Saturday, January 5, 2013

[Review and Lesson Idea] "October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard" by Lesléa Newman.

Reading October Mourning A Song for Matthew Shepard by Lesléa Newman returned me to a snowy New Year's Eve, 1978 and the moment I had to face my own prejudices against gay people. 

Some friends and I were cruising around Joplin, Missouri during a blizzard in my friend M'Lou's Trans Am. I rode shotgun and Scott, whom I'd met during grade school when he came to my house and asked to play on my slide, a giant playground slide my father had rescued from an abandoned elementary school before such dangerous toys were deemed unsafe. Scott and I had remained friends throughout high school, but I hadn't seen him since graduation, eight months earlier.

That evening the conversation prompted Scott to "come out" to me. Stupidly, I took the ridiculous "love the sinner but hate the sin" rhetorical path. I haven't seen or heard from Scott since. Yet that night is the tipping point in my paradigm shift to acceptance of LGBTs.

Many years and countless students later, a tragic event that arguably is the tipping point for our national paradigm shift in attitude toward gay people transpired: Matthew Shepard was beaten and abandoned by two men in Laramie, Wyoming and left strapped to a fence to die on October 6, 1998. 

It's Matthew's tragic death that Lesléa Newman commemorates in October Morning, a series of poems from various points of view imagining Shepard's final hours and the aftermath of his death. Newman makes a strong point of saying the poems are works of her imagination and not actual comments from those involved.   

This haunting collection includes both human perspectives and the personification of the fence that became one of the murder weapons:

I held him all night long
He was heavy as a broken heart
Tears fell from his unblinking eyes
He was dead weight yet he kept breathing

says the fence "that night." The poem takes the form of a pantoum, the formula of which Newman conveniently explains in a closing appendix.  

It's the inclusion of this "Explanation of Poetic Forms" (104-108) that invites teachers to explore Newman's methods with students. 

What if teachers were to invite students to remember a significant event or series of moments in their own lives by constructing a group of poems that commemorate the moment? That Newman has constructed a beautiful tribute to Matthew Shepard using poetic forms and formulas familiar to both students and teachers is paradoxically the text's strength and weakness. 

Many of the poems paint a haunting reminder of Matthew Shepard's ultimate sacrifice:

"The Clothesline"

They strung me along 
I got tangled up

They roped me in
I was fit to be tied

They yanked me around 
I grew twisted and frayed

They straightened me out 
I began to unravel

They bound me together
I got tied up in knots

They gave me a lashing
I was whipped into shape

They tore me to shreds
I held on by a thread

They strangled me 
I was hung out to dry

Is it possible to read this finely crafted verse and not hear what must have been Matthew Shepard's voice that night? 

Interestingly, "The Clothesline," according the the explanatory notes, doesn't follow a formula. Therein lies it's strength. 

In contrast, many of the poems, especially those modeled after William Carlos Williams' "This is Just to Say" echo the original to the point of distraction. Newman relies on the formula no fewer than three times, and the form becomes increasingly obtrusive. 

Having driven the lonely roads of Wyoming adds verisimilitude to Newman's work for those living in remote corners of the intermountain West, a point Newman acknowledges in the "Afterword": "To this native New Yorker, the vast empty spaces were terrifying It was easy to see how a young man who had been beaten unconscious and left to die lashed to a fence could remain undiscovered for eighteen hours" (88).

Certainly, geography can create cold, lonely places, but geography can't begin to compare to the isolation we humans construct against one another with our refusal to accept, to tolerate, to love. The  original Wyoming fence on which Matthew Shepard was strapped ad left for dead no longer exists, but we do need more bridges that connect and bind us together. 

October Morning is one more bridge and a welcome addition to the genre of tribute poetry. Moreover, it offers teachers an opportunity to invite students to creatively express their own memories or commemorate a moment in history through verse, the art of memory. 

1 comment:

  1. What a powerful post! I look forward to finding and enjoying this book for myself and sharing it with my students.