Monday, April 09, 2007

RIP + Poems: Phebus Etienne

When I returned to Chicago today, I received the devastating news that Phebus Etienne (at left, photo by Amanda Johnston), a fellow Cave Canem poet and New Jerseyan, had recently passed away of a heart attack. She was only 41. The news brought me to the brink of tears, because it is just so unbelievable. I still cannot fully grasp it. I first met Phebus when we were at NYU together, over ten years ago. The graduate creative writing program there, as at many schools, is separated along genre lines, so most of the writers I took classes with and befriended primarily or exclusively wrote fiction. But I'd spent a lot of time with poets before I returned to graduate school, I knew a few poets who either were finishing up in the program (like Danielle LeGros-Georges and Ronaldo Wilson) or beginning it, and at the time I was even writing (a few terrible) poems, and so I developed an acquaintance with Phebus, Joseph Legaspi, January Gill, and some of the other poets who were enrolled in the poetry track. I would see Phebus and the other poets not only at university readings, but at other events around the city, and though we never really hung out, I cherished the time I ran into her. One of the things I always recall from the times I saw her was how sweet and truly friendly she was, and her laughter, which embodied the bright spirit she possessed. I remember wishing that the fiction writers in my program were as cohesive as the poets or the doctoral students, but I also realized that Phebus was a special person who fostered this kind of connection. I treasured the times I ran into her, because I felt an immediate sense of community with her.

A few years later, I returned for my second year of the Cave Canem workshops, in Esopus, and was so pleased to see Phebus among the new fellows. We had an opportunity to talk a little, about NYU, life in New York and New Jersey, poetry, and a few other things. I also finally had an opportunity to hear some of her poetry, and saw quickly that she was as fine a poet as the person I'd come to really like. It was clear to me that summer that in addition to talent she had an anchoring spirit; she was generous, kind, really interested in other people's thoughts and works and successes, and was someone that many different sorts of people could bond with, quite easily. Phebus had no airs or affectations, at least none that I could see; she was a lovely, down-to-earth, modest, and sometimes quite frank person whose poetry reflected her personality and values. We were at Cave Canem together again in 2001, which was a tougher year for me, but my brief moments with Phebus, that year at Cranbrook, were as enjoyable as ever, and again, I had the pleasure of hearing her read and talk about her poetry.

After my last year at CC, I ended up commuting to Providence, and a year later taking the job in Evanston, so I rarely saw Phebus. But occasionally I would run into her at Cave Canem events, and then this past summer, I had an opportunity to reconnect with her a little when we were on the fellows' events planning committee for Cave Canem's 10th anniversary celebration. One of the last times I saw her, I think, was at the celebration itself, a remarkable series of events, and then afterwards, when Keith and Mendi Obadike gave me and Phebus, who lived in Montclair, a ride home. Her smile, her grace, and her joyfulness, her high voice, her laugh, her beautiful smile, are all things I recall as if she were right here beside me; it is heartbreaking that they were taken from the world so soon. In addition to championing so many other poets and working to ensure Cave Canem's vibrancy, she was working hard on what will be a superlative book of her own poems when it's finally published. It's entitled Chainstitching. In it she addressed, among so many other things, her mother's passing and its effects on her, her life as a Haitian-American woman, a Black woman in this society, and the various byways of histories as they related to her personal experience.

She was taken too soon--it's still so hard to believe.

Here is one of Phebus's poems, from 2nd Avenue Poetry's Volume 2.

after Wallace Stevens

Eve, breathless with novel sensation.
Lips, tongue teasing Adam's erection.
Later, she saw the serpent's slanted daffodil eyes,
The ever-smiling mouth. She woke
Crying, spelling desire as shame.

Confounded by the late, late movie,
Cleopatra's insomniac spirit muttered,
"What the hell is this?
After suicide with asps, my last resistance.
Did I come back white and forget? Damn!"
How else could she explain her saga played out
By an epidermal stranger with violet eyes.

In the hills where Taino danced,
A single woman wanted peace from three vicious sisters
And bought a secluded acre with wild shadows. An albino
Serpent languished on her avocado branch.

Serpent jaw creaked open and consumed
Whole prey wider than its body.
Not tall as the cherry hibiscus,
The daughter wanted her father in battle stance.
"Your namesake was slayer of the dragon Python," he
reminded as he placed a machete in her hand.

The water sang refrain of washwomen
at daybreak. The serpent bathed
Searching for inattentive creatures,
Belly beating tempo on wet stones.

A husband writhed atop his mistress
As his wife hung the wash. The serpent
Paused at her feet, shook its head at her circumstance
And continued to travel.

A stealth cat wanted to claw crevices on a spiraled white layer.
The marquis head rose, bared fangs and shattered curious bravery.

Skin merchants coveted capture in the distance.
Forked tongue smelled fear and envy.
Muscled body undulated high in leaves,
scales gleaming like platinum.

Electric summer on MLK Boulevard.
Pet serpent explored pea green deli counter.
Favorite eatery abandoned, a woman dreamed
Of armor, Excalibur as man and perfect against demons.

Copyright © Phebus Etienne, 2007, from Chainstitching.

Here is the title poem:


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.

Copyright © Phebus Etienne, 2007, from Chainstitching.

Update: Here are other bloggers who've written or posted tributes to Phebus:
Reggie Harris
January Gill O'Neil
Cherryl Floyd-Miller
Tayari Jones
Oliver de la Paz
Mendi Lewis Obadike
Tara Betts
Amanda Johnston


  1. Thank you for your post. You are much more eloquent than I ever could be. The world is a bit smaller without her.

  2. Thankyou, John. I hope I can find the words, too, someday soon.