They were clearly guilty, and were acquitted. The incident had far-reaching repercussions and became a key incident in the Civil Rights movement.

Brooks clarifies where we are in two brief introductory lines: this is after the murder / after the burial. She can pare this complicated case down to a few lines, foregoing detailed scene-setting and explication in favor of vivid and suggestive images, because her readers would have already known the notorious details; at the very least, they would have seen the horrifying image of the mutilated boy in the open casket. That's why the title of the poem calls it the last quatrain: the preceding "quatrains" are made up of the knowledge the reader brings to the poem, and since this is the last quatrain, we're looking here at the aftermath. She also refers to Till's story as a ballad, thereby associating it with a long English-language poetic tradition that frequently deals with unjust murder, guilt, and retribution. Most older ballads are anonymous, so referring to this poem as the end of a ballad suggests that the story preceding it is in a way a folk creation, arising from the collective unconscious of the nation, formed from the associations, assumptions, and conclusions that each reader brings to it. (Check here for another poem that uses the ballad form to protest injustice against African-Americans.)

The first line draws us into a view both intimate and distanced. The murdered boy is referred to only by his first name, as if we knew him. But we are not given the mother's name; we are shown her only in the context of her murdered son. For us she is not Mamie Carthan Till; she is Emmett's mother. She is a pretty-faced thing, which is the sort of affectionate phrase a kindly older person might use. But the mention of face will also bring to mind the horrifyingly battered face of this woman's son. The second part of this first line (it will be Brooks's procedure throughout this poem to break the line into two parts) tells us her pretty face is the tint of pulled taffy: in a society that denigrated darker skin, Brooks compares it to taffy, a sweet, appealing candy we perhaps associate with childhood (another implicit reminder of the murdered child). Taffy is made by being boiled and then pulled, which may hint at the suffering that has created the strength of this pretty-faced woman. (Brooks uses alliteration with a delicate musical touch; we have tint and taffy, and red room, and kisses and killed.)

In the second line, we are told this woman is sitting in a red room, drinking black coffee. Just an attractive young mother, having a cup of coffee – it all seems so everyday. But she's in a red room: surrounded, in fact enclosed, by red: the color of blood, of anger, of passion, of danger. She's drinking black coffee; perhaps black is there to remind us that all of this happened because black is also the color of her skin, and her son's as well. Or perhaps that's just how she drank it.

In the third line, she kisses her killed boy: we've already been told this is after the burial, but the verb is not past tense, and we're told specifically that she's kissing her killed boy: she's not remembering kissing him when he lived, she's kissing him (her murdered, mutilated son) mentally, spiritually. First we see her, a pretty-faced brown woman, then we see she's sitting there drinking coffee, and now we discover that even this simple, ordinary action is accompanied, internally and inescapably, by grief and loss and love. The second part of this third line tells us that she is sorry, an understated, even ambiguous, description (what or whom is she sorry for?) given endless ramifications by what we know of her circumstances. Sorry also implies (in line with the idea of the last quatrain) that she has moved past stronger and more immediate emotions, and into a constant level of sadness that she will never escape.

We leave her, trapped in the aftermath of her son's murder. In the fourth line we are given an encapsulating image: Chaos in windy grays through a red prairie. So much of what we've seen in the first three lines has been strong and clear: reds, blacks, a woman drinking coffee. It's seemed quite definite. But it's as if the mention of her emotional state (she is sorry) unleashes a storm of troubling ambiguity in the final line: chaos, and wind (that invisible, powerful, evanescent force), and gray (that obscure and doubtful mixture of black and white, lacking in clear-cut definition: it's a gray area, we say, it's not black and white). And this confusion is sweeping through a red prairie. This would literally refer to the Great Plains that sweep down from Chicago towards Mississippi, but metaphorically it's the whole country. And we have red again, linking the prairie with the room mentioned in the second line, and by extension with the associations of that color (blood, anger, passion, danger). The individual situation of the murdered boy's mother and the turmoil shaking the country are captured and connected in the final line's unsettling, apocalyptic image.

I took this from Selected Poems by Gwendolyn Brooks.

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