Review by Eileen Murphy
And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon’s that is dreaming,
And the lamp-light o’er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
Shall be lifted—nevermore!
(E. A. Poe, “The Raven”)
Is there a time limit to the grief of a mother who’s lost her only child? When will her “soul” be “lifted” from the “shadow” of mourning? The poems in The Dead Kid Poems by Alexis Rhone Fancher brilliantly document a mother’s devastation.
The Dead Kid Poems is the companion volume to Alexis Rhone Fancher’s highly acclaimed State of Grace: The Joshua Elegies (KYSO Flash 2015). In that earlier book, Rhone Fancher writes about the death of her 26-year-old only son Joshua from epithelioid sarcoma, a rare cancer. When Rhone Fancher finished writing State of Grace, she felt a sense of closure, but soon found that she wanted and needed to continue writing poems about her son, his death, and its aftermath. Her followers and readers urged her to write a sequel (“Note of Acknowledgement”). The Dead Kid Poems is the result.
In the persona poem, “Overdose,” the speaker, Rhone Fancher’s friend, Karen, has just lost her son to Fentanyl. The speaker, Karen, begs Rhone Fancher, “Don’t tell me not to dwell // Don’t minimize my loss” (“Overdose”). In another poem, when the speaker Rhone Fancher is asked, Are you a mother? Rhone Fancher hesitates to answer. She knows that once she speaks the words my son died, the conversation will be hijacked. Yet if the speaker were to respond, I have no children, it would be a “cruel betrayal,” like “erasing” her beloved son (“Every Day Is Mother’s Day”).
The Greek-derived word hubris means to be so overly proud of yourself—or maybe of your offspring—that it offends the gods; and for this crime, for setting yourself up as a kind of false god, the gods might strike you down. In “Unsolicited Advice to a Facebook Mom,” the speaker addresses one of the mothers who might offend the gods. Instead of “plastering” Facebook with photos of her son and “flaunting” his “shining face,” the speaker believes that a mother should spend her energy protecting her child from real dangers, “from what you can’t imagine”:
a street race.
(“Unsolicited Advice to a Facebook Mom”)
While the focus of Rhone Fancher’s first book was on her personal loss, The Dead Kid Poems is not only about Rhone Fancher’s son. The speaker also witnesses the tragic actings-out of her niece Anna, her sister’s daughter who’s an active “meth” addict and all-round “demon seed” (“Today in the garden, my sister says, This plant came from the birds”).This niece is the product of Rhone Fancher’s sister’s failed relationship with “an off-kilter artist with trust issues” (“Today in the garden, my sister says, This plant came from the birds”). It appears that Anna’s psyche may have been fatally wounded by a pastor’s sexual abuse. Rhone Fancher makes a connection between Anna’s drug addiction and the girl’s sexual trauma. Anna’s mother protests, “We only went to that church for a year” (“The only people who call it ‘Cali’ are from someplace else”).
A mother’s grief is boundless, endless: “you don’t get past it” (“Author’s Afterword”). “…[E]ach day he dies anew,” and, as a result, says the speaker, “the wind [blows] right through me” (“Every Day Is Mother’s Day”). And the speaker empathizes with her sister, recognizing that her sister, too, has lost a child (“There are worse things than a dead kid, I think”). Mothers of children who grow up to be addicts or sociopaths and mothers of dead children both have lost their offspring, and it’s hard to say who is the sadder parent.
Ultimately, these poems mourn all lost children. Rhone Fancher fears that we’ve “grown accustomed to dead kids” (“Accustomed to Dead Kids,” sung to Lerner & Lowe’s “Accustomed to Her Face”), addressing the almost daily school shootings in America. The speaker documents the horrors. She tells us: “On TV I witness an endless stream of dead kids—killed by car crashes, suicide, drive-bys, an overdose, cancer. I keep writing.” (“Author’s Afterword).
Alexis Rhone Fancher is a Los Angeles-based poet, editor, and photographer who’s attracted considerable attention, among other things, for her erotic-feminist poetry in the books How I Lost My Virginity to Michael Cohen and other heart stab poems, Enter Here, and Junkie Wife. Those three books are hard-hitting and insightful, but I was knocked out by the double-whammy of State of Grace: The Joshua Elegies and The Dead Kid Poems. The brutal honesty, ironic sensibility, and sophisticated poetic techniques that make Rhone Fancher’s erotic poems so successful turn into surgically-precise stabs to the heart (hers and ours) when she writes about her boy’s death.
The Dead Kid Poems are illustrated with seven of Alexis Rhone Fancher’s photographs. A picture that caught my attention was her “Self Portrait” taken at Venice Beach in 2007. It accompanies a short poem “Car Shopping,” in which the car saleswoman tells the speaker, “You can fit grandkids / in the back.” “Self Portrait” is a head shot of Alexis Rhone Fancher in shades of sepia. The photo shows the face of a woman with short dark hair, perhaps seated in a restaurant booth, facing the camera. The yellow-ish lighting in the photo makes her mouth and skin appear almost bruised. She is looking off into the distance, perhaps holding back tears through sheer willpower. She seems sad and stubborn, especially around the eyes. No, wait, she’s not stubborn—that’s just surface. Underneath the stubbornness, I see desolation.
I am not a crier. To make me shed a tear, a poem has to hit me just right. But I sobbed all the way through The Dead Kid Poems. Then I went back and re-read State of Grace: The Joshua Elegies, sobbing my way through that book, too. (I believe that, ideally, the two books should be read together.)
I found The Dead Kid Poems touching and profound. I suggest that Alexis Rhone Fancher’s lost-child poetry will pierce your heart, too, “if it be made of penetrable stuff” (Ham. 3.4).
The Dead Kid Poems by Alexis Rhone Fancher is available on Amazon.com
Eileen Murphy lives near Tampa with husband and two dogs. She teaches literature/English at Polk State College. Her recent book reviews are published in Tinderbox Journal, Rain Taxi,Cultural Weekly, BLARB, Glass, Crab Fat, and other journals.