Sunday, October 21, 2007

Phebus Etienne

How did I miss this?? Haitian-American poet Phebus Etienne passed away this year. I met Phebus in 2000, at Hedgebrook on Whidbey Island, where she was compiling her manuscript, much of which she had written while at NYU. Beautiful, aching poems that traced her childhood in Haiti, and in East Orange, NJ, with her mother who was a seamstress I believe, on top of her work at a factory, and who had died a few years prior, a loss that left Phebus alone, and inconsolable. Nicole, I believe, was her mother's name, and I hope that her manuscript appears somewhere because those poems were passionate, white hot, and full of rage at a system that had failed her mother. Bastard M.D. was one title.

Many of those poems appeared in journals over the years, and Phebus was particularly happy to have been chosen by fellow Haitian American writer Edwidge Danticat, for the Beacon Best of 2000. It is a curious fact that poets can go so long without placing a manuscript. I know she had a hard time with that. But like most of us, she moved toward lightness, and loved to laugh. Other notes are found on blogs, including the wonderful Cherryl Floyd-Miller, and on Poetry Foundation and Cave Canem. Damn.


After I buried my mother, I would see her often,
standing at the foot of my bed
in a handmade nightgown she trimmed with lace
whenever I was restless with fever or menstrual cramps.
I was not afraid, and if her appearance was a delusion,
it only confirmed my heritage.
Haitians always have relationships with the dead.
Each Sabbath, I lit a candle that burned for seven days.
I created an altar on the top shelf of an old television cart.
It was decorated with her Bible, a copy of The Three Musketeers,
freesia, delphinium or lilies if they were in season.
My offering of her favorite things didn’t conjure
conversations with her spirit as I had hoped.
But there was a dream or two where she was happy,
garnets dangling from her ears,
and one night she shuffled some papers,
which could have been history of my difficult luck
because she said, “We have to do something about this.”

She hasn’t visited me for months.
I worry that my life is an insult to her memory,
that she looks in and turns away
because I didn’t remain a virgin until I married,
because my debts will remain unforgiven.

Lightning tattoos the elms as florists make
corsages to honor living mothers.
I think of going to mass at St. Anne, where she was startled
by the fire of wine when she received her first communion.
But I remember that first Mother’s Day without her,
how it pissed me off to watch a seventy year-old daughter
escort her mom to sip from the chalice.

Yesterday, as the rain fell warm on the azaleas,
I planted creeping phlox on my mother’s grace,
urging the miniature flowers to bloom larger next year
like the velvet petals of bougainvillea that covered our neighbor’s gate.
I crave a yard to plant lemon and mango trees as she did.
Tonight I mold dumplings for pumpkin stew,
add a dash of vinegar for spice as she taught me,
sprinkle my palms with flour before rolling the dough between them.
I will thread my needle and embroider a coconut tree on a place mat,
keep stitching her presence in my life.

Phebus Etienne

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