The Dead Kid Poems by Alexis Rhone Fancher

dead kid
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By Charles Rammelkamp
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A companion to her collection, State of Grace: The Joshua Elegies, published four years earlier, The Dead Kid Poems hammers you with the grief and injustice of a child’s death just as relentlessly, if not more so, than the previous volume. The very title is like a blunt object, nothing allusive or metaphorical about it. Only, where The Joshua Elegies ends on an ambivalent note in the poem, “when her dead son is seven years,” the new collection seems to offer something like comfort, or redemption, at its close. In the first collection,
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a woman is skating barefoot on her sorrow,
her brain awash in the smell of his skin,
her arms shackled to the stars, a
pirouette of unmet promises,
regret. if she blames it on herself
she can fix it.
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Compare this searing guilt to the last lines of “Photo of My Dead Son, Taken at the DMV”: “Last night as I finally drifted off, my dead boy covered me with his yellow baby blanket. / Sleep now, Mama, he said.”
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This is not to say that it’s any easier, that the mourning comes to an end, that there is “closure,” which is all too clear in poems like “My Dead Boy”:.
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Eleven years after, my boy’s still dead.
(I hold him in the rafters of my head.)
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His photo’s propped at the side of my bed.
(I kiss it on the nightstand near my head.)
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A letterman jacket hangs in his stead.
(I shelter him, so deep inside my head.)
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Are you over it? my clueless friend said.
(I nail her to a grim place in my head.)
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But maybe with time comes perspective. It’s clear from these verses just how internalized the pain has become. Inside my head, indeed.
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Or maybe, to put it another, way, “I’ve grown accustomed to dead kids,” as the sadly resigned satiric poem, “Accustomed to Dead Kids,” begins, a spoof of the song Rex Harrison sings in My Fair Lady.
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I’ve grown accustomed to their screams,
the ending of their dreams,
accustomed to dead kids.
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I’ve grown accustomed to the sobs,
of parents, frantic as they call.
I’ve grown accustomed to the terror
when their children don’t respond;
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the pleas, the cries,
unsaid goodbyes
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are second nature to me now,
like breathing out and breathing in.
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Written for her sister, this collection includes half a dozen poems about the poet’s niece, “Anna,” addicted to meth and in the midst of the chaotic life addiction entails, the car wrecks, the homelessness, the desperation, driven by the craving, the dependence; the emotional blackmail they extort from parents who feel responsible and desperate themselves. In “Back on Meth, Anna Dumps Her Dog at Her Mother’s,” Fancher writes,
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My daughter’s a bottomless pit, my sister says.
She thinks I’m made of money!
What makes her think she can sponge off me?
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You do, I answer.
I’m done, my sister swears.
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This time I almost believe her.
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There’s more of this sense of the inevitable in the poems, “There are worse things than a dead kid, I think,” “The only people who call it ‘Cali’ are from someplace else,” and “Today, in her garden, my sister says, This plant came from the birds.
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I want to tap my sister’s younger self on the shoulder, say,
Don’t worry; this will turn out badly,
no matter what you do.
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What a punch in the gut! But it’s not heartlessness that drives these reflections, it’s the wisdom of grief.  You can’t read a poem like “Every Day Is Mother’s Day,” with its Zen-koan-like opening stanza, and not feel the depth of her anguish, internalized though it may be.
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If you had only
one child and he died, are you
still a mother?
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It’s this kind of torment that provokes a poem like “Unsolicited Advice to a Facebook Mom,” with its cautionary counsel, its unabashed invocation of superstitions in trying to make sense out of the totally meaningless cruelty life so often throws our way.
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Pass an egg above his body while he’s sleeping.
Make the mano fico over him with your fist.
Sew small mirrors into his clothes to reflect misfortune.
Tie a red string around his wildness.
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When someone gives him a compliment, spit over your shoulder three times.
Then touch wood.
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In an Afterword, Fancher confides, “My grief is not finite; eleven years and the poems about my boy keep coming. Even when the sadness ebbs, it returns with the deadliness of a tsunami.” But even in her distress, Fancher is able to write eloquent verse, like the extended metaphors that inform a poem like “”Residuals: An Elegy,” with its poignant allusions to television, or “Anna as a War Zone,” in which she describes her sister as a sort of angst aircraft divebombing to her daughter’s rescue.  Both collections contain a number of Fancher’s arresting photographs, including foreboding images of the raven, a bad luck sign in ancient mythology. The crow, in fact, adorns the cover of The Dead Kid Poems.
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So there may be a sort of “deliverance” for the reader at the conclusion of the book, but the warning for any parent or grandparent at the end of “Unsolicited Advice” is still so potent: “Don’t tempt the gods.”
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You can find the book here: KYSO Flash: Books
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Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for Brick House Books in Baltimore and Reviews Editor for The Adirondack Review. A chapbook of poems, Jack Tar’s Lady Parts, is available from Main Street Rag Publishing. Another poetry chapbook, Me and Sal Paradise, was recently published by Future Cycle Press.

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