The Dead Kid Poems, by Alexis Rhone Fancher
Review by Sarah Stockton
Alexis Rhone Fancher’s new chapbook, The Dead Kid Poems (Kyso Flash Press, 2019), while a complete collection unto itself, is described on the title page as a companion volume to a previous chapbook called State of Grace: the Joshua Elegies (Kyso Flash Press, 2015). Not having read Fancher’s previous work, I can still vouch for the fact that while this new collection contains its own cohesive integrity, reading these poems feels like stepping into the middle of a much longer conversation; not so much eavesdropping, as witnessing. Not as a passive bystander, but as an attentive companion to this ongoing story of grief.
A sense of the continuity of the poet’s suffering and resiliency is conveyed even with the page numbering; the Table of Contents starts on page 13 (with no numerals on preceding pages). This small numerological detail adds to the overarching sense of time’s long embrace–or is it a devastation–so well-documented in lines like this from a poem, titled, “Today, in her garden, my sister says, This plant came from the birds,” about her sister’s child, which take us from pregnancy to current reality:
I want to tap my sister’s younger self on the shoulder, say
don’t worry; this will turn out badly,
no matter what you do.
Most life narratives don’t follow one smooth and congenial plot line, much as we might wish it were so. The sufferings and shock of illness, death, addiction, and estrangement touch us all to one degree or another, at one time or another. And yet it is this poet’s gift to offer up the best configuration of words and meaning she can conjure, to transform suffering into connection, and shame into strength. In the poem “Every Day is Mother’s Day,” we are asked to contemplate an answer to the question:
If you had only
one child and he died,
are you still a mother?
The poem goes on to answer:
Yes, a son. Just one.
Or: No. I have no children.
Like he never was.
Say it and then catch yourself:
Such cruel betrayal.
Again and again, the poet asks us to think the unthinkable, and to think about what we would say if we didn’t care what anyone else thought. In “Car Shopping,” the great antithetical freedom of grief is expressed in one short, sharp moment,
You can fit grandkids
in the back, the saleswoman
promises. I tell
her my only son is dead.
My husband’s horrified look.
Some of the poems in The Dead Kid Poems are not about the death of the poet’s son from cancer, but about addiction, another kind of death, albeit played out here in slow, suffocating motion, sustained but not truly arrested by loving intentions or co-dependent desperation. “Anna as War Zone,” written to a sister, the mother of Anna, is a testament to the ways in which other lives are damaged by addiction’s greedy tentacles. It opens with the truly brilliant line, My sister is a cargo plane of Hail Marys; Anna, the war zone she circles. Then the poem goes on in exasperation, or despair:
She’s low on fuel, her husband ready to walk, the rest of us at wit’s end. A good mother never gives up on her child, my sister insists. I am speaking to a wall.
The title and subjects of The Dead Kid Poems might dissuade some readers, but I would hope not. I’d gladly hand this chapbook out at a 12-step meeting, a wake, or give it to an adversary or my own children. It says, pay attention, this is what grief does. If time, for a grieving parent, for any of us, is both frozen and malleable, much too long and all too short, then we might as well tell the truth while we can, to whoever will listen. As the poet says in “Overdose (Persona poem for K. S-B on the death of her son),”
Don’t minimize my loss.
My boy is not better off dead.
For once, let’s say it like it is:
He did not pass away.
There are no panaceas in these poems, and few condolences. Small gifts run through it, however: honesty and dark humor, examples of survival with grace. And finally, we are left with a small comfort that a deep solace is possible:
Last night as I finally drifted off, my dead boy covered me with his yellow baby blanket.
Sleep now, Mama, he said.
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Poet and photographer Alexis Rhone Fancher has work published in over 200 literary magazines, journals, and anthologies, including Best American Poetry, Rattle, Hobart, Verse Daily, The MacGuffin, Plume, Tinderbox, Diode, Nashville Review, Rust + Moth, Nasty Women Poets, Wide Awake: Poets of Los Angeles and Beyond, among others. Her photographs have been published worldwide. Her books include: How I Lost My Virginity to Michael Cohen & other heart stab poems, Enter Here, and the autobiographical, Junkie Wife. Her chapbook, State of Grace: The Joshua Elegies was released in 2015, and its companion, The Dead Kid Poems, published in May, 2019. EROTIC, a volume of her new and selected erotica, will be published in 2020 by New York Quarterly. A nominee of multiple Pushcart Prize, Best Small Fictions, Best Micro-fiction, and Best of the Net awards, Alexis is poetry editor of Cultural Weekly.
Review by Sarah Stockton
Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe.
She is a co-founder and editor at Headmistress Press and has published three full length collections of poetry, most recently, “slight faith” (MoonPath Press, 2018).