Phebus 1966-2007

Since the earthquake in Haiti, I have been thinking about my friend and beloved poet Phebus Etienne. Her name has come up several times on the Cave Canem listserv recently. We miss her. I miss her.

Not once in the four readings I participated in last week did I share one of her poems. Not once. A lost opportunity to bring her presence into the room—and for that I am kicking myself. So please indulge me as I speak her name now and share with you the title poem from her 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.

Two organizations accepting donations for disaster relief in Haiti are the American Red Cross and UNICEF.


I love that poem. Thanks for posting.
susan said…
I know how it feels to lose and miss a friend.
P. Sinclair said…
Mmm. Thank you for sharing.

mister jim said…
Fantastic selection, all
the rituals. So clearly said.
January said…
Thanks Jim. Thanks everyone.

I hope Phebus' manuscript will someday see the light of day. She was a very talented woman.
Anonymous said…
Thank you sharing Phebus' works here~ her poem I can relate to and her longing to be near to her mom after she'd passed. Perhaps Phebus' and my mom are now sharing Phebus' poetry and spirit together-just above this space called Mother Earth. I have to believe this. Thank you Jan, thank you Phebus, thank you mom. Pray for all in Haiti.
Jessie Carty said…
that is definitely the kind of work that you hope will find a publisher some day :( terrific!
evie said…
don't beat yourself up, january. you've just given us all a chance to re-read "chainstitching," a little blessing.

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