October Mourning by Lesléa Newman
Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press, 2012
*Please note that the following post may contain spoilers and does not summarize the text, as it was written as part of my coursework for LIS 7220 Materials for Young Adults, and the first group of intended readers are my professor and classmates, who should be familiar with the book. If I make adjustments or an additional post with summary/review information in the future, I will post an update link here. Now read on!
Get ready for specific comments.
But first I’ll start with some general impressions. The poetry in this collection took on many forms, but what stood out most were the perspectives imagined and written by the author.
This may be “A Song for Matthew Shepard” (emphasis mine), but it is definitely not about Matthew Shepard, the individual. It is more about what he went through before his death and what happened after his death; the symbol he has become, and how the events leading up to his death changes others lives, notably that of the author.
It is about who Shepard is now. “Then I was a son/Now I am a symbol,” states the poem Then and Now (p 40).
There is definitely a mournful feeling (good job on the title, Ms. Newman!) in the book, particularly the first section in which objects (and character) around the events of Shepard’s beating and death are personified and made to seem more human in their sadness (“But when I saw him/between the two of them//trapped in that truck/it made me want to heave,” says the road in Road Rage, a road which has seen death before and is very desensitized towards it generally) than his his murderers, “two local boys/(with hearts removed)” (p4). Even The Doctor, who has also seen a lot of blood and gore and is described as quite sterile, “keeps bawling/like a newborn/every time he sees//what’s left of that boy” (p 25).
This personification seems to be an attempt to make the horror of Matthew’s fate more unbearable, more unbelievable for the reader. Even the fence, even the road, even the clothesline (a poem which does not explicitly state it is from the perspective of the clothesline aside from its title and can be read as Matthew narrating as well) feel for this victim.
William Carlos Williams
Newman models several of her poems in this collection off of Williams’ This is Just to Say, which I imagine gives this book so oomph for high school readers within the classroom, as I think vividly of my own first exposure to that poem … in high school. It was a bit of a weird read for me, though, as This is Just to Say elicits a big sense of desire and pleasure in me re: the original text, whereas the poems
- A Sorry State (p 11)
- Lame Excuse (p 27, excellent play on words for the title here. Actually in almost every title, but this one stands out for the moment)
are, again for lack of a better word, mournful, and I don’t sense a good connection or juxtaposition between them and the original Williams poem. That said, the poems
- Heartfelt Apology (p 34)
- Sorry Boy (p 73)
work exceedingly well when compared to the original, as Heartfelt Apology has a sense of the bittersweet which exists in the original poem. Even though keeping Shepard alive (or eating someone else’s plums) was not the best for the party to which the poem is addressed, the narrator couldn’t help eating the plums, the heart couldn’t help holding onto life. I like this.
Sorry Boy works not with potential for the bittersweet as in the original, but with the sense of satisfaction which is felt at the end of This is Just to Say. It is, after all, and apology which is not quite an apology. Sorry I ate those plums you were saving, but MAN were they good! Sorry I’m denying your defense but BOY does it feel awesome to throw you in jail.
So in short, I really dug two of these poems. I may be pondering over the other two still. (This is a reader response and I’m supposed to write it SOON after reading. I just finished this book twenty minutes ago and maybe something isn’t clicking in my brain yet over the first two.)
Remember how I said (just moments ago) that this is a book of poems for but not about Shepard? One caveat! A lot of these poems which utilize personification also imply in their emotions that they are not just objects but also representations of Matthew Shepard as well. This is probably brilliant.
Ie, who’s that?
A gay person. We bigots are defining him as this object: A GAY PERSON.
But a person is not just one thing! A person is not defined by this one quality!
…And maybe neither is
- The Fence (p xv) – “will I always be out here/exposed and alone?//will I ever know why/I was put on this earth?//will somebody someday/stumble upon me?//will anyone remember me/after I’m gone?”
- The Road. Road Rage (p 9) – “I’ve been spit on/and shit on” etc
- The Clothesline (p 13) – seriously just read the entire poem ;) “They yanked me around/I grew twisted and frayed”
Newman also seems to have gone out of her way to make sure that readers can identify with those personally affected by the events of Matthew’s death. She writes in broad terms, leaving space to fill in the blanks, so to say, in the poems How to Have the Worst Day of Your Life (p 28) and Chorus of Parents (p 64). Both concern the feeling of loss for loved ones, and this use of vagueness or a grand application of possibilities which are all the same (“Say, It is I, or Speaking or That’s me, or Yes?/Hear the unfamiliar voice say there’s bad news.”). If she did this throughout, it might be a bit heavy-handed, but I think these small touches work well.
More High School Poetry Forms!
I guess I’m just a free verse kind of girl, or have grown towards reading that most as I’ve gotten older. So a few villanelles in the mix pleased me, particularly because One Art by Elizabeth Bishop is my (and many people’s?) go-to villanelle and concerns loss, and is that not what this book is about? One Art is, I feel, the high school go-to for a representative poem of this form.
There are also a few Shakepearean-form sonnets.
Thirteen Ways of Looking at Matthew Shepard is obviously something students can easily make comparisons to as well.
Two Last Bits
Re: the story which is being told here. Okay, three.
- I really appreciated both the introduction and the afterward by the author. They helped make clear her own part in this writing, which I suspect is essential to understanding it.
- I had never heard of Romaine Peterson’s Angel Action, and had to look it up immediately.
- I’m glad (slash interested) that Newman made sure to describe the differences in motivation, background, and feelings of Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney (Shepard’s murderers). It gave me a good feeling which I would not have had if everything had been hatred towards them, even though Henderson, from this text, seems to have serious remorse.
A book which can be read and also begs to be analyzed, at least on a high school level. Points for YA audience, particularly a school one.
Also! Newman has notes for the forms of her poems at the back of the book. Instant score for students and teachers. Perhaps I wish I had noticed before making my own notes everywhere.