Saying His Name

“Ghazal for Emmett Till” by Rickey Laurentiis

Ghazal for Emmett Till

Quiet now your tongue You’re in this cotton land
Oaks swing long limbs of men on this cotton land

You come with song stuck under your heels as heat
The moist pinprick of flesh Jazz of this tin land

You come with language of the sharp-jawed breath
Snow How it pops beneath the eyelids within land

You come They won’t have your sin Your cocked fedora
Can’t mask your grin much longer on this rotten land

You come They will have your skin Your mettle
Your sole will leave the firmness of this whitened land

Quiet now your tongue You’re spilling in the river’s hand
Oaks cloud the sinking of your finger in this cotton land

"Ghazal for Emmett Till" from Boy with Thorn by Rickey Laurentiis. Copyright © 2015. All rights are controlled by the University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, PA 15260. Used by permission of the University of Pittsburgh Press.

Terrance Hayes on “Ghazal for Emmett Till”

The ghazal, a form with roots as far back as seventh-century Arabia, is a wonderful combination of rigor and improvisation. It’s like dancing through the eye of a needle. Laurentiis shows what I mean. The poet artfully abides the form's conventions through autonomous couplets linked by rhyme and refrain, minus, tellingly, the invocation of a name in the final couplet. "Quiet now your tongue, Emmett," the poet could have written to fully engage the rules of the ghazal. Even a less explicit address (“Quiet now your tongue, Black Boy" or “Quiet now your tongue, Ghost”) would have bolstered the technical dimensions. (“Quiet now your tongue” rings like a line from a haunting lullaby.) Obviously, Laurentiis is an acute and careful poet. And even more obviously, we know who is being addressed by way of the title. So, question: would we know this was a poem for Emmett Till without the title? Would we know as much if the poem was simply titled "Ghazal"? Some of us might. Some of us might read clues to a southern setting in the refrain of “cotton land.” We might hear “land” itself charged with political and patriotic resonances. Inside such a word Woody Guthrie sings, “This land is your land, this land is my land.” Inside such a word a black sharecropper awaits three acres and a mule. Some of us might read hints of Till in the “cocked fedora” and the image of someone “spilling into the river’s hand.” If Rickey Laurentiis abided all of the conventions of the ghazal, the political and emotional density of the poem might have been substantially thinned. The poem is richly pastoral, syntactically sensual, and masterfully strategic. Both passionate and quiet, animated and focused. Like dancing through the eye of a needle.

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