Concerning Craft: Shirley Brewer – Revisited

The “Concerning Craft” series introduces Little Patuxent Review contributors, showcases their work and draws back the curtain to reveal a little of what went into producing it.

Please meet poet and educator, Shirley Brewer. Shirley previously contributed to the Concerning Craft series exploring the creation of her poem “Fairy Tale, Interrupted”, which we published in our Summer 2012 Audacity issue. In the interim she released a collection of poetry, After Words, a reaction to the murder of Stephen Pitcairn in Baltimore. When she showed up again in our Summer 2014 issue I wanted to seize upon the opportunity to return to one of our contributors to explore not just their approach to their craft in the present moment, but to observe an evolution in technique and aesthetic. Without further adieu, Shirley Brewer on her poem, “Above Chicago“:

I have developed a daily habit I find most nourishing. Every morning I read The Writer’s Almanac. Starting the day with a poem keeps me focused on my passion. I also enjoy reading the prose tidbits Garrison Keillor includes beneath the poem – birthdays of writers/anniversaries of events in history. I sometimes find material for new poems there.

Such was the case this past January 25th, when I read about the first transcontinental commercial jet flight on that date in 1959. I might have let that nugget pass, but knowing Carl Sandburg was on the plane tweaked my interest. I love Sandburg’s poetry, and once visited his family home, Connemara, near Flat Rock, North Carolina, where I bonded with a newborn goat named Wyatt. The Sandburgs raised goats, and the estate was still flourishing.

In writing “Above Chicago,” I decided to begin with actual items from the flight menu. Have the reader salivate! The names of the dishes had great alliteration: Maine lobsters, filet mignon, macaroon ice cream balls. I courted assonance in the first stanza as well: macaroon, ooze, saloon, fueled troubadour. I could have submitted this to LPR’s Food issue!

Although I have no idea about the actual flight plan, I love imagining the jet flew “Above Chicago,” and I can visualize Sandburg singing lines from his famous poem about that iconic American city. He was quite the musician, as well as a superb poet. I wanted to include crimson, as Sandburg used that word in a number of his poems and I think it must have been a word he liked.

Gin and ink wed inside his journal, a line that just appeared! Sandburg – in his early 80’s at the time – did keep a journal. And the booze flowed freely on that flight. Like all of the other passengers, Sandburg participated in the frivolity of the occasion! One of the pleasures I relish in poetry is selecting a verb that sounds fresh and fits, and wed seemed like a winner.

I decided to end the poem with another reference to Sandburg’s Chicago poem. Hogs and butchers in the last line to balance the filet mignon in the first line! What pleases me about crafting a poem is making word choices, and playing with sounds. It may take at least a dozen or more revisions, but it’s such a joyful task!

The subject of my previous Concerning Craft piece was Cinderella, in my poem, “Fairy Tale, Interrupted.” Poetically speaking, both Cinderella and Carl Sandburg piqued my interest! And when I care enough to write a poem, I’ll begin the process and see where it takes me. I think, initially, I wrote “Fairy Tale, Interrupted” as one stanza of fifteen lines, before I decided it would work well as five tercets. I often don’t decide on the format until I’m well along in my writing. Two stanzas of nine lines each seemed to work well for “Above Chicago.” I wanted to begin the second stanza with Sandburg’s reference to Chicago as City of the Big Shoulders, an image I find miraculous.

I obviously had a long history with Cinderella – a story and movie I have loved since childhood. A blurb on The Writer’s Almanac inspired “Above Chicago.” Whatever the genesis, once the idea set in – I want this idea to be a poem – I go into my space where I just write and see where it takes me.

Both poems surprised me. In “Fairy Tale, Interrupted,” I start by writing about Cinderella. Then, I speak directly to her. I didn’t plan that ahead of time. In “Above Chicago,” I initially thought I would write only about Sandburg on that transcontinental flight, maybe touch on the food and drink, and Chicago inserted itself! I love it when that happens.

In both poems, I pay attention to sounds. I’ve already mentioned alliteration and assonance in “Above Chicago.” In “Fairy Tale, Interrupted,” each tercet ends with a rhyming word.

“Fairy tale, Interrupted,” appeared in LPR’s Audacity Issue. I think of Carl Sandburg as a thrillingly audacious poet. Maybe I’ll write a poem in which Cinderella meets up with Carl Sandburg. And they’ll raise a goat named Wyatt.

Every poem is an internal adventure. Whether the source is family, the past, mythology, an item in the news – the poet invites us to experience the depth of his/her vision. I find the process both challenging and exhilarating. The poem I craft tomorrow may be totally different than anything I have previously written. I can only hope all of my poems carry some freshness into the world. Carl Sandburg once defined poetry as “the journey of a sea animal living on land, waiting to fly in the air.”

Oh, Carl, I’m glad you flew in the air on that first transcontinental flight! 55 years later, I honor your journey – the literal one as well as the metaphorical. I know you’d concur that, in poetry, there’s always a place for cat feet and glass slippers.

Shirley J. Brewer graduated from careers in bartending, palm-reading, and speech therapy. She has served for two years as poet-in-residence at Carver Center for the Arts and Technology inBaltimore County. She also teaches poetry at LitMore in Baltimore, and at Howard Community College. Shirley presents workshops on Creativity, Poetry, and Healing Through Writing. Recent poems appear in: The Cortland Review, Innisfree Poetry Journal, Pearl, Comstock Review, Passager, as well as in Little Patuxent Review and other journals. Her poetry chapbooks include A Little Breast Music, 2008, Passager Books and After Words, 2013, Apprentice House/Loyola University.

