Saying His Name

“Emmett, I Said Wait” by Vievee Francis

Emmett, I Said Wait

     for W. Coleman


Dreams are only as
safe as the sleeper.
I'm careful
before sleeping
to press my lips
into a tight cross stitch
so nothing, no nothing
slips out.
He pulls me into his
fleshy mouth, a wound
I dab with my cheeks.
I suck the red
tear in his face, my hands
are wings (wrapped 'round).
He looked -
like a hare that's been spied,
in the trap of an eye.


He was bold.
For a cut second
I believed I was dreaming.
We moved in cracked film,
sepia staccato:
his cheeks going gaunt,
the teeth shuttered by pursing
mouth moving into red bow
(with that lurid hint
of pink). Then the sound
he made
lifted the hem of my skirt.
I said,
"Can you believe that boy
put his black lips together
to make that nasty sound?"

It was a question,
not an order.
I did not say
take him to that river.
I did not say
lay him on Isaac's stone.
I wanted to get home
to take this crinoline off,
to lay alone for a moment
with my hands
doves upon my breasts
before husking the corn,
before chicken in hot grease
poppin' my throat.


Dreams are no safer
than the sleeper.
I recall him so
savage, but feel strange—sick
and soft even in this
like a finger slicing its way
through new butter, or
the steamy bread
being broken.

I said wait,
they heard me,
I said wait.

By morning
my hair is disheveled.
I rush to the mirror
without making a sound,
pee and arrange myself.
Put on my face
before starting coffee.

So what,
they said,
"Those boys ask for trouble,"

even now
with the magazine
years old,
the crack in his face
is a question mark.


There were always boys
in town,
knees peeking through
thread-bare pants,
elbows dangling
from un-starched sleeves
like dusty ribbon licorice.
I can see them through
my lashes,
over my rouge.
I look down, weigh them
with my glances.
They don't dare look up. 


His skin
against the eggshell
coffin silk
does not contrast
the way one might imagine.
He is pale as a honey-dew
split upon a rock.
The glossy pages can't picture
how brown he was that day -
only how given to ashy white
he is now.


Wait: before I wake
I mount his head,
press it into the fork
of my legs, the tricky
friction of my maneuvers
and his limber neck.
His hairs tight, embraced,
clinging by strands.
His haunches are slim
branches yielding.

I whistle through my nose
as I sleep, under covers
I snore in flaring passions.
When I come,
we are on the bank,
wet from the running
bruised by bottom

I said wait.

Those boys hanging
out in town ought to have
known better. Somebody
should have told him. 


Who was he?
Even now
with the magazine
shut and crisp,
the crack in his face
is a question.


I smile into his slender
throat, say,
don't you want some of this

Dreams are dangerous
as the tongue

flicks along the channel of
a flat ear, shell shaped
as if it had just washed up
on a bare strip of sand,
sweet throb of meat
still inside.

He is silent.

I place my index finger
where his mouth was,
it sinks into the hole,
hush now, hush,
I know, I know.

"Emmett, I Said Wait" by Vievee Francis. Originally published in Callaloo (Volume 26, Number 3, Summer 2003). Reprinted with the permission of the author.

Terrance Hayes on “Emmett, I Said Wait”

Vievee Francis’ poem is full of echoes. This poem suggests the ways all Emmett Tills are in dialogue with each other. It could be a monologue for the white mother burning bacon in Mississippi in Brooks’ 1960 poem. Francis and Brooks focus on mouth imagery. Brooks writes of "a mouth too young to have lost every reminder / Of its infant softness" and later "her baby's cheek" reminds her "only of blood.” Francis writes “He pulls me into his / fleshy mouth, a wound / I dab with my cheeks.” If Brooks cast young Carolyn Bryant Donham in a haunted domestic scene, Francis probes her warped erotic psyche. The speaker imagines being eaten in ways that feel both sexual and cannibalistic. Emmett Till is drawn as a kind of incubus, the mythological demon who violates sleeping women. The dreams shift between fantasy and nightmare. In the sixth section’s italics, Francis writes: “I mount his head, / press it into the fork of my legs…” The dedication to Wanda Coleman also suggests a dialogue with Wanda Coleman’s poem, “Emmett Till” from her 1990 book African Sleeping Sickness. I’m glad she gives me reason to direct you to Coleman’s magnificent poem. Francis’ eight section poem is structurally more in dialogue with Coleman’s seven section poem. In Coleman sweetwater culls into its soulplain come forth to carry the dead child home / at my mouth forking / autumn 1955, lord!” Coleman presents a mouth that forks into Brooks and Francis; the maternal and the carnal intersect. Though Francis’ poem first appeared in 2003 in the summer issue of Callaloo, nearly fifteen years before Doham confesses Till never whistled at her, it unmasks the depraved longing at the root of Till’s murder.

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