Chanel Brenner
Smile or else
Press 53

Reviewer: Ann Wehrman

Chanel Brenner’s collection, Smile or else, which won the 2021 Press 53 Award for Poetry, includes the poem, “Facebook Post: Mother Son Hike at Solstice Canyon: 183 Likes.” Composed in alternating lines of regular then italicized font, the poem contrasts the author’s rhapsodic perceptions during a hike with her son with subvocalized anguished apprehension for him. Brenner ends the poem with a darkly jesting challenge that becomes the title of this book, as well:

Look at our wide smiles, muscular legs, blond hair blowing in wind,
     not my clenched jaw, tight neck muscles.
See grassy hills, yellow wildflowers, shades of blue,
     not me dragging him away from the Xbox.

See the trail’s summit—
     not my fear of him falling off the cliff.
Like our heads tilted toward each other,
     not someone shouting, “Smile, or else!”

The poem is a microcosm, the collection the corresponding macrocosm. Throughout Smile or else, Brenner brings to light the agony she carries from the death of her six-year-old son, Riley, dredging up her great sorrow and transmuting it into art. For example, the chiseled perfection of the brief poem, “Reflection”:

with each September step
I rustle the dead
my son’s ghost hides
behind a sycamore
the tree clings to her foliage
like a lost child
I glimpse his mother
in a store window
steel eyes of a crow
stare back and wither
her lemon-dry hair

Brenner spared no cuts in crafting that poem; her polished images lead the reader through a tunnel of emotion down the dead-end street of the poet’s grief.

Rather than letting suffering destroy her, however, the poet has made from it highly accessible yet exquisitely written poems that sing with the depth of her love. Never overly sentimental, Brenner shares Riley with the reader through a narrative style and images from daily life with him and their family. In “Clear-Cut,” Brenner writes of a memory, a prescient question Riley asked:

It falls from my binder,
cherry crayon streaks
ripen in sun, LOVE RILEY—

a valentine from my son,
three weeks before he died,

cutout paper once a tree,
before its felling,
and reduction to pulp.

I pick up the heart,
hold it like a seed I’ll save

to grow an oak.
I couldn’t answer
his question,

Mommy, does paper
remember being a tree?

The poet has fashioned this beautifully; her late son’s wistful question at the end saves the poem from sentimentality. One wonders whether, like paper in the poem, Riley’s spirit lives on after death; does he remember his mother, his young life? In “While Cleaning the Playroom,” Brenner writes:

Nestled between his dusty baseball glove
and Darth Vader mask,
I find the cast Riley saved
from his broken arm.

I remember how,
running to tell me something,
he fell, left limb caught
oddly underneath his torso,
like a snapped tree branch—

his first and only break,
the year before he died.

When the doctor removed the cast,
the speeding, circular blade
spun as close to his skin
as a stone skimming water.

Riley placed the cast on the shelf,
its neon orange body split in two,

like a part of himself
he would no longer need.

I fit the halves together,
an orange shell,
frayed at the wrist.

In a world filled with death, crisscrossed by streets soaked in blood, what is one woman’s pain at the loss of her son? Yet, Brenner’s voice rings true and strong. Her agony is every mother’s sorrow, universal grief at a beloved child’s life cut too short; an inconsolable, empty space in her arms. One life lost is mourned here so truly that the lamentation sings for all who have passed. In “We Never Heal, Just Remember Less,” Brenner writes:

Stretching my legs
after a walk down our old street,

my dead son’s face came to me,
the scar below

his left eyebrow, the window
of his missing two front teeth

so clear, I had to sit
for a minute, on someone else’s porch.

Four years since Riley died;
since the tsunami hit Japan—

all those children swept away.
You’d think we’d heal, yet today,

at our younger son’s game,
as Desmond raced toward home,

his father cheered, Go Riley!
We stared at one another,

seeing our first son
fall all over again—

skull of memory cracked open
against concrete.

War, violent crime, and plagues continue to oppress in today’s world. Everywhere now, people’s senses are dulled by the numbers of sick and dead, the shutdowns, the isolations, and most of all, the loss of their own loved ones. Yet, in these poems, Brenner makes one care. She takes numbed and jaded readers into her grief and tenderly shares her experience at the loss of her six-year-old son. He lives on as she and her husband continue to raise their second son, Desmond. Her writing about Riley weaves a shrine of silver words, a path in the woods to his cairn, an offering. Therein lies the value of this collection; ultimately, even more than exquisitely crafted poetry, it’s the expression of a mother’s love that defies death.

In the wry and courageous anthem that is the final poem in Smile or else, titled, “When My Yoga Teacher Tells Me I’m Vata Deranged,” Brenner owns her grief, an act worthy of respect:

I can think of worse things.
It’s windy in your head, she says,
but I like the soughing in my mind.
Thoughts blow thorough me like clouds.
Words loft like helium bags, swirling
along my shoreline, then settling.

Tranquility is overrated,
stillness weak.
I dive, tumble, then soar on my gritty, muscular wind.

Grief at the loss of a beloved child is not an easy cross to bear. Nonetheless, healing requires bearing it, as well as coming to terms with the loss. It takes great courage to endure, examine, and digest grief; it takes a poet’s gift to turn at least some of the heartache she feels into art and share it with the world.