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  • In Memoriam:Phebus Etienne
  • January O'Neil (bio)

Seems as if we have always been friends, but in truth I've known Phebus for twelve years from our days together at New York University. Born in Haiti, she moved to New Jersey in her early years, and blossomed into a talented writer. But as brilliant as she was, she also was complicated, moody, and forced to shoulder more burdens than most people should have to bear in a lifetime.

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Figure 1.

Photograph by Rachel Eliza Griffiths © 2006

When it came to poetry, Phebus was a skilled technician. Her unpublished manuscript, Chainstitching, reflects a certain clarity and a relentless faithfulness to her Haitian culture. It is also a painful representation of her life, expressed beautifully in verse. She salvaged everything—people, places, traditions, expressions, foods, flowers—as if she was forever tilling the fertile garden of memory. She also was a tough critic. I remember her candid comments when she evaluated my manuscript. Her brand of love was tough, so tough that I'm not sure why I call it love. She was honest, which is what you need from a friend—someone who will tell you the truth no matter what.

And the truth is, she was always in your corner. Phebus was generous with praise, and cheered even the smallest successes. Phebus understood the true value of community. Those who knew her felt her profound admiration, which was mutual, and stretched beyond her inner circle of friends. She was well-liked and well-respected, and thought of as a poet who was on the rise.

I think Phebus would approve of my saying that her life was not the happiest. In her early thirties, she lost her mother, her anchor, to cancer, something she never really got over. Who could? In her poem "Chainstiching," she writes, "She hasn't visited me for months./ I worry that my life is an insult to her memory." That was hardly the truth—her life an insult to her mother's memory—but her day-to-day existence was not without its difficulties. [End Page 966]

Although she had earned a Master of Fine Arts from New York University's Graduate Creative Writing Program, there were periods when Phebus could not find steady work. At times she was on the verge of poverty. All of this fed into a depression that she battled for years. To this day, I don't know how she survived because she never asked her friends for help. Never. But toward the end of her life she had found steady employment, was hopeful about the future, and garnered the reputation of a poet on the verge of success.

In her short life, Phebus was the recipient of many awards and honors. In 2006, she was first runner-up for Tupelo Press's Seventh Annual First Book Award. She received a poetry fellowship from the New Jersey State Council of the Arts in 2001. She worked with the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, and was a "Poets Among Us" at the 2002 Dodge Poetry Festival. Additionally, she was an active fellow with Cave Canem, and volunteered much of her time to numerous arts-related organizations.

Phebus was a talented, loving, beautiful person. I miss the woman who was like an aunt to my two children, and like the sister I never had. I miss my sarcastic and wickedly funny friend. I miss the woman who, with poet Joseph Legaspi, traveled overnight on a bus to Virginia a few days after 9/11 to attend my wedding. (Considering what it was like to travel days after 9/11, that was no small task.) I miss the woman who was always cooking Haitian food for friends. I miss the woman who never had a lot of money but always seemed to enjoy life, especially traveling to conferences, attending writing retreats such at Hedgebook, or teaching a creative writing workshop somewhere on the West Coast—I'd always hear about her adventures after the fact.

At her funeral, the priest who performed the Mass said something to the effect of, "A new poet has entered heaven...


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pp. 966-967
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