Book Review: Shirley Brewer’s After Words

Most of us don’t live in hamlets. Even if we did, I suspect we’d still get our news mostly from the Net, from neighbors and co-workers and friends, TV, the diminished but dogged daily papers, the weeklies. Surely not from books. Rarely do we experience our news directly. It’s hand-me-down, a leeching of vitamins from vitamin pills, not whole foods.

Yet After Words somehow defies all this to deliver its news needle-to-vein, turning the reader into a direct witness. It burns in the palm and reads like a teletype. It is a knife thrust. Dispatch after dispatch, Shirley Brewer leaves us no easy way to turn our eyes. So yes, the book is reportorial. Yet it is more: part cenotaph, part elegy to this clearly bright, sweet fellow, this real-life Everyman, someone a lot like you and me. Part of the teeming masses. A citizen. A researcher at Johns Hopkins. A budding medical student.

But two days shy of his twenty-fourth birthday, this Everyman was stripped forcibly of his anonymity and burst unavoidably into the headlines when he bled out on a city pavement, heart punctured by a mugger’s knife. A private life, a public death.

And so this Everyman got a name. Stephen Pitcairn.

Pitcairn’s slaying occurred one block from the author’s home in the Baltimore hamlet known as Charles Village. She never knew him, as most of us remain unknown to each other until fortune, good, bad or notorious, draws attention to us; never knew him, yet in the pages of After Words constructs an incisive and meticulous portrait, perhaps of the victims (yes, plural: “When you kill a son, you kill his mother too,” the poet reminds us), perhaps of our common, most atavistic selves. This isn’t a poetry to turn to for pleasantries.

Disclosure: Like Shirley Brewer, who stitched together the discarnate bulletins that make up After Words, I never knew Stephen Pitcairn; but Shirley I know. She is a deft and professional writer, an acrobat who inches across the high wires of her art with grace and roisterous good humor. If you, too, are acquainted with Brewer’s work – and the public audience is certainly growing for her spirited, haunting, sometimes insistent, always capacious, Thoroughly Modern Shirley voice – then this slender volume may surprise you: the voice is pretty spare here. Appropriately spare. While the grace informs every page, the wry humor has been flensed, scooped clean, replaced with the unhurried, fully permeable nobility of a mourning sensibility. Much in the way of lamentation comes from the victim himself, shade of a shade.

Is it too much to ask
for one piece of chocolate cake?

I grieve for my parents, my sisters,
my co-workers, my friends –
the light they lost when I died.

My mother heard my final cries
over the phone – Mom,
the last word I spoke.

[from “Slain”]

Since she never knew him, Brewer pulls off this act of fine imagination with her back against the wall, especially in the creation of particulars: returning to us someone she never met, delivering him in high, unforgettable contrast. And so reading the poems is something like assessing at close range the gradations of Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico, a large print of that icon, perfectly developed, which is a sort of magic on the wall. After Words is a sort of magic in the hand: sitting by Adams’s lens, by Brewer’s pen, we rise to become bystanders in the half light preceding the dark.

Brewer, for all the gypsy scarves and fires gladdening her other work, is no necromancer: she knows damned well that she can’t raise the dead, that the dead don’t shine, don’t feel, don’t speak, and ditto inanimate objects, yet she wags her pen and forcefully conjures these selfsame riddles and runes. Stephen rises (so to speak, and speak he does) and shines (“brighter than a full Charles Village moon”). The moon speaks. Even the ruinous knife speaks. The pages of After Words record Brewer’s struggle for reconciliation and meaning, even if only existential, no alchemy, no thaumaturgy, no voodoo to it, the mode elegiac, the voices disconsolate.

In “The Role of Elegy,” Mary Jo Bang addresses the point:

What is elegy but the attempt
To rebreathe life
Into what the gone one once was
Before he grew to enormity.

Come on stage and be yourself,
The elegist says to the dead. Show them
Now – after the fact –
What you were meant to be:

The performer of a live song.
A shoe. Now bow.
What is left but this:
The compulsion to tell.

This poet tells. She invites Stephen to come onstage again and again, invites him to be himself the while, and what emerges is not so much memoir as a grounded and very sentient but unsentimental study.

I live on in blue,
a doctor of sky.

Yet she is not unremitting. When she asks us, in Stephen’s voice

If I could look in a mirror
right now, what would I see?
No one says: Death
becomes you.

she allows him a rare droll moment. But then he continues, absent a whiff of irony

The dead cannot speak –
both lungs and larynx lost.

If another language thrives here,
I have not learned it.

My words still shine like candles
tossed into the white cauldron of moon.

and we are back on track, in the demimonde of the associative. The heart’s blood of poetry. This track leads us to a (technically, emotionally) admirable passage, Stephen’s too-human realization that

This lonely country could be an illusion,
except I remember my casket

lowered into the ground,
severing me

from my sisters drenched in black.

[from “Lifeline”]

“. . . my sisters drenched in black” – did you notice? – there’s the economy of the artist asserting itself. But of course. Of course.

This is real poetry pressed into the service of nobility, not simple art. Deceptively hard to do, yet Brewer, as in everything she’s shared with us, is abundantly equal to the task. But perhaps she had help. Let Stephen’s words abide, then, for the poet, for us, for his family:

Did they think a knife
was enough to part us?

How do I relinquish
the parts of me that will not die?

Invisible, my hand rests
steady on your shoulder.

Shirley Brewer will be a featured reader at the Minás Gallery open mic this Sunday. Admission is $3. Click here for more details. For insight into Shirley’s approach to writing and craft, see her contribution to our Concerning Craft series.