October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard by Lesléa Newman

Review by Kit-Bacon Gressitt

OctoberMourningWhy do we write poetry? Is it for ourselves as much as for others, a way to confront, explore, capture a fragment of enlightenment? Do we write poetry to cleanse us of corruption, remind us of our limitations, celebrate our vision, our diversity, to reveal a human tragedy in art?*

In Lesléa Newman’s new collection of poems, October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard, published by Candlewick Press, she does all of these things, to great effect and with aching sorrow.

Newman is an award-winning poet and author of such iconic books as Heather Has Two Mommies, and nine of her books have been Lambda Literary Award finalists.

In October Mourning, she shares the results of her years-long struggle to understand what happened to gay University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard on a deadly October night in 1998, outside Laramie, Wyo.

Newman had struggled to understand why Matthew was beaten, tied to a split-rail fence, and abandoned to death. To understand how two young men became brutal murderers, and what impacts the murders had on the world. To understand why a doe settled nearby Matthew and waited with the dying, why mothers tell their children not to talk to strangers. To understand what thoughts the prosecutor and defense attorney harbored, what groceries the $20 stolen from Matthew would have bought, why the fence was there, what Matthew might have done in the 18 hours that passed before he was found.

WHAT YOU CAN DO IN EIGHTEEN HOURS

By Lesléa Newman

Write a term paper Cram for a final

Fly across the ocean Drive cross-country

Scale a mountain Run a marathon

Deliver a baby Read War and Peace

Fall in love Fall out of love

See the moon disappear Watch the sun rise and set

Wait to be discovered lashed to a fence

Shivering under a blanket of stars

Newman pursued understanding of it all through poetry. But some might challenge whether poetry can help us to understand the confluence of events and actions, of experience and prejudice, that became the death of Matthew—because it is all just too difficult.
Indeed, Matthew’s death was difficult for the nation to imagine. It was difficult for the LGBT community to imagine. It was difficult to imagine what any one of those involved in the murder was doing, much less thinking. And this is what Newman’s poetry offers readers: She has done the imagining for us, with diverse poetic form and wrenching insight.

“I have tried my hardest to imagine the last hours of Matthew Shepard’s life before he lost consciousness,” Newman wrote in the book’s afterward. “It is impossible to fathom the raw fear he surely felt as he begged for his life. As a poet, I know it’s part of my job to use my imagination. It’s part of my job as a human being, too. Because only if each of us imagines that what happened to Matthew Shepard could happen to any one of us will we be motivated to do something. And something must be done.”

October Mourning is difficult to read, but this is why you must, because something must be done, still, after all these years. And, because you must read October Mourning, you will want to pause between each poem, resist the image Newman has artfully created, then allow it in, feel what she felt, perhaps what Matthew felt, put the book down, weep, pick it up again, read the next poem, repeat the above.

And, as Newman hopes, “Be inspired to make a difference.”

Love, K-B

* Consider reading President John F. Kennedy’s speech “Poetry and Power,” in remembrance of Robert Frost, published by The Atlantic in February 1964.

Crossposted by San Diego Gay & Lesbian News.