» Poetry

The Body Riddled with Bullets: A Five-Part Pastoral

for Emmett Till

On September 23, 1955, less than a month after Emmett Till’s lynching,
his killers (who would later openly admit to the crime) were acquitted
by an all-white, all-male jury in Sumner, Mississippi. Those killers
died in 1980 and 1994 without ever serving a day of time.
Nonetheless, we can still convict them here.


You don’t remember, except the most
Significant crickets,
Sway, clack, clack
Till was still in the high blue grasses along the Tallahatchie River
Along the Mississippi bullfrogs mark
The browning rust of bullets: drown out the night by organs of earth:
Groaning, moaning, under weight of blankets of glimmering worlds.

Tiller of men, women
waves from the swamps drown out scratching hands clank, clack of shovels
“Emmett Till did more than whistle at Carolyn Bryant”
Look: there is nothing not even mud to rub
into my eyes, into the ashes, among reeds and resurrections of night.

We float down the river, on principle,
toward hives of higher ground
The wastes devour him from Glendora Mississippi
to the Freedom Trail highway
Down in the dark water, under the dark trees
Like a spiritual homing
There is no double jeopardy in the swamp.



From Greenwood, MS, to Money, MS, signs travel
And I reach for the moon
Among the dark vines—
In the buffalo clovers, in the prairie fringed orchids,
Bleating from prairie chicken shrill
Asking heaven to bury the dead.

The dead never sleep.
They stare at small fires.
They stare in the miles of prairie and contemplate steel shells like embers
Gleaming in the moonlight.
At uninhabited grassland, the dead dance
And wait outside houses of horrendous men.

The dead are far off in the mountains.
The dead grow native tongues and cause men to commit suicide
Among shot up placards and sleepless nights, drinking,
And shiver in the bluegrass
Like stolen placards
Kidnapped in gunsmoke
With lutes of tallgrass.

From Heaven, tears of white women and cries of black boys,
The final preparations are made
In the hollows and big bison creeks.
The dead keep the culprits, their souls broken like body,
Ridden in damnation
He’s never gone.



heavy cotton gin fan tied
to the ten-year-old’s neck with barbed wire
floating down the dark church of the Tallahatchie River
Down in the dark water, under the dark trees

“Bye baby” and “Bye baby” outside the candy shop
Dragged delicately about
The black water skiff hulks and sandy shoals
In the Memphis night he, years later,
Would resurface
As not guilty, preening as a Meadowlark
Calling to be released in the tallgrass
In Ferguson, Missouri, hijacked
Outside a candy shop, “bye baby”
For Michael Brown, “I cant breathe” the air was too thick for Eric Garner,

The grappling hooks behind the gin mill
Could not even clasp the body
He’s gone.

“Bye baby,” the police are probing tonight,
For bodies of black children in the waters of suburbs
Outside, they won’t let me in,
A shiver in the tallgrass: Indian bluestem, Kentucky Bluegrass,
A marker rooted in justice against racism,
The sign vandalized

A white drunkard stares at the open casket,
They won’t let me in.



in cellars of haunted houses
no one talked about it

the cool dark green moss
subsumed the secrets

the diamond-backed watersnake
whips and dissolves a whisper of water

walter scott was stopped at a traffic light
no one heard the pops

the cellars of haunted houses
are like ancient cities of civilizations that crashed

built on brutality in Saint Paul, in Baltimore,
in McKinney, Texas,

in cellars of haunted houses,
whispers are drowned out by clank and crush of the cotton gin

like Eli Whitey’s patent, or Fones McCarthy’s invention
fallen on big heaps of black men’s backs

no one talked about it



she recants
sheriff promises those things hunted down
nothing he ever did
could justify the blood of Emmett Till

only after nightfall, boys lie awake
wondering, wondering


Jonathan Andrew Pérez

Jonathan Andrew Pérez has previously been published in Prelude, Junto Magazine, The Write Launch, Panoply, and Silver Needle Press. Most recently, he was invited and attended the Virginia Quarterly Review 2018 poetry workshop with Jericho Brown and is a Cave Canem poet for the Fall 2018. He has a Master’s in English Literature and African American Cultural Studies from the University of Virginia and a day job is as prosecuting attorney.