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.