In October Mourning — A song for Matthew Shepard, Lesléa Newman invites us into the tragedy of Matthew Shepard, historically, emotionally and poetically. Her invitations are as varied as the styles and forms of the poems that make up the book. As a reader, we are asked to walk through the door Newman has opened and inhabit the space she has crafted. We are asked to listen to the voices of the moon, of the murderers, of the judge, of the truck, and of the doe that stayed by Matthew’s side that October night — and finally to add to them our own.
Newman moves methodically through the landscape of Wyoming on October 6, 1998 shining her poetic light on the many details surrounding the terrible tragedy of Matthew Shepard’s murder and its aftermath. Newman was in Wyoming on that fateful day, invited to speak at the Gay Awareness Week events in Laramie. Her poems explore the terrain of the event in her memory in an effort to comprehend it, reconstructing step-by-step.
The fence, where Matthew Shepard was found, serves as a returning image throughout the book, speaking first:
Out and alone
on the endless prairie
the moon bathes me
the stars bless me
. . .
will anyone remember me
after I’m gone?
Many voices fill the book; each a facet of that night, of that crime, and of the events that followed. The voices are as varied as the poetic forms Newman chooses for her poems. Shifting from haiku to pantoum to villanelle; using various sonic elements and stanzaic forms, Newman’s poems give breath to a specific lives: the biker who, eighteen hours later, happened upon Matthew, the housekeeper working in the ICU, the judge handing down the sentence, and in a particularly moving three-line poem, Matthew Shepard’s father, Dennis.
At the bitter end,
a matter of life and death:
Mercy. For the boy.
What Newman does again and again in her book is balance her poems with epigraphs taken from public records of the Shepard murder and trial. This poem, “Mercy” is accompanied by a particularly heart-wrenching quote, in which Matthew’s father addresses one of his son’s murderers:
Mr. McKinney, I give you life in the memory of one who no longer lives.
–Dennis Shepard, father of Matthew Shepard. (Court statement, November 4, 1999)
Newman’s choice to use rhymed couplets in giving voice to Matthew’s cat and Kristen Price, girlfriend and convicted accessory to one of Matthew’s murderers, is particularly deft. She also borrows from Wallace Stevens in “Thirteen Ways of Looking at Matthew” and from William Carlos Williams’ poem “This is Just to Say,” aligning this iconic imagist poem with the record of “found voices” surrounding Matthew’s murder.
This is just to say
I won’t be in class tomorrow
or the day after that
or the day after that
I haven’t a leg
to stand on
and I’ve learned
It is one of only four poems that actually speak in Matthew’s voice from a book of over 60. His silence is keenly noted in the pages that explore this heinous crime but rarely give him leave to speak — this is no accident. In doing so, Newman brings life to Matthew’s silence — the brutality of it. In her introduction, she relates how the murderers’ stories contradicted one another and that, “the only other person who knows what really happened that night is dead.” That permanent omission is faithfully represented.
Newman’s own story about her connection to Matthew Shepard’s murder is in the introduction and afterward; and her exhaustive research fills the endnote pages with citations and quotes that serve as a historical record of the reportage surrounding his murder. But the facts of the story are not all that Newman set out to relate. She disclaims, “The poems are not an objective reporting of Matthew’s murder and its aftermath; rather they are my own personal interpretation of them.” And so Newman also provides a short appendix explaining the various poetic forms she undertook to paint her interpretation. In doing so, she educates us not only about facts that must not be forgotten, but also of the craft of the telling, providing many “ways in” to this tragedy. She writes not only to memorialize, but to call us to action: do one thing this week to stop homophobia — now promise.
Finally — and finally, Newman’s epilogue comes back to the fence image, enshrining its significance as the place of Matthew Shepard’s last moments of consciousness.
I walk to the fence with beauty before me
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want
I walk to the fence with beauty behind
I walk to the fence with beauty above me
Om Mani Padme Hum
I walk to the fence with beauty below me
Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit
I reach the fence surrounded by beauty
wail of wind, cry of hawk
I leave the fence surrounded by beauty
sigh of sagebrush, hush of stone
Lesléa Newman has written & edited 57 books and anthologies; her best-known work is the controversial Heather Has Two Mommies; her awards include Creative Writing Fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Massachusetts Artists Foundation, the James Baldwin Award for Cultural Achievement, the Dog Writers Association of America's Best Book of Fiction Award and a Parents' Choice Silver Medal. Nine of her books have been Lambda Literary Award finalists. In 2009 she received the Alice B. Award. Her set of children's picture books Mommy, Mama, and Me and Daddy, Papa and Me were 2010 Stonewall Honor Books as well as her 2013 October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard.
Noah Stetzer is currently a degree candidate at The MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College & a 2014 fellow at the Lamdba Literary Writers Retreat for Emerging LGBT Voices.