Monday, April 09, 2007


My friend Phebus Etienne passed away on March 31 of a heart attack. She was 41.

Seems like we have always been friends, but in truth I’ve known her for 12 years from our days together at New York University. Born in Haiti, she moved to New Jersey in her early teens, and blossomed into a talented writer. God, she was talented. It was only a matter of time before she published her manuscript—everybody knew it. Phebus was a fellow with Cave Canem, volunteering much of her time and energy to CC, the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, and other arts organizations in the New Jersey/New York City area.

The last time I saw her was a few weeks ago at the AWP Conference in Atlanta. You just never know when the last time you see someone will be the very last time. I can still feel her arms around my body from the last time we hugged. We talked poetry and love and friends and family—all of which were so important to her. And she was hopeful about the future.

Phebus was like an aunt to my two children. I will miss her wit and charm and generous, beautiful spirit. She was my touchstone, especially when it came to writing. Her sound advice guided the revisions to my manuscript. I will miss her more than I can say.

Here’s a poem of hers that I love dearly; this poem is also the title of her unpublished manuscript.


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


wendy said...

I'm so sorry.

deirdre said...

This loss must leave such an empty space in your heart. I'm so sorry.

Deb R said...

Oh, January, I'm so sorry about your friend.

Oliver de la Paz said...

Jan, I found out about Phebus this morning. I'm still in shock.

What a terrible loss.

Nic Sebastian said...


Brian said...

You've written a heartfelt post to your friend. A loss to to many.

Mendi O. said...

Thankyou. I miss her, too. So much.

Left-handed Trees... said...

She was are her words here. I'm sorry for this loss.

John K said...

Jan, thank you for your remembrances of Phebus. You, she and Joseph are three of the people I always recall when I think of my time in NYU's program. I will definitely miss her, but her words are still, thankfully, with us.

Kristine said...

I am so deeply sorry for your loss.
Sending prayers of comfort your way...

Becca said...

Such a great loss to you and the world.

The poem you shared is just beautiful~I'm hope you will find many ways to keep "stitching her presence" into your life and memory.

Bug said...

I'm so, so sorry. Hang in there.

January said...

Thanks Bug, and everyone.

There's just something so wrong about a poet taken away in National Poetry Month.

Kamsin said...

I am so sorry to hear of your loss. Thank you for sharing her poem with us.

Pink Granite said...

Please accept my deepest sympathies on the passing of your dear friend Phebus. You honor her both here and in your poetry.
- Lee

giggles said...

Phebus was an amazing writer. Her poetry sent chills down my body! So sorry for your loss....may her memories and poetry comfort you!

Sincerely Sherrie

Dana said...

I am so sorry you lost your friend. So sorry. Thank you for sharing her poem here.

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