—Emmett Till (1941–1955)

cattail cast tattles Till tale,
lowing low along the hollow;
cricket chirrup and ribbit-lick-up.
what’s chucked the ’hatchie swallow.

up skimming skin upon pond scum skiff-ish,
going slow along the hollow.
now may mayfly alight brown brow.
what’s chucked the ’hatchie swallow.

maybe bye baby bye baby by and by,
lowing low along the hollow.
we will slip the knot not slip will we?
what’s chucked the ’hatchie swallow.

who’s a bruise to blue hue ’hatchie,
going slow along the hollow?
whose a bruise to bruise hue, ’hatchie?
what’s chucked the ’hatchie swallow.

Kodak flash tattles Till tale
going slow among the hollow.
who’s a bruise to bruise hue?
swallow what the ’hatchie chucks.


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DOUGLAS KEARNEY’s collection of writing on poetics and performativity, Mess and Mess and (Noemi Press, 2015), was a Small Press Distribution Handpicked Selection that Publisher’s Weekly called “an extraordinary book.” His third poetry collection, Patter (Red Hen Press, 2014) examines miscarriage, infertility, and parenthood and was a finalist for the California Book Award. Cultural critic Greg Tate remarked that Kearney’s second book, National Poetry Series selection, The Black Automaton (Fence Books, 2009), “flows from a consideration of urban speech, negro spontaneity and book learning.” Someone Took They Tongues. (Subito Press, 2016) collects three of his opera libretti. Fence Books will publish Buck Studies in late 2016. He was the guest editor for 2015’s Best American Experimental Writing (Wesleyan). He has received a Whiting Writer’s Award, residencies/fellowships from Cave Canem, The Rauschenberg Foundation, and others. His work has appeared in a number of journals and anthologies, including Best American Poetry, Best American Experimental Writing, Wide Awake: Poets of Los Angeles and Beyond, Of Poetry and Protest: From Emmett Till to Trayvon Martin, and What I Say: Innovative Poetry by Black Poets in America. Raised in Altadena, CA, he lives with his family in California’s Santa Clarita Valley. He teaches at CalArts. www.douglaskearney.com

12 responses to “Tallahatchie Lullabye, Baby”

  1. Jessica Blau says:

    BRAVO! Love the sounds, the alliteration, the organization, rhythm. You read it beautifully, too. The “Maybe bye baby. . . .” line is my favorite.

    I’m going to go look up Gwendolyn Brooks’ Emmitt Till poem now. I remember that I really like it, but can’t quite pull it out of my brain right now.

    • Douglas Kearney says:

      Thank you, Jessica! Did you track down “The Last Quatrain of the Ballad of Emmett Till” yet? That is a lovely, hard poem. You also might consider finding Marilyn Nelson’s “A Wreath for Emmett Till”—it’s a sonnet crown, I believe.

      • Jessica Blau says:

        Oh Douglas, this is what I did: I searched the house high and low, hither and yon, for my Collected Poems of Gwendolyn Brooks book and did not find it. I love her work so much, that I’m sure I handed the book over to someone so that they could love her, too. Alas, the book is no longer in the house. I’m going to look up the poem on line now and will also try to remember who has my book!

        Okay, I paused before posting. Voila la poeme, but where is my book?!

        The Last Quatrain of the Balled of Emmett Till (1960)

        after the murder,
        after the burial
        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.
        Chaos in windy grays
        through a red prairie.

        I’m going to look up the Nelson poem when I sign off here. By the way, I just asked my daughter if she knew who Emmett Till was and she did not. (She is now appalled and fascinated, of course.) So I’m glad, in many ways, that your beautiful poem came my way.

  2. Simon Smithson says:

    “maybe bye baby bye baby by and by,”

    Man.

    As a big fan of the possibilities of moving and setting language, I have to say. I’m impressed.

  3. Simon Smithson says:

    Welcome to TNB!

    • Douglas Kearney says:

      It’s a pleasure to be here, Simon! I am most grateful to Richard for the invitation. Also, thanks for the good words on the words.

  4. Uche Ogbuji says:

    Bravura piece for sure. As Simon says, it demonstrates new realms of possibility in the language. And that line “who’s a bruise to blue hue ’hatchie.” Utter darkness hidden in a sweetly shell.

  5. Jeffrey Pillow says:

    A fine tribute Douglas. Till’s tragedy was a sad, horrifying story. Welcome aboard TNB.

  6. Great to have you aboard, Douglas. I’m honored to have featured you. Peace.

  7. I’m impressed. This is really beautiful. I’d be more giddy about your wordplay, but it seems inappropriate, like back in the eighties when I used to play Strange Fruit on the juke at this dive because I loved Billie’s voice so much, until I finally realized what the lyrics were telling me. The phrase Choctaw Ridge always got me too, the way Tina T reveled in it, and Tallahatchie is a Choctaw word, whether or not Billie Joe jumped off that bridge. A deceptively playful way to animate a grim truth that should be common knowledge.

  8. […] one? Is this violence of the page wild like a storm or calculated as a robot? Voltron, slavery, Emmett Till, and the L.A. riots are just a few subjects his shape-shifting Black Automaton stomps through, and […]

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