Saying His Name
“Black, Poured Directly into the Wound” by Patricia Smith
Prairie winds blaze through her tumbled belly, and Emmett’s
red yesterdays refuse to rename her any kind of mother.
A pudge-cheeked otherwise, sugar whistler, her boy is
(through the fierce clenching mouth of her memory) a
grays-and-shadows child. Listen. Once she was pretty.
Windy hues goldened her skin. She was pert, brown-faced,
in every wide way the opposite of the raw, screeching thing
chaos has crafted. Now, threaded awkwardly, she tires of the
sorries, the Lawd have mercies. Grief’s damnable tint
is everywhere, darkening days she is no longer aware of.
She is gospel revolving, repeatedly emptied of light, pulled
and caressed, cooed upon by strangers, offered pork and taffy.
Boys in the street stare at her, then avert their eyes, as if she
killed them all, shipped every one into the grips of Delta. She sits,
her chair carefully balanced on hell’s edge, and pays for sanity in
kisses upon the conjured forehead of her son. Beginning with A,
she recites (angry, away, awful) the alphabet of a world gone red.
Coffee scorches her throat as church ladies drift about her room,
black garb sweating their hips, filling cups with tap water, drinking,
drinking in glimpses of her steep undoing. The absence of a black
roomful of boy is measured, again, again. In the clutches of coffee,
red-eyed, Mamie knows their well-meaning murmur. One says She
a mama, still. Once you have a chile, you always a mama. Kisses
in multitudes rain from their dusty Baptist mouths, drowning her.
Sit still, she thinks, til they remember how your boy was killed.
She remembers. Gush and implosion, crushed, slippery, not a boy.
Taffeta and hymnals all these women know, not a son lost and
pulled from the wretched and rumbling Tallahatchie. Mamie, she
of the hollowed womb, is nobody’s mama anymore. She is
tinted echo, barren. Everything about her makes the sound sorry.
The white man’s hands on her child, dangled eye, twanging chaos,
things that she leans on, the only doors that open to let her in.
Faced with days and days of no him, she lets Chicago — windy,
pretty in the ways of the North — console her with its boorish grays.
A hug, more mourners and platters of fat meat. Will she make it through?
Is this how the face slap of sorrow changes the shape of a
mother? All the boys she sees now are laughing, drenched in red.
Emmett, in dreams, sings I am gold. He tells how dry it is, the prairie.
“Black, Poured Directly into the Wound” by Patricia Smith from Incendiary Art (Northwestern University Press). Copyright © 2017 by Patricia Smith. Published 2017 by TriQuarterly Books/Northwestern University Press. All rights reserved.
Terrance Hayes explores how Emmett Till has become a haunting, powerful figure in Black poetry—and Black public grief—through the work of 10 important poets. Subscribe to the PSA newsletter for more in the Saying His Name series and to keep updated with the PSA.
Terrance Hayes on "Black, Poured Directly into the Wound"
And someone please make “Black Poured Directly into the Wound” into a short technicolor experimental film in the style of Gordon Parks. If “A Bronzeville Mother Loiters in Mississippi. Meanwhile, A Mississippi Mother Burns Bacon” offers a view of Carolyn Bryant Donham, “Black Poured Directly into the Wound,” offers a view of Mamie Till. Like Brooks, Smith has a knack for cinematic depictions. Where the Brooks movie poem might be quiet and haunted, the Smith movie poem might be frenetic and restless, cutting from “boys in the street” averting “the Decapitated exclamation points” in Mamie’s eyes, to church ladies floating about her in Chicago. Where Brooks does not reduce her subject to evil, Smith does not reduce her subject to elegy. Smith’s poem is expansive and alive. Observe, for example, the breathtaking scaffolding of the poem's start-lines and end-lines. It's a (double!) golden shovel, the Brooks inspired form which strings a poem along the end lines of a poem. Here Smith uses the entirety of Brooks' poem, “The Last Quatrain of the Ballad of Emmett Till”: the far right line breaks create a sentence that begins: “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.” The lines begin again at the bottom of the far left start-lines and proceeds to the top of the poem. The stark and beautiful lines halo the poem in a poem. Maybe all we’d see in a film based on this poem is a black woman resembling Mamie Till dressed head to toe in black, sipping black coffee from a black cup in a red red room. You could run the movies simultaneously on two screens on opposite walls of a dark theater in Money, Mississippi.