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On April 10, Patricia wrote: “Phebus Etienne is dead. That won’t mean anything to most of you…Phebus was a reverent Haitian lyric, a deft conjurer of language and light, a Cave Canem sister, an insistent glow…She was only 41.”
I e-mailed Patricia that, oddly enough, it did mean something to me…
(Read Patricia’s initial, eloquent post in full here: http://poetryfoundation.org/harriet/2007/04/phebus_etienne_is_dead.html)
Phebus and I crossed paths over a decade ago—we were both in a program tagging along with the dedicated folks at Teachers & Writers, going out to schools in New York City. We got on well, and I remember liking her short, evocative poems. (I was also fascinated by her name—its initials an inverse of my own—and for a while, whenever I needed a name to plug into a piece of fiction in progress, I’d use “Phebus Etienne.”) She was kind and fun to talk to.
Alas, we didn’t keep in touch after the program; every so often I would wonder how she was doing—so it was a shock to hear the grim news.
A little while after reading Patricia’s post, I needed to move a heavy filing cabinet out of a closet (long story)—and while displacing a stack of folders, came across a sheet of three “Sense Poems.” Even before I looked to the bottom of the page, I knew these were Phebus’s. She’d prepared them for a specific lesson, teaching kids how to write poetry rooted in specific sounds, smells, textures, etc.
Whether these were poems she had already written, or ones tailor-made for the class, I’m not certain. But I’d like to type them out here, if that’s OK—if not (for copyright reasons), just let me know.
In Haiti, they used to say, ghosts, spirits
passed through doorways at the beginning
of each new hour. The angry ones
sometimes strangled the meek, snapped
their necks out of spite for blocking their passage.
Parents shooed children who were squatting
in entrances when cathedral bells sounded
twelve noon. I remember this as I shut off
the ringing alarm and wait for one minute after
six before walking through my bedroom door.
Basset hound sniffed the cherry soda
that had spilled and ran cold on my shoe.
His ears hung low, close to the grass,
dappled with specks of white.
He was still as my palm ran across his soft
coat, colored chocolate like my Diana bear,
who sits on my bed, wears a lace wedding dress
and smells like roses. The beagle tied to the next
bench barked. Basset hound ran to her as I
raised my hand to stroke the wrinkles on his head.
It wasn’t me he loved.
When my mother straightened my hair
for the first time, it may have been for Easter.
I sat between her knees in the shade of the avocado
tree in the yeard. I reached up to feel the difference
in my new hair. She didn’t see my finger.
The hot comb singed my skin, stung worse than
lemon juice on a fresh paper cut. I remembered
raw jalapeno peppers on my tongue.
I would never straighten my hair again I cried.
Of course, that was a lie.
Phebus M. Etienne