“Did you feel anything/ when you took my life?/ your blade broke through/ skin and muscle, tore my young heart./ Marked with my blood, you ran/ like rabid dogs into the moon-carved night.” (Brewer, “After Words”; To My Killers: 1-6)
What would the reaction of murderers be if their victim managed to speak such words to them, revealing the humanity they destroyed? It’s a voice that is lost countless times in Baltimore alone. In cities all around the world, the names of people dwindle into a number, a murder statistic. Their stories become lost in the rising numbers. Shirley Brewer’s “After Words” is a work that defies this, giving a name and words to an individual robbed of his voice during a simple walk home one evening.
Last month marked the three year anniversary of Stephen Pitcairn’s murder in Charles Village, Baltimore. He was 23 years old. During his time in Baltimore, Stephen was doing research at Johns Hopkins Medical School at ICE - The Institute for Cell Engineering, where he hoped to become a doctor. According to Brewer, Stephen’s mother says it still feels like it was the same day she received the call. The call was from Stephen as he casually made his way home after visiting his sisters in New York. Stephen was stabbed to death while she was still on the other line. It was not only devastating for his family and friends, but also the community itself.
The murder site was one block from poet Shirley Brewer’s apartment. She never knew Stephen, nor did most others who attended a memorial where he was killed. Among those gathered was Reggie Higgins, the man who held and comforted Stephen in his final moments. Brewer told to me that it was a very emotional experience for them all. After returning from a mind-clearing walk, a neighbor suggested Brewer write a poem to Stephen’s family from the community.
Initially, Brewer didn’t feel it would be appropriate; she didn’t even know Stephen. Yet by the time she entered her apartment, words began to form. This became the first poem, Offering, which takes on the voice of the community lamenting Stephen’s loss: “We felt the knife too, an awful/ stab in our collective heart.” (Brewer; Offering 1-2) By applying this use of perspective, she made it clear that an entire community mourned his loss. Brewer sent the poem to Stephen’s mother who appreciated the gesture and said it helped her grieving process. With Mrs. Pitcairn’s blessing, Brewer continued to write.
“After Words” displays a unique approach to the eulogy poem that draws on the perspectives most overlooked in the midst of tragedy: the victim, the Good Samaritan, the mourning community all together in one text. The idea of voice is a permeating theme throughout the various poems. Several poems feature Stephen himself as the speaker. One such poem is To My Killers, in which Brewer provides Stephen’s posthumous confrontation with his murderers. In this the audience can grasp that Stephen isn’t just a victim, but a human being. It tempts us to step into his mindset and feel for ourselves the anger and injustice of what befell him. In My Mother Speaks, Brewer delves into the mindset of a mother-Gwen Pitcairn- losing her only son. Reggie Higgins is also given a voice in Reggie Higgins Speaks. One of the most creative pieces in the collection is Moon, Tree, Knife. Taking on the viewpoints of these objects, Brewer recounts Stephen’s death in a way that is sensitive and thought provoking. All of the poems featured in “After Words” share very gripping language, in the sense it both flows with the meter and also feels real. The poems read like people speaking to the audience rather than just a poet writing about an event.
Short to read and beautifully written, Shirley Brewer’s “After Words” is a powerful addition to modern poetry. It stands as tribute to the dreams of an accomplished young man, Stephen Pitcairn, who envisioned a life dedicated to the healing of others. Read more about “After Words” and Shirley Brewer at: http://www.apoeticlicense.com/.