Saying His Name
“I saw Emmett Till this week at the grocery store” by Eve L. Ewing
I saw Emmett Till this week at the grocery store
looking over the plums, one by one
lifting each to his eyes and
turning it slowly, a little earth,
checking the smooth skin for pockmarks
and rot, or signs of unkind days or people,
then sliding them gently into the plastic.
whistling softly, reaching with a slim, woolen arm
into the cart, he first balanced them over the wire
before realizing the danger of bruising
and lifting them back out, cradling them
in the crook of his elbow until
something harder could take that bottom space.
I knew him from his hat, one of those
fine porkpie numbers they used to sell
on Roosevelt Road. it had lost its feather but
he had carefully folded a dollar bill
and slid it between the ribbon and the felt
and it stood at attention. he wore his money.
upright and strong, he was already to the checkout
by the time I caught up with him. I called out his name
and he spun like a dancer, candy bar in hand,
looked at me quizzically for a moment before
remembering my face. he smiled. well
hello young lady
hello, so chilly today
should have worn my warm coat like you
yes so cool for August in Chicago
how are things going for you
oh he sighed and put the candy on the belt
it goes, it goes.
“I saw Emmett Till this week at the grocery store” by Eve L. Ewing from 1919 (Haymarket Books). First published by Tin House. Copyright © 2019 by Eve L. Ewing. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher, haymarketbooks.org.
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 “I saw Emmett Till this week at the grocery store”
When I think of the undercurrent of gravity moving this buoyant, lively poem, somehow I imagine one of those plums of the first line bobbing in a river. I’m not sure plums actually float, but the poem’s seemingly fanciful tone suggests anything is possible. It is possible to write a joyful Emmett Till poem. That undercurrent of gravity, though, that plum in “danger of bruising.” It bobs on several currents of allusion: some as shrewd as an elderly Emmett Till buying a candy bar, some as charged as an elderly Emmett Till “whistling softly.” Something elegiac stirs subtly in the images of “a little earth,” a hat that’s lost its feather. The porkpie hat alludes to the well-known photograph of the young Till smiling in a fedora. You might smile at that dollar folded in his hat brim, except when Ewing writes “he wore his money,” “money” is soaked in a dark weight. What follows after “he spun like a dancer, candy bar in hand” is almost a coda for the poem. I’m surprised when he speaks. It’s a scene both ordinary and extraordinary. It’s bittersweet. And I don’t doubt for a moment Emmett Till is spotted shopping for groceries. I too have seen him in post offices, churches, parks; schoolyards where he might be principal or janitor; waiting rooms where he was sometimes the patient and sometimes the doctor soothing a patient.