Shirley Brewer was in the right place at the right time in the aftermath of a violent act against a man in the wrong place at the right time.
After Words is a powerful, but gentle, collection of poems centered on the death and life of Stephen Bradley Pitcairn, a man who lived in the same neighborhood as Shirley in Baltimore's Charles Village. Shirley didn't get to know Stephen until after his tragic and senseless death at age 23. Stephen was walking home from Penn Station, talking to his mother in Florida by cell phone, when he was accosted by a man and woman intent on robbing him.
Stephen had been in Baltimore about a year, working as a researcher at Johns Hopkins, and looking forward to medical school. His life and dreams were extinguished by a knife in the heart on July 23, 2010, a block from Shirley's home.
Seeking a way to express her anguish, Shirley penned a poem to the Pitcairn family. Gwen, Stephen's mother, wrote back, and a correspondence was born. Then, as Shirley describes it, she wrote another poem, this time in the voice of Stephen, because "It seemed to me that he had more to say..." A book of poems followed.
The poems themselves are crisp and blunt, honed and burnished. I am reminded of a stair rail in a decades-old home, its surface worn smooth as it supports young and old alike, and is rubbed and bumped in turn, until it can be said simply to "fit." So these words, the after-words, seem to fit the thoughts and feelings and yearnings and howlings we might ascribe to the victim of the ultimate robbery, if we possessed eloquence to the task.
While one can wonder about the impertinence of speaking on behalf of someone we've never met at the very deepest level, if everything and everyone is truly connected, as I think we are, then why not dare to offer voice to the one robbed of voice? I also never knew Stephen Bradley Pitcairn, and yet, having lingered over the poems, now I feel I do. He speaks for many others I know who've suffered the ultimate, and often untimely, robbery.
And yet who somehow live on, after words.
Recently, I read Unbroken, by Laura Hiilenbrand. I might have had the illusion that somehow World War II soldiers who survived came home relatively unscathed to roll up their sleeves and mow their manicured lawns in suburbia, none the worse for war. In Unbroken, a true hero shatters that myth.
In Larry Matthews new book, Take a Rifle from a Dead Man, I was riveted by the Oliver-style early years of Paul, the book's main character. He is raised in a wretched existence, and finally escapes by hopping the rails out of town.
His saga of spending time out west reminded me of tales I've heard about my own paternal grandfather, Johnny, in the hopeless days of the Great Depression.
His resourcefulness and talent for getting himself out of the jackpots he often created for himself reminds me of the escapades of James in my own Buried Treasure.
Through Paul’s travels, from cowboy to bouncer at a house of ill repute, he maintains a quiet optimism, the triumph of hope over experience, that the author develops masterfully. His life after his wartime experience is anything but the stories we love of men taking off the uniform and taking up the wrench or the briefcase. His story, though, is probably very characteristic of the lives of veterans returning from the Great War than of Louie Zamperini, the amazing man documented in Unbroken.
Larry Matthews does an artful and detached job of novelizing the story of his own dad. While the book includes a disclaimer up front that “This is a novel….based on real events,” that is easy to forget, and I kept waiting for Larry’s own birth in the story. In fact, when Larry does appear as the son named Buddy in the novel, I just assumed Buddy was Larry’s older brother, and the author would show up soon.
Another disconnect between the cover language and the book itself is that while the cover touts the story of a real-life spy, Paul in the story doesn’t actually become a spy until page 145 of a 250-page book. But the story leading up to the spy chapters is mesmerizing on its own merits.
Near the end of the story, as East Berlin deteriorates rapidly after the War in a showdown between the Allies and Russia, Paul faces perhaps his most suicidal assignment as a U.S. military intelligence agent: penetrating Russian headquarters. Wistfully, he comments, "this ain't gonna be easy." The same can be said for the entirety of the life of this complex man. A stellar effort in storytelling by his son.