- Shrinking Violet
I'm writing this on the birth date of my dear friend, Phebus Etienne. If she were alive and blossoming, we'd be sitting across from each other at a table in a downtown Manhattan restaurant, perhaps feasting on sushi or duck, most likely pleasantly tipsy from our aperitif, yet still partaking of saké or fruity martini with our celebratory meal. We'd laugh our boisterous laugh for Phebus possessed a wicked sense of humor, which she withheld from many; then the good Haitian girl, her mother's daughter, would blush like a shrinking violet: the dichotomy of her character in one swoop. However, as I learned through a decade of friendship, Phebus was rather a field of purple flowers.
But she is gone and at times I begrudge the gods who plucked her in the midst of her happiest and most confident days. Phebus was embracing life like never before; venturing out of her often times isolated existence. In the past years she'd discovered P.J. Harvey, her inner angry rock girl, plunging necklines, fortitude, acceptance of her wants and frailties, hot chocolate and pretzel croissant at City Bakery, new friendships, her inner Asian, holding her ground, trust, urban tribes, forgiveness, her youth, drag shows, letting loose, the all-night taco truck on 14th Street and 8th Avenue, a pit stop in the wee blue hours after dancing . . .
I do not profess to understand death, let alone the incomprehensible demise of a beloved friend, a promising poet. I'm resolved in accepting the fact that her organ-the-heart gave out. There is distinction between the valves that pump and her generous, embattled heart, which, although it had too much of the world, was vast, powerful, and encompassing. Indeed, for most of her life the world had been cruel to Phebus, and it was nothing short of a profound miracle that not only had she not given up on humanity, but rather that she reaped its fecundity and marveled at its peculiarities and wonder.
So, how to commemorate a life cut short and yet lived fully? A life of someone you loved as kin? To memorialize is to remember and celebrate; to defy time; to flesh out the person, transcending even the earthly body. In a way, taking care of business as usual, Phebus had done just that with her craft. Her devotion and brilliant practice of poetry attested to her pursuit of life's rich pageantries and vagaries. And what a wealth of poems she bequeathed! In those poems: Haiti, her mother, family history, pain, poverty, longing, sickness, gardens of fragrant flora, nostalgia, New Jersey, Paris, colonialism, Creole, race, unemployment, 9/11, diaspora, rites, love, rituals, humor, ambition, a childhood, sorrows, self-reckoning, the poignant lives of men and women, and at the heart of it, the poet, the woman, Phebus Etienne. [End Page 976]
I like to imagine that she's with her mother, whose cradling, loving arms Phebus yearned for, in a version of homecoming like one described in her poem Avenues Revisited: "I went home for particular colors,/ the iron pots grating on burning coals/ as conch meat simmered,/ goat bells mingling with car horns,/ to find words that I have forgotten."
Phebus, you had created words beautifully and you will not be forgotten.
Joseph O. Legaspi, co-founder of Kundiman, is a New Yorker who was born in the Philippines. He is author of Imago, a collection of poems.