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Readers Response: October Mourning by Lesléa Newman

This post is a reader’s response to a book read for the 2013 Hub Reading Challenge.

october mourning leslea newman coverWhen I started the 2013 Hub Reading Challenge, my intention was to read as much as I could outside my comfort zone and still finish on time. I am not a fast reader and I am ashamed to admit that when I came across October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard my first reaction was, “It’s poetry! It’s slim! I’ll get through this in an hour!” Since my initial reading, however, I have reread this book several times and I am still struck by the powerful imagery and the strong emotional response it provokes in me.

This little volume of 68 poems chronicles the events surrounding the death of Matthew Shepard, the University of Wyoming student who was brutally beaten, robbed and left tied to a fence one cold October night in 1998. In the book’s introduction, author Lesléa Newman explains that in one of his final acts, Matthew attended a planning meeting for Gay Awareness Week, to be held several days later at the university. She was the keynote speaker and she arrived on campus the day he died.

Readers looking for a book that explores a variety of poetic techniques will find that here. Concrete poems, haikus, and rhymed couplets are a few of the many forms used in October Mourning. There are narrative poems from the people and objects that bore witness to the tragedy. There are found poems and list poems, while others mimic the style of William Carlos Williams’s famous apology poem, “This is Just to Say.” Commentary, sources, and historical notes are included. While the poems are meant to be experienced as a cohesive unit, a few could easily be used independently in classroom discussions.

Read this book as a memoir, however, and dare to be left untouched. Lesléa Newman chose verse to fully explore feelings of fear, hatred, and grief, but also empathy and understanding. While she clearly states that the poems are her interpretation of the events, her changing perspectives bring a wide range of emotional experience. As a parent, I could easily relate to “How to Have the Worst Day of Your Life” and “Every Mother’s Plea,” while other readers may find themselves impacted by the words of “The Student” or “Then and Now.”

Lesléa Newman’s personal examination of Matthew Shepard’s death makes October Mourning a powerful and affecting work that ultimately transcends the events that inspired the poems. She states, “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.” As a personal tribute, a historical account, and an exercise in verse, October Mourning successfully blends facts and emotions into a potent plea for compassion.

I expected the Hub Reading Challenge to open my eyes to other genres and authors. I didn’t expect to find a book that would touch my heart. Am I coming back next year? You bet.

— Judi Fioti

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