In three sections of remarkable narrative poems, Fraser reviews how his own and his family's lives are utterly changed by the birth of his youngest brother, Jonathan, who is profoundly disabled by spina bifida and has survived into adulthood--long beyond what doctors predicted. An introduction provides the context: the poems chronicle a hard journey from denial, shame, and anger to acceptance. As Fraser writes toward the end of the final, title poem: "We must learn to cherish chance to have one." But chance has dealt his brother, and so his family, a particularly hard blow.

The first section focuses primarily on his own remembered reactions and reflections--his guilt, his cluelessness--as a child and adolescent; the second on relationships with family and friends as an adult, all of them partly shaped and shaded by the ongoing suffering of his disabled brother; the third and longest, an exercise in empathy-with his mother and with Jonathan, neither of whose suffering, he realizes, is entirely imaginable to him. The poems are regular free verse, rich with allusion, emotional precision, and narrative detail.


Even those who don't make a practice of kicking back with narrative poetry are likely to find this book compelling in its honesty, its blunt, clear, soul-searching and soul-searing confrontation with the speaker's own and his brother's suffering. With remarkable psychological insight as well as verbal skill, the poems speak of the paradoxes of pain: simultaneous identification with and alienation from the afflicted youngest sibling; awareness and denial; affection and horror; hope and despair; desire for a comforting spiritual frame of reference and resistance to any comfort that might seem too ready, glib, or cheap.

Some of the poems and sections of poems are explicitly confessional, one starting "Forgive me, mother, for I have sinned. This is my first confession," and another, "Forgive because you can, because we're all alone in this/ together . . ." The expressed need for forgiveness brings out an important dimension of the pain involved in witnessing another's suffering that one has both escaped and has no means to relieve. It testifies to the brokenness in families where each person responds differently to the suffering of one member. The collection offers a series of meditations that offer both catharsis and instruction with exquisite emotional nuance that fully honors the complexity of the mystery of profound disability and the way one person's pain can disrupt and reorganize many lives.


Gregory Fraser currently teaches creative writing, literature, and critical theory at the University of West Georgia. He was twice a finalist for the Walt Whitman award and received a grant in 2005 from the National Endowment for the Arts.


Texas Tech Univ. Press

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