Shirley J. Brewer, After Words, ISBN 978-1-934074-82-4, Apprentice House/Loyola University, Baltimore, Maryland, paperback perfect bound, 50 pages, $9.95.
Here is a dramatic and heartrending collection of poems written about the stabbing death in Baltimore of researcher Stephen B. Pitcairn, who planned a career as a doctor, two days before the young man’s 24th birthday. Pitcairn was fatally stabbed in the heart in a mugging one night in July 2010 on St. Paul Street, a block from Brewer’s home in the city’s Charles Village neighborhood. He had made the mistake of walking home to his apartment from Penn Station some blocks to the south. Where the attack occurred is a location that this reviewer knows well. In my capacity as a medical editor in Washington, D.C., my morning cab driver and I pass the spot most weekdays shortly after 6:00 am in our ride to the station to go to my office in D.C. It is right opposite an old converted branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library that has been renovated as the Village Learning Place in the 2500 block of St. Paul Street. I read a poem there not too long ago.
Stephen Pitcairn’s killers were young African Americans. But then-neighborhood resident Reggie Higgins, the man who cradled Pitcairn as he lay dying from a stab wound to the chest, was also black. The killing left Charles Village, a multi-racial neighborhood with a high student population close to the Johns Hopkins University Homewood campus, stunned. Shirley Brewer attended a community vigil a few days after the murder and met Mr. Higgins, and was both shocked and captivated by the story.
Her first poem on the tragedy was written at the end of July and appeared the following month on her Goddess Blog as “Poem for Stephen Pitcairn – from the residents of Charles Village.” It was a message to the victim from his neighbors. The poem was revised for publication in the book as follows:
…………………—Poem for Stephen Pitcairn
…………………from the residents of Charles Village
…………………July 31, 2010
We felt the knife, too, an awful
stab in our collective heart,
a pain so deep we have spent
sleepless hours thinking of you.
We want to bring you back –
our neighbor – your handsome face
once more animated, curious, kind.
We want to present you,
whole and vibrant, to your mother,
so connected to you
she listened to your birth cries
twenty-four years ago,
then heard over the phone
the unimaginable agony of your death.
A full moon blessed Baltimore that night
you stepped off the bus at Penn Station,
inhaled the balmy air,
your legs stiff from a long ride.
Always a walker, you made the choice
to travel by foot the last mile home.
A call to your mom wrapped your journey
in family and warmth.
Perhaps you spoke about your weekend
visit with your sisters in New York,
your plans to celebrate
your upcoming birthday with friends.
Evil appeared on St. Paul Street,
penetrated the neighborhood we love.
You pleaded for humanity.
In the darkness, a man emerged,
a gentle neighbor who held you,
comforted you. Oh, Stephen, please know
Reggie was all of us, on our knees in the street.
Stephen Pitcairn – son, brother, researcher, friend –
dedicated, promising, brilliant, fun,
we did not save you.
You died in Charles Village.
We cannot change what happened; even
the moon wept, her face a mother’s wound.
Yesterday, your family in Florida buried you.
Did they spit out Baltimore?
We who also grieve your loss
wonder, Stephen, what can we offer you:
a world without monsters, without scars,
a village without crime?
We offer you resolve, the will
to make good change.
We offer you a safe haven in our hearts,
a warm place at our dinner tables.
We offer you this poem, a space
in each lovely Charles Village garden.
We offer you a walk on a gorgeous day,
a meal at the Paper Moon.
We offer to hold the hand
of everyone who needs us.
Stephen, in your duffle bag
that night you carried your dreams.
If every Charles Village resident
holds on to your life vision,
imagine the powerful impact
on this hazy, damaged world.
We give thanks for the days
you walked among us.
We give thanks to your parents
for sharing you.
In quiet, simple moments,
life moves forward:
small gestures, greetings, the way
we touch the flowers.
Stephen Pitcairn, your light continues,
brighter than a full Charles Village moon.
Did she but know it, that initial poem would lead to a stream of inspired poems, thirteen in all including the initial poem, exploring all aspects of the Pitcairn tragedy, partly helped on by Ms. Brewer’s correspondence with Stephen’s bereaved mother, Gwen. Poems written in the unflinching “Poetry of Witness” style of Carolyn Forché, that the better known poet has used to illuminate our understanding of atrocity and loss worldwide. Poems written from a wide range of points of view – the community, the victim Stephen Pitcairn, his mother Gwen, Reggie Higgins who comforted the stricken young man as he lay dying, the moon, and the knife itself. Such as this one, “Slain,” one spoken in Stephen’s voice, part of which reads:
I miss small joys: oysters
on the half shell, a good joke.
I want years to explore
all the stops on my personal map.
Give me the chance to celebrate
my twenty-fourth birthday.
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. . . .
Similarly, in “To My Killers” the victim speaks to his murderers, the opening lines reading:
Did you feel anything
when you took my life?
Your blade broke through
skin and muscle, tore my young heart.
Marked with my blood, you ran
like rabid dogs into the moon-carved night.
You carried away my wallet, my phone—
possessions I had already offered.
I imagine your hearts
black canyons unable to bear
the lightness you heard in my voice
as I talked to my mom.
The rage of all you never knew
exploded in your brains.
Your knife spoke, its upward thrust
a curse — your lives a bad list:
misdeeds, the tumbling fall
into the cesspool of the world.
Do you wake up with remorse? What if
you could start over,
return to your infant blankets,
gaze into the faces of mothers who loved you?
What might have changed
the paths you followed? . . .
This is poetry of grief and heartbreak but rendered with clarity, humanity, and touch of humor. After Words makes Stephen Pitcairn come alive and thus makes his loss all the more real to us, the readers. The book is a triumph. Highly recommended. If there is to be any criticism leveled at the book, it is this: to my mind, “Offering,” the opening poem that kicked off the series, the poem that appeared on Ms. Brewer’s blog and was later revised for the book, is not quite as good as the almost searingly insightful poems that follow. “Offering” is heartfelt and sincere but it is also telling in some aspects (“an awful / stab in our collective heart,” . . . “the unimaginable agony of your death”) — a trap that the later, more sophisticated poems avoid.
Ms. Brewer explained to me:
“The first poem — ‘Offering’ — is the only one in my voice – and was written in the week after the murder, in the height of the emotion. It was intended at that time only for Stephen’s parents and family. The other poems came later, with the emphasis more on the craft.
“The elements of After Words work together to tell a story. My introduction, Gwen Pitcairn’s dedication to her son, the two epigraphs, Stephen’s essay, the poems crafted in Stephen’s voice, in Gwen’s voice, in the voice of Reggie Higgins, and that of the moon, the tree, the knife — and the first poem that traveled from a poet’s heart to the heart of a mother in Florida who had just lost her only son. ‘Offering’ was a poem to Stephen – as much a raw message and correspondence as a poem.
“In that sense, ‘Offering’ differs from the other poems. It established my relationship with Gwen Pitcairn — and a trust between us — that fostered the writing of the other poems. (E-mails of July 15-16, 2013 from Shirley Brewer to Chris George, quoted with permission of the poet).
As I write, Ms. Brewer was due to read from the book at the Village Learning Place on Wednesday, July 24, 2013. It was certain to be an emotional evening.
© Christopher T. George and Shirley J. Brewer
Shirley J. Brewer, a resident of Baltimore, Maryland, is a poet, educator, and workshop facilitator. In addition to her work being published here in the Loch Raven Review, her poetry has appeared in The Cortland Review, Comstock Review, Passager, New Verse News, Innisfree Poetry Journal, and other publications. Her poetry chapbook, A Little Breast Music, was published in 2008 by Passager Books. After Words is her second published chapbook.
Christopher T. George is Co-Editor of Loch Raven Review. As well as being a poet, fiction writer, and freelance writer, Chris is a published historian who specializes in the War of 1812 and Jack the Ripper. Originally from Liverpool, England, he is a long-time resident of Baltimore, Maryland and is now a U.S. citizen. He lives near the Johns Hopkins University Homewood campus, Baltimore, with his wife Donna and two older rescue cats. We works full time as a medical editor in Washington, D.C.