How to Make Pancakes for a Dead Boy, by Joan Kwon Glass
Harbor Editions, imprint of Small Harbor Publishing, 2021
Cover art by Jen Stein Hauptman, Design by Claire Eder
Review by Risa Denenberg
If you haven’t lost someone close to you to suicide—and I haven’t—you can only imagine the range of emotions you might feel all at once: fury, wild grief, shame, guilt, regret, fear, deep affection, and how difficult it would be to give language to such complex feelings. Joan Kwon Glass translates these emotions into devastating poems in her chapbook, How to Make Pancakes for a Dead Boy. Harder to imagine is the death of a child by suicide; and yet these poems are dedicated “For my nephew Frankie, who died by suicide at age 11.”
In the eponymous poem, Glass mingles the ordinary, the wished-for, the memory, and the reality of her nephew’s death into the facade of simple instructions:
First, crack the egg
into a sinkhole of grief.
Measure the ingredients,
then stir until the lumps
no longer resemble bullets.
A suicide may seem to come without any warning; seen more clearly in hindsight, there are almost always signs. Glass notes evidence of her nephew’s thoughts of suicide in the first poem, “Red Flags.”
He asked his grandmother about heaven twice
in one week, specifically whether pain
disappears or if we carry it with us.
When signals are misinterpreted, a death by suicide is tinged with unspeakable regret. There must have been something that could have, should have, prevented this tragedy. In “What I Regret,” Glass mourns the lost opportunities, the “should haves.”
I should have filled your arms with a blooming
bushel of your favorite candy …
I should have asked: What do dream of holding?
Before it’s too late, tell me what your heart wants.
Although they circle around the death of one boy, the poems in How to Make Pancakes for a Dead Boy also circle time and distance, culture and history, the way families try or fail to hold on to one another. In “Chuseok 추석,” a traditional Korean holiday is viewed simultaneously across generations and distances. Starting with “Today my uncle and his wife will visit / my grandparents’ tomb in Korea / the way they do every year,” Glass repeats this ritual of remembrance at a distance,
I think of my nephew’s grave in Troy, Michigan,
7,400 miles from my grandparents’ tomb,
his headstone flush to the ground.
The uncle and his wife, “leave trays stacked high / with persimmons and powdered tteok” while Glass regrets what she is unable to do for her nephew. “If I could go back, I would claim a summit / and build him a tomb.”
In “Keeping Watch,” are these mournful yearnings:
Frankie, if you were still alive, I’d shrink my world down
and keep watch. Grandma and I would set up camp
in your bedroom, bring a small light and leave it on all the time.
Even at night, you’d be the only thing in view.
Eventually I would see what needs to be fixed.
Remembrance may induce us to enact rituals of bringing back the dead that rely on tradition and belief. In “I Ask the Pearl Diver to Bring You Back from the Dead,” divers produce “creatures that grief pulls from deep airless places.” In an illusion that seems to be real,
You swim toward me,
race the [diver], and she almost beats you to the shore.
You look up at me like a field of canola opening in the sun.
Glass moves on, as she must, while holding on to her ever-present grief for her nephew. The language in these poems grows more and more lyrical as the poems progress, seeming to reflect the lyricism allowed by the passage of time. I love these lines from “Nocturne for Lost Sons,” where collections of mourners see “the boys coming home / in the dark,”
If they arrive, we will unthread their lips and nurse them
or lay forkfuls of lasagna on their tongues.
We’ll tell them their rooms are just as they left them.
When dawn comes, all of it will burn away.
We hold on as long as we can, hoping
the last sound we hear will be
of their sneakered-feet coming towards us,
dribbling balls or peddling bicycles
from wherever they’ve been.
The grief in these poems is as relentless as their beauty. But in “Taking My Daughter Out for Smoothies,” the focus shifts to acts of redemption for the living. In the car, in line waiting for smoothies, Glass admits that she spends this time hoping for “anything that will keep you / close to me a bit longer.” Parents may spend hours with a teenager feeling unseen and unheard, aware that no “14 year old girl believes that her mother / has answers to any of her questions.” Patience pays off when her daughter says out of the blue: “I have been thinking a lot / about God lately … Like when I pray, how do I even know if he is listening.”
Once on a long plane ride, I sat near a mom and a boy who was about the age of Glass’s nephew. The mom was tired, clearly wanted to zone out, flip through her magazine. The kid was enthusiastically trying to explain something to her about something—I don’t remember what—and she was pretty much ignoring him. It made me want to say to her, “Listen now. He may not want to talk to you later.”
In “How to Make Pancakes for a Dead Boy,” Glass is listening as hard as she can.
Joan Kwon Glass is the biracial, Korean American author of NIGHT SWIM, winner of the 2021 Diode Editions Book Contest, & is author of three chapbooks (Harbor Editions & Milk & Cake Press). Joan is a Brooklyn Poets mentor, poet laureate of Milford, CT & poetry co-editor of West Trestle Review. She is a proud Smith College graduate & has been a public school educator for 20 years. Her poems have appeared in Diode, Rattle, The Rupture, South Florida Poetry Journal & many others & have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize & Sundress Anthology Best of the Net. She grew up in Michigan & South Korea, & lives in Connecticut with her family.
Title: How to Make Pancakes for a Dead Boy
Author: Joan Kwon Glass
Publisher: Harbor Editions, imprint of Small Harbor Publishing, 2021
Cover art by Jen Stein Hauptman
Cover design by Claire Eder
pp. 44 $12
Risa Denenberg lives on the Olympic peninsula in Washington state where she works as a nurse practitioner. She is a co-founder of Headmistress Press; curator at The Poetry Café Online; and an avid book reviewer. Her most recent publications include the full-length collection, slight faith (MoonPath Press, 2018) and the chapbook, Posthuman, finalist in the Floating Bridge 2020 chapbook competition.
Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe.