Phebus Etienne is dead.
That won’t mean anything to most of you. One sweet windswept world of a woman has suddenly gone missing, and the earth stupidly soldiers on, insisting on its spin, already moving us to a time and place beyond her.
Right now it’s hard to believe that anything exists beyond her.
Phebus was a reverent Haitian lyric, a deft conjurer of language and light, a Cave Canem sister, an insistent glow. She penned poems the same way most of us do…in a kind of unleashed fever, praying the page can capture what has loomed so large and for so long in our hearts and heads.
And there she was, on the verge. Her first book, “Chainstitching,” a poignant, sunwashed ode to everything family means, pushed its way relentlessly toward the open air—runner up for the damned Dorset Prize, no less, then an Alice James finalist. But when Phebus’ heart rebelled and took her last week, her labor of love still graced the shelves of friends in its saddest form—separate dog-eared pages, clipped, ready. She never held the sleekly bound volume in her hands, thumbing the pages, marveling at her name on the cover. She never got the chance to see her dream take that solid, inarguable shape.
But oh, there’s magic. There’s memory, warm and invasive. There are Phebus’ friends, her colleagues and confidantes, vowing that her book will be. Its pulse will be the life she left behind.
Write hard. Shout out your love to someone, right now. Clutch your friends so tightly that your breath becomes theirs.
Someday it may be.
She was only 41.
Patricia Smith has been called “a testament to the power of words to change lives.” She is the author of seven books of poetry, including Incendiary Art (2017), winner of an NAACP Image Award; Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah (2012), which won the Lenore Marshall Prize from the Academy of American...