Friday, May 1, 2015

Module 14--October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard: A Review

by Leslea Newman

Newman, L. (2012). October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard.  Candlewick.

There are certain facts not in dispute.  On October 6, 1998, Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old gay man, was savagely beaten and left to die.  The next morning, he was found by a passing runner.  Matthew Shepard died five days after he was found, never having regained consciousness.

Matthew Shepard is now all but canonized, a secular martyr.  He is to the gay community what Emmett Till is to the African-American community: a young man murdered with such particular brutality and savagery that it shocked the nation and galvanized people to act against bigotry. There have been plays written about Matthew Shepard (The Laramie Project), songs written about Matthew Shepard (such as Melissa Etheridge's Scarecrow), whole choral works written about Matthew Shepard (Elegy for Matthew) .  The poem cycle October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard, is thoroughly immersed in this canonization, presenting in verse various 'voices' on the Shepard case.  Some of the poems are moving, even beautiful.  Some fall flat and are heavy-handed.  Some work amazingly well despite what at first is an odd premise for some of them. The inside flap noted that Ms. Newman's poems "explores the impact of the vicious crime through fictitious monologues from various points of view, including the fence to which Matthew was tied...".

I read that and thought, "Seriously? The point of view of the fence?  How does one get the point of view of an inanimate object?"  Newman does it extremely well.  Whatever flaws in some of the sixty-eight poems in October Mourning (ranging from a mere 12 words to two pages), all of them come from the heart.

The poems are divided into four parts: Prologue, Part One, Part Two, and Epilogue, with an Introduction and Afterword by the poetess.  Each poem reflects a myriad of views on both Shepard and the two men convicted of his murder: Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson.  The first poem, The Fence (before) is a brilliant piece of writing. 

It first appears the fence is talking about itself when it says, "the sun warms me/the wind soothes me", but then it shifts to what can be seen as what could be Shepard's own ideas (or that of any person): "will I always be out here/exposed and alone? will somebody someday stumble upon me? will anyone remember me after I'm gone?"  The transition is so smooth one barely notices it.

Another brilliant poem was The Armbands (yes, about armbands used in support of Shepard).  "Though we are worn/we are not weary...though we are yellow/we are not afraid...though we are tattered/we are not broken...though we are many/we are standing as one".  The double meaning within the poem is clear ('worn' as in wardrobe and 'worn' as in 'exhausted'), especially when put against 'weary'.  They 'wore' the armbands, but they themselves were not 'worn out'.

Of course, with sixty-eight poems, not all of them were as smooth or as clever or as gentle as others.  There is Thirteen Ways of Looking at Matthew.  It is divided into thirteen words, each punctuated with a Roman numeral.  When we get to X, we slip from respecting and honoring Matthew Shepard and slip into virtual worship.  X: Martyr.  XI: Hero. XII: Legend.  XIII: Star. 

Another poem that caused me concern was The Defense's Job, which is a companion piece to The Prosecutor's Job.  They mirror each other in style, but they also mirror each other in hatred towards Henderson and McKinney.

his job
his only job
his one and only job
is to protect
is to preserve
is to spare
the client's
the criminal's
the killer's
even if no one else thinks
even when no one else thinks
even though no one else thinks
the brute's
the bastard's
the son of a bitch's
is barely worth
is hardly worth
is just not worth
a damn

Perhaps it is my own background (one that firmly opposes the death penalty as I oppose abortion, seeing them as two sides of the same coin: namely, state-sanctioned killing not in defense of the country or self), but I am a firm believer in redemption for all.  It is not within my heart to say that even the most loathsome individual is beyond salvation (however he/she interprets that). What McKinney and Henderson were convicted of is evil, and the gruesome details are sickening.  However, unlike another poem, Jury Selection, I cannot condone killing one man for having killed another.

Jury Selection: the poem consists of the line, "No I would not hesitate to kill the killer in a heart beat  in a heart beat", with each line adding an extra word until it forms the complete sentence, then taking a word away after the sentence is formed.

Of course, this is what I think good poetry should do: affect us on a personal level.  There were many poems in October Mourning that did so.  A Chorus of Parents is like all the poems in the book, an imagined conversation, this time putting us in the minds of several parents who broke off relations with their gay sons and now wish to reestablish them in the wake of Shepard's murder.  So many stories collide ("I called my sixteen-year-old, eighteen-year-old, twenty-five-year old, thirty-seven-year old, fifty-six-year old son", "I called my son who came out when he was fourteen, fifteen, nineteen, twenty-two, thirty-two, fifty-two, a week ago, a month ago, a year ago, five years ago, half a century ago").

