By Jean Macpherson

I am crying. This is typical. As an emotional being, I have become ever more so since becoming a mother and … growing older. Those of you above 40 likely scoff at my proposal, but it is at this time, I believe, you recognize the value of age as a number and you see it reflected back at yourself every morning; you see it in the faces of your parents, and in your rapidly growing child. All this sentiment begs eternal questions such as, where does all the time go?

The January/February 2011 issue of American Poetry Review features three new poems by California poet, Stephanie Brown: A Foreign Country, Notre Dame and You Get Comfortable and Relax.[i]

In A Foreign Country Brown opens with a promissory excuse:

I can’t come to work today. My son has a brain tumor.

I almost laugh, because this harkens to ‘the dog ate my homework’ or, ‘I can’t participate in gym today Mr. Athlete – I have cramps.’ Then after the second line I think, oh, wait – there’s something going on here:

Tommy can’t come to school today. He has a brain tumor.

By the third line, I am a wreck:

I said something like this. But my voice was cracking.

And this is when you realize the brevity of the line in A Foreign Country is not only a technical choice, but an emotional one, emblematic of a life short lived.

When my son was born, panic set in. Everyone must wash their hands! Support his head! For months I would force my husband to get up in the night and make sure our child was breathing because I could not muster the courage to do so myself. The fear and anxiety of motherhood is pervasive, adrenaline-induced, and sometimes illogical. But if there is anything these emotions represent is the unforgettable; the ability to remember exact moments in times of unbelievable discourse:

It was Monday at eight o’clock.
I’d woken up at the children’s hospital.
It was January morning. It was really hot.

I am a broken woman (my words, not Brown’s.)

A Foreign Country recollects the moments: sadness, anxiety, fear; the process of loss, and the dream sequence in which reality comes when we sleep as in this section from stanza three:

The night before the tumor spoke as a seizure which left him writhing on the floor
I’d dreamed that I was on a ferry boat.
As we capsized, I was thrown
Like a person shot out of a cannon.
I felt like I was on the giant drop of a roller coaster;
I dropped and dropped and couldn’t stop.


Notre Dame could be a look back in time. The children are ‘kids’; there’s a park and roller skating in front of the cathedral. A family gathering nearly too crowded to withstand the space, but just enough for Brown to again, pull us into another state of mind:

One morning I woke up and in the instant
Before my full vision came back I saw or apprehended or felt or however
You want to call that almost-seeing that happens —
Two angels hovering: one was male and one was female.
They were there to be with my younger son, protecting him or visiting.
The male especially was there to care for him.
They were checking on him as he slept.

Themes of death, motherhood, marriage, and feminism – these are like scientific constants in Brown’s work. Ever-evolving roles, minute yet ginormous on impact. Over February vacation I discovered another lump on my son’s neck. I immediately think the worse, worry that somehow he will develop a life-threatening disease and I have to slap myself in the head, knock these terrible thoughts away. But I am unclear these worries will ever diminish:

What had I seen? Anything? You always doubt something like that.
How could that be real? And yet
It was a terrible summer, and it required angels, real or dreamed,


Sitting in my shared office space, sucking down chicken soup, I turn to my colleague. Doesn’t it suck that money is so important? And we talk. Sometimes drifting and not listening to each other, maybe spending too much time considering my own ideas. These brief moments of communication during lunch or between tasks are the framework for You Get Comfortable and Relax:

Yesterday at work,
Pam said, I think it’s like slipping off really tight clothes, you get
comfortable and relax; there are all these
things to do. I said,
I think there’s real estate. No, I said,
I always imagined my Dad went first so he could find
A nice place for my mom. That’s the way he is;
This is a joke but not, you understand, and made her laugh.

There is humor in Brown’s work. Underlying in the seriousness of situations like Fat Girl in her Allegory of the Supermarket[ii], there is a dark brooding humor, not unlike a medieval diagnosis, as the conversation in this third piece turns to suicide:

She said, I would like to be wearing a great looking Armani coat
And lie down and choose to die
Like Indians. You know, “A good day to die?”

I said, I think that’s what they said before battle, not suicide.
I might not be right about that but I know what you mean.

After graduating from high school I spent a summer working in an ice cream parlor. One of the other girls – let’s face it, we were girls then- said, I know suicide is a sin, but I can’t help but think that those who go through with it do so courageously. Moral apprehension is conducive to fate, is it not? Brown continues:

I said, But you can’t do that. What if

It really is a sin to commit suicide? I said, All those
Near-death people who tried, they came back
To report the mistake, the grave mistake, I emphasized,
trying to make it funny again. I love that we have
Conversations like this! Me too,
And then we turned our backs to each other, back
To the computer screen, back to work.

There is so much to do, so much to worry about. Clearly a constant in life? The exhibition of our realities compared to what could be, or might be, that unknown universal abyss, takes us on our own roller coaster ride often exceeding the maximum value of speed. Sometimes I think, maybe I was already too old to have a child. Was I born with all this disquiet and trepidation? How can I pass this along to him, poor innocent soul? How can I consider these dreams to be real, or converse on such seemingly devilish quandaries? I was raised Catholic. All that deep-rooted guilt. Right?

[i] According to the APR bio, “These poems are from a new manuscript, Beach Glass.

[ii] Published by University of Georgia Press. Brown also has a second book of poetry, Domestic Interior (University of Pittsburgh Press.)

Jean Macpherson is a New Englander. She has never been to Cape Cod.