Thursday, March 24, 2016

Philip C. Kolin fuses art and history in Emmett Till book

Philip C, Kolin volume Emmett Till in Different States contributes to an important poetic conversation

Over the last week or so, I wrote about how Reginald Harris, Phillip B. Williams, and Rickey Laurentiis wrote about violence to black male bodies. Well, not all the writings in this regard are by black poets. Philip C. Kolin has produced a thoughtful and powerful volume of poems on Emmett Till, arguably the most well-known boy killed as a result of anti-black racism.

Kolin's Emmett Till in Different States (2015) corresponds to poems by Harris, Williams, Laurentiis, and several others concerning injured and destroyed black male bodies. Kolin's book even goes a little further by offering such an extended treatment on a single figure.      

Kolin's volume is comprised of 49 poems, includes a chronology, preface, and notes on the poems. The book presents narratives about Till's life, his family, and various others related to the terrible murder from multiple angles. In one persona poem "Fact about Me," we hear from the young Till as he discusses his excitement traveling to Money, Mississippi to visit family.  In another persona poem, "The Jury," the speaker or speakers note that "We knew the verdict / before there was trial," and later "We made a show of our civic duty / and agreed to wait / a whole hour before coming / back into court."

[Related: Marilyn Nelson & Philip Kolin on Emmett Till ]

Several of the poems are in the persona of Till, as he relates details about his experiences and interests. Overall, hearing from the young boy gives him a sense of agency and voice that are often absent in accounts of his life. We also hear from his mother Mamie, his uncle,  Carolyn Bryant (the woman who claims Till tried to flirt with her), Mahalia Jackson, Freedom Riders, and various others. Along the way, Kolin works through an artistic puzzle of sorts by presenting us with these many fragments concerning Till. A piece here, several pieces there and over here. They all add up to an extensive, artful document.

Kolin's book is yet another reminder of how poets engage history in really multifaceted, complex ways. The book fuses history and art as Kolin arranges words and ideas for dramatic and also subtle effect. We are prompted to think about this black boy and the racist circumstances that led to his violent death, as well as our ongoing struggles with the memory of what happened. 

Reginald Harris & Rickey Laurentiis: on injured male bodies
Reginald Harris & Phillip B. Williams: Witnessing lost boys & men

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