I placed myself in their shoes, thinking if I had a gay son who came out to me what would my reaction have been.  I personally know of no parent who danced in the streets when their son/daughter told them they were gay.  I don't know of any parent who said, "I'm thrilled that my son is gay.  It's a dream come true, everything I've always hoped he would be.  My greatest desire was to have a gay child."  I know parents who are very accepting of this news, but I also know that within every single parent I know who has faced this news, there has been at least a touch of sadness in the news.  To say that there isn't is to lie. 

We as a society have not progress to the point where a parent rejoices in the news that their child is gay/lesbian.  We have parents who accept it and love their children no matter what, but I have yet to hear one parent ever say they wanted their son/daughter to be gay.  Acceptance of a gay child is not the same as desiring to have a gay child.

Recently, there has been a whisper of a disparaging word against the Legend of Saint Matt.  Stephen Jimenez's The Book of Matt presents an alternate version of the motive in Shepard's murder.  Instead of being a monstrous hate crime due to Shepard's homosexuality, Jimenez (who himself is gay) argues that his murder was a result of the drug trade Shepard was alleged to be involved with.  IF Shepard's murder was not connected to his sexual orientation but to illegal activity, it more than changes the narrative.  It all but obliterates it.  The central premise of all the works on Shepard (including October Mourning) now become grist for a myth, perpetuating a false narrative if Jimenez's allegations are true.  It doesn't rob the good poems of their power, but it does undermine the premise that they are built on, the story of an innocent now becomes a darker tale, one where the truth is not as clear.  It also has the effect of making Matthew Shepard less a saint and more a sinner like you and me, with the same flaws, faults and failings as any other mortal.  It doesn't justify, rationalize, or condone his killing, but it does make Matthew Shepard less than the sum of his official story.

It brings to mind the famous quote from the film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.  "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend".  Does it really matter what the motive was in Shepard's murder?  If it wasn't homophobia gone wild but instead a sordid drug-related crime, does that take away from the important symbolism of Shepard?  It certainly doesn't justify the murder, but one has to ask, would there be works like October Mourning, Elegy for Matthew or The Laramie Project to lament someone killed in a sordid meth-related crime gone hideously wrong?   

I now have serious questions about both The Book of Matt and works like October Mourning.   Is the former true or a lie?  Is the latter perpetuating a myth or a passionate reaction against a monstrous evil?  I can't answer either  with total certainty.  As Newman stated, there are only three people who know for certain what happened: two in prison, one dead. 

However, I think we can get an idea of where Newman would stand on this if asked.  In The Prosecutor's Job, she writes of "a robbery/a kidnapping/a killing; which cannot be excused/which cannot be forgiven/which cannot be undone; the rest is irrelevant/the rest is history/the rest is baloney; he rests his case" (emphasis mine).  October Mourning was written long before The Book of Matt gave an alternate version of the story, and I'm only speculating, but perhaps Ms. Newman spoke for those who believe that even if Shepard was not the "Martyr/Hero/Legend/Star", in the end "the rest is irrelevant".

October Mourning comes from the heart, a true emotional outpouring of the author's feelings over her interpretation of the crime from various viewpoints.   No one has ever argued that Shepard's murder, whatever the motive, was right or justified.  It was a brutal, horrific crime.


In the Kirkus review for October Mourning, it was pointed out that "while the collection as a whole treats a difficult subject with sensitivity and directness, these poems are in no way nuanced or subtle." It also took Newman to task for being 'somewhat heavy-handed".  I find these observations to be highly accurate, but I also think that despite some stumbles (which shouldn't come as a surprise for a work that contains so many works), October Mourning, when it works, works extremely well.  October Mourning is itself a very moving Elegy for Matthew.

A great program would be to have a GLBT speaker talk about his/her experiences pre and post-Matthew Shepard.  A production of The Laramie Project would also be advisable if possible, and a display of the various social moments in America (suffragists, civil rights, gay rights) might also be good.  I also think the creation of a rainbow artwork with messages could be constructed.

Matthew Wayne Shepard:


Book Review: October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard by Leslea Newman (2012, July). Kirkus Reviews.  Retrieved from

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