09 April 2007

Au Revoir Phebus

Phebus Etienne at Gladys Knight and Ron Winan's Chicken and Waffles, Atlanta GA (photo courtesy of January Gill O'Neil)

I received the shocking news today that friend and poet Phebus Etienne passed on March 31, 2007, at the age of 41. I'm stunned, and feel a deep emptiness...I honestly can NOT believe that she's gone...

A fellow Cave Canem poet, her work appeared in a number of anthologies, including Making Callaloo: 25 Years of Black Literature, and her manuscript, Chainstiching, was finalist for the 2005 Tupelo Press poetry contest and semi-finalist for the 2006 Beatrice Hawley Award from Alice James Books.

None of this tells you about how glorious a person she was, the beautiful music of her soft voice, or how equally beautiful and strong her talent was. Warm, friendly, honest, and *human* in a way that so many of us aren't, I loved her smile, I loved her hugs, I loved and love her still.

Six of her poems can be found here on the Second Avenue Poetry website.

A clip of Phebus reading "Long Walk Home" at the Cave Canem Fellows Reading, Spellman College, Atlanta, Georgia, Friday March 2, 2007, from Amanda Johnston's Blog

The poem below, title poem from her manuscript, is from the anthology, The Butterfly's Way: Voices from the Haitian Dyaspora in the United States, edited by Edwidge Danticat


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

Blogging Poets and Writers remember Phebus:

John Keene

Jan(uary Gill) O'Neil

Tayari Jones

Oliver de la Paz

Mendi Lewis Obadike

Tara Betts


The following arrangements have been made for Phebus:

Wake: Friday, April 13, 4-9 pm, with a service by Father Francis Gargani at 7:30 pm; Andrew Torregrossa & Sons Funeral Home, 2265 Flatbush Avenue (Between Filmore Avenue & Avenue R), Brooklyn, NY, 718.253.5900.

Funeral Mass: Saturday, April 14, 9:15 am ; Saint Gregory the Great Church, Saint Johns Place & Brooklyn Avenue, Brooklyn, NY, 718.773.0100.

Internment: Rosedale & Rosehill Cemetary, 355 East Linden Avenue, Linden, NJ 07036, 908.862.4990.


Oliver de la Paz said...

Reggie, I found out this morning. Terrible, terrible news. She was, indeed, a beautiful being.

January said...

Thank you for your words. Can't believe she's gone. But I'm glad we had the chance to see her last month at AWP.

John K said...


Thanks for your tribute to Phebus. Such utterly heartbreaking news....

Mendi O. said...

Thanks Reggie. In times like these I am so glad to be in community.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your words. thanks friend

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