“The Dead Kid Poems”

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

In my last post, I urged readers to seek out a copy of Joyce Johnson’s extraordinary memoir, Minor Characters, which focuses on her relationships to several writers of the Beat Generation, a phrase she says she first encountered in an article by John Clellon Holmes in the New York Times, on Sunday, November 16, 1952. The memoir primarily focuses on her life in the 1950s, including her years in college and friendship with Elise Cowen, as well as her romantic entanglement with Jack Kerouac.

Johnson herself, as a writer, does not work in the “Beat” mode. She admits to Kerouac at one point, in fact, that her highest admiration is for a writer such as Henry James. I myself prefer her memoir to On the Road. Johnson has an astonishing ability to interweave the fluidity of personal narrative with the always already contingent impetus of the social frameworks of family and employment. There are also poignant side-notes:

“I cannot imagine surviving the death of my own son except as an empty physical shell. Anything but that! I catch myself automatically clutching him by the hand as we cross the street, although he’s fourteen and a full head taller than I am. The hand, which hasn’t quite lost its childish softness, still feels like the enlarged hand of the toddler.”

I thought of this maternal self-reflection as I began reading Alexis Rhone Fancher’s latest volume, “The Dead Kid Poems,” a sequence of poems about the death of her only son, published by Clare MacQueen’s KYSO (“Knock Your Socks Off”) imprint. MacQueen herself lost her only child several years ago, and began her literary magazine as a way to honor the memory of her daughter, who died unexpectedly of an undetected heart ailment.

As a chapbook, the volume feels unnecessarily bulky; of its fifty numbered pages, only half feature poems. Perhaps the editor and author felt that the only way this book would get any attention whatsoever is if unabashedly proclaimed its merits, but the full-scale emphasis on promotional material diluted the book’s thematic vision. This is unfortunate, because the images of the poems are exceptionally memorable, even though Fancher’s restrained enjambment seems to frame those images too predictably in their end-stopped cadences. When Fancher takes more chances with the line-breaks, the images fulfill their potential to haunt the reader. Here, for instance, is the conclusion of “Residuals: An Elegy”:

“You, sweet boy, are the cancelled series;
you are the remote.

Last night: the same commercial —
a boy’s first haircut,

soft curls
sheared, floating.

He could have been your understudy.”

The line break that matters the most is obvious; and without it this set of lines would not come close to achieving the same impact. No other instance of enjambment in the entire book, in fact, is as exquisite.

Even though the title of the volume emphasizes the singular (“kid”), the book includes poems about other children, too: the wayward child (“Anna,” a niece who is a cautionary tale in extremis); “Randy,” another mother’s vanquished offspring; and the ever-mounting contemporary roll-call of children slaughtered by self-appointed score-settlers, primarily at schools. This last category is the ignition point for a performance-oriented protest poem that almost seizes center stage from the poems of personal loss. Using a popular song from a Broadway musical (“My Fair Lady”) as its basic rhetorical referent, “Accustomed to Dead Kids” is nothing short of tour-de-force.

My guess is that Fancher will continue to write poems about the loss of her son and that some day a book will unite the earlier ones in State of Grace: The Joshua Elegies with these poems, and the ones yet to come. Reading her most recent poems on this subject has reminded of poems about this particular kind of incomparable loss by Michael S. Harper, Ben Jonson, and David Ray. Through sheer determination, Fancher is on a trajectory to join them.

Postscript: The intensity of mourning over the death of a child is not necessarily reciprocal, however. The Dead Kid Poems has also caused me to reflect that not all children feel equally devastated by the demise of their parents. For those who would be in the mood to encounter a different register of emotion, I recommend Peter Handke’s “A Sorrow beyond Dreams.” If you have a bucket list of things to read before you die, this should be at the top of the list.