In the February 2017 Poetry, digging into the legacy of Gwendolyn Brooks
The February 2017 Poetry offers a shed’s worth of Golden Shovels—examples of a new literary form devised by Terrance Hayes. As editor Don Share explains, “the last words of each line in a Golden Shovel poem are, in order, words from a line or lines taken often, but not invariably,” from poems by Gwendolyn Brooks. A range of Brooks works inspire Shovels in this issue, from “A Man of the Middle Class” to “a song in the front yard.” One of the most formally ambitious derives from this brief, heartbreaking verse, based on the 1950s lynching of a 14-year-old black boy accused of flirting with a white woman:
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.
he kisses her killed boy.
And she is sorry.
Chaos in windy grays
through a red prairie.
This poem is as notable for what it omits as for what it includes. Startlingly brief, it offers only the barest insight into Till’s mother’s feelings (“she is sorry”), and squeezes the horrors that prompt her grief into a parenthetical epigraph. Its lengthier companion poem—“A Bronzeville Mother Loiters In Mississippi. Meanwhile, A Mississippi Mother Burns Bacon”—employs a similar strategy. It devotes just three of its approximately 140 lines to Emmett’s mother, Mamie; the rest describe the white woman who accused Till, as well as her husband, who helped murder the boy. Even the poem’s title is telling: that “meanwhile” renders the “Bronzeville mother,” Emmett’s, mere backdrop for the more consequential “Mississippi mother.” Brooks’ poems reflect, and implicitly critique, American society’s tendency to value white experience more than black—at lethal cost.
Patricia Smith’s Golden Shovel, “Black, Poured Directly Into the Wound,” both recalls and departs from Brooks’s originals: using the quatrain as its source poem, it focuses squarely on Mamie Till’s thoughts and feelings. “Prairie winds blaze through her tumbled belly,” it begins, and goes on to describe a world that’s been “tumbled,” turned upside-down. This poem is full of inversions—a reflection of the unjust inversions of the case, which cast guilt on the innocent and vice-versa. Inversion also characterizes Smith’s distinct use of the Golden Shovel form: not only does the full Brooks quatrain run down the right-hand margin of the poem; down the left, the quatrain reads in reverse.
Just as Smith has flipped the quatrain, so has she flipped Mamie Till’s very identity. The grieving mother was once the “opposite” of who she is now, “the raw, screeching thing chaos has crafted.” Despite her friends’ protestations—“She / a mama, still,” they attest—she is “nobody’s mama anymore.” In fact, Smith’s language paints her as the inverse—a baby. Not only is she raw and screeching; she is being “pulled / and caressed, cooed upon by strangers, offered pork and taffy.” And the poem portrays her not as victim but as perpetrator—an allusion, perhaps, to that inversion of guilt, to the acquittal of murderous adults and the condemnation of an innocent child: “boys in the street stare at her,” writes Smith, “then avert their eyes, as if she / killed them all.” She has endured a “steep undoing”—one to match that of her son.
It also matches the “undoing” Brooks describes in “A Bronzeville Mother Loiters In Mississippi. Meanwhile, A Mississippi Mother Burns Bacon”:
So much had happened, she could not remember now what that foe had done
Against her, or if anything had been done.
The one thing in the world that she did know and knew
With terrifying clarity was that her composition
Had disintegrated. That, although the pattern prevailed,
The breaks were everywhere. That she could think
Of no thread capable of the necessary
In her poem, Smith describes Mamie as “threaded awkwardly.” Here, Brooks depicts not Mamie but Emmett’s accuser, who is now unsure that her supposed foe is in fact her foe, and whose very “composition,” or selfhood, is falling apart at the seams. Inversions haunt this poem, too: she paints her own son, whom she longs to protect, as a “small and smiling criminal,” an echo of the boy she’s had killed. At first she labels her husband a “Fine Prince,” but by the end of the poem, she sees “no flash of the shining steel”: “a hatred” for her erstwhile love has “burst into glorious flower.” Even as we read, her “composition” about the murder—the story she has been telling herself and others—collapses.
These lines offer some hint, too, as to why Brooks narrates the Till episodes as she does, limiting her focus on Mamie: perhaps she means to imply the impossibility of fully telling such a story. Who has the thread capable of the necessary sew-work?