Nicole Melanson ~
Chanel Brenner’s poetry collection Smile, or else, is an extended elegy for her son, Riley, who died at six years old from complications associated with arteriovenous malformations in his brain. Simultaneously devastating yet uplifting, these poems run the gamut of parental grief, ranging from the practical – Who wants a dead kid’s bike? – to the philosophical, Brenner wondering what she’d feel if, for example, she became pregnant again:
hope pulling one way, grief the other—
joy a rope in my hands,
raw and burning.
Throughout Smile, or else, Riley is as present as his younger brother, Desmond, like two sides of the same coin, seen individually, though together. Brenner weaves memories of Riley’s past into Desmond’s present, showing how the boys’ stories run in parallel, a perspective familiar to all parents raising more than one child.
There is a spare, direct quality to Brenner’s poems, the language straightforward and simple: The child is the same age Desmond was / the night Riley died. This directness puts bereavement in real, tangible terms, interspersed with deeply personal imagery:
Desmond enters, mirroring
his father’s smile, their faces
like two halves
of the same broken geode,
as they clean the toys off the floor.
These images ground Brenner’s grief in a more universal sense of loss, the quiet, domestic scene familiar whilst also linked to something larger. This is the reality of a family in mourning, devoid of sentimentality and contrivance.
The context of an ill child and overall tone of Smile, or else reminded me of Emily Rapp Black’s The Still Point of a Turning World, so I was startled to find that Rapp herself actually blurbed the collection. Considering both works side by side is an interesting study on representing similar subject matter across poetry and prose.
For all Brenner comes across as a “poet’s poet”, confident in her craft, with a good sense of rhythm and lyric, this collection offers something to a much broader readership. Smile, or else is a beautiful book that should resonate with many readers, whether they can directly identify with Brenner’s experience or not.
— Nicole Melanson