I came to know poet and professor Philip C. Kolin in a roundabout way. He read something about my poem “If Mamie Till Was the Mother of God” and reached out to me. I am so glad he did. He’s written a moving, and powerful collection, Emmett Till in Different States, beautifully published by Third World Press. Philip is the University Distinguished Professor in the College of Arts and Letters and the University of Southern Mississippi. He also edits Southern Quarterly: A Journal of Arts & Letters in the South. He has published over forty books.
His collection, Emmett Till in Different States explores the life and death of Emmett Till, his murder in Mississippi in 1955, his mother, Mamie Till, and race in America. These varied and lush poems offer us a wide river of meditation about history, memory, race, identity, forgiveness, and justice. From poems like “Emmett’s Wallet” to “Pitching Pennies with Emmett Till” we get a picture of this young, playful boy who never imagined a role in America’s civil rights history. Some of Kolin’s poems dive into details of his murderers’ trial, some are tender poems about Mamie Till, his mother. Emmett Till in Different States also leaps into our century with “Emmett Till to Trayvon Martin” and “Antiphons for Emmett and Trayvon.”
These poems are delicately crafted. One of my favorites, “Come Visit Mississippi, 1955-1964” burns with a kind of prophetic fire. It’s made up of nine couplets in which the first line is a beautiful travel brochure invitation to Mississippi. But each couplet’s second line reveals a more truthful, devastating racial fact. The poem opens with these three stanzas:
covered with pines, blossoming magnolias, live oaks
black corpses saying like semaphores
full of breezy lakes for fishing
black boys plumbed with gin fans
white with cotton and dogwoods
black ghosts dripping turpentine and coal tar
Another powerful poem in this collection is “What Emmett Would Have Sung.” This poem imagines Emmett Till’s voice as he grew older. This poem’s power lies in its questions:
Would you have been a doo wop darling…
Or maybe the White Sox would have wired you
to sing the National Anthem…
This poem ends with a devastating stanza:
Growing older, more mellow, your voice
might even have been heard
on a Gospel radio station crooning
Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani.*
* The lines of Jesus on the cross praying: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”
This collection also remembers Virgil Ware, another young Black boy killed in Birmingham on the same day as the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing that killed four young girls. “Death on a Bicycle” connects Emmett Till’s death to the other “child martyrs” of the civil rights movement.
One of my favorite poems in this rich collection is the imaginative “Emmett Till on Dr. Martin Luther King.” In this poem, Emmett describes listening to Dr. King on the radio in Chicago.
…His voice was lambswool baptized
in bloody unction and dulcimers.
This poem also remembers:
Dr. King carried my memory like a cross…
These poems represent the best in elegies, the power in historical memory, the challenge in assessing our present, in imagining our future through civil rights themes. Emmett Till’s brief life, his mother’s courageous decision to show her son’s body to the world– still have much to teach us. This book lifts up the power of history and urges us to make justice the hallmark of our future. I hope this book reaches many people. It has lessons for us all.