‘State of Grace’
Poets explore life’s fragility and fullness as they celebrate the lives of sons they’ve lost
By Bliss Bowen
Parents should never be required to bury their children; it’s an obscene violation of one of nature’s most hallowed laws. When death does claim youth before age, the unique grief unleashed contorts survivors’ lives and demands its own language of expression.
Three local poets who have survived their sons and found cathartic healing in voicing their loss will read from books about their experiences at Beyond Baroque on Saturday afternoon: Chanel Brenner, Alexis Rhone Fancher and Madeline Sharples.
Literary tones among the three women vary from poetically compressed to journalistic as they confront the new weight saddling previously mundane words like “before”; the pain of Mother’s Day (“Hallmark equivalent of/ arrows in my heart,” Fancher writes in “The Lost Child”); the addictive way pain keeps a lost child close in mind if not physical presence.
Sharples’ “Leaving the Hall Light On: A Mother’s Memoir of Living With Her Son’s Bipolar Disorder and Surviving His Suicide,” published by Lucky Press in 2011, pivots between biographical entries and free-verse poems like the foreboding “Mania”:
The voices he hears echo like violins
ever louder, faster, discordant
until a cacophony of drumbeats
and a tintinnabulation of scraping symbols
pound his brain.
He looks for an exit
where none exists.
In the deeply moving “Vanilla Milk: A Memoir Told in Poems,” published by Silver Birch Press last year, Brenner tunnels deep into observations on motherhood, memories of her six-year-old son, her wedding, and the cancer-surviving delivery woman who cries when she learns of the boy’s death. Brenner’s sensitive juxtaposition of snapshot episodes of her son’s life with heart-grabbing details of what’s been left in his wake is sad, yet also beautiful in its realization of what love and family life can be
It’s Riley’s second birthday,
He would have been
Instead of dead.
Instead of chalk dust.
Instead of oysterless chips of pearls. …
Instead of a collage of photos
and cutout red crayoned hearts.
Instead of our tears.
Instead of a vanilla birthday cake
bejeweled with his name. — “July 28, 2012”
Fancher’s chapbook “State of Grace: The Joshua Elegies” strives to celebrate the life that flashed through her son Joshua’s humor and achievements before cancer claimed him at 26; within the brief but piercing space of her 15 poems, a picture emerges of a parent and child who resemble and understand each other as adults and creative beings. Just published by KYSO Flash Press, “State of Grace” is illuminated by Fancher’s painterly photos and precise, unsentimental language as she recalls a stunningly cold judge in “Death Warrant,” analyzes her response to her son’s belongings and makes “the mark of/ the penitent above my eyes” with his ashes in “Snow Globe” (“Give him a shake, and watch/ his life float by”). Strands of ritual become elusive lifelines of normalcy in “Dying Young”:
Midnight, and again I’m chasing
sleep: its fresh-linen smell and
deep sinking …
I put on Mozart. A warm robe. Make a pot
of camomile tea. The view from my 8th floor
window, spectacular, the sliver moon, the stark,
neon-smeared buildings, their windows dark.
Sometimes I think I am the only one not sleeping.
The minefield process of moving forward elicits different responses from the three authors.
Sharples’ “One Year” confesses to “playacting” (“meant to fool others as well as myself”) while getting on with the cosmetic motions of living, while Brenner’s “I Have 2x the Love for 1 Child” contemplates a future in which her older, surviving son might be scarred by the weight of her love: “I worry that one day,/ a woman will ask him/ why her love is not enough,/ and he won’t know/ the answer.”
Fancher compiles a surreal to-do list, “When You Think You’re Ready to Pack Up Your Grief,” for dispensing with aftermath emotions:
Begin with his letterman’s jacket.
Bundle it together with regret.
Stack sorrow on top of his class ring,
interspersed with his hip-hop CDs.
Loneliness should not be smoothed over the heart,
nor his childhood drawings folded in on themselves. …
When the suitcase won’t close, don’t sit on it.
Don’t even try to shut it.
The vivid dimension of the language exerts
a magnetic pull, drawing the reader through the author’s devastation and ultimately to the other
side of unspeakable heartache and change. That consequently imbues the poems with a quiet sense
of connection and release that reminds not only of life’s fragility, but also its fullness.
“Writing Healing Poetry” (with readings by Chanel Brenner, Alexis Rhone Fancher and Madeline Sharples) happens at 4 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 12, at Beyond Baroque, 681 N. Venice Blvd., Venice. $5 to $10 suggested donation; no one turned away. Call (310) 822-3006 or visit beyondbaroque.com.
To learn more about the poets, visit chanelbrenner.com, alexisrhonefancher.com and madelinesharples.com.