Chanel Brenner

Chanel Brenner is the author of Vanilla Milk: a memoir told in poems, (Silver Birch Press, 2014). Her poems have appeared in Poet Lore, Rattle, Cultural Weekly, The Coachella Review, Diverse Voices Quarterly, and others. Her poem, “What Would Wislawa Szymborska Do?” was displayed at the James Whitcomb Riley Museum in Indianapolis, Indiana; and her poem, “July 28th, 2012” won first prize in The Write Place At the Write Time’s contest, judged by Ellen Bass. In 2014, she was nominated for a Best of the Net award and a Pushcart Prize.

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"A noteworthy exploration of a parent's grief."

Kirkus Reviews


Pub Date:
ISBN: 978-0692267479
Page count: 104pp

Through poems and vignettes, Brenner’s moving debut memoir commemorates her son’s death.

Brenner began writing poetry in earnest the night 6-year-old Riley died of an arteriovenous malformation brain hemorrhage. “The pain had to go somewhere,” she recalls. Instead of crying, she crafted poems. These free verse selections, mostly written in complete sentences, rely on alliteration, assonance and striking imagery rather than straight rhyme for impact. Perspective morphs subtly, starting in the third person and moving into a more intimate first-person present, with occasional outbursts of second-person address to Riley. “The Perfect Latch” tenderly equates breast-feeding with bonding, despite pain and ambivalence: “Nipples raw and cracked, / burning like resentment, / she squeezes her left breast / to achieve the perfect latch.” In “Shifting Sand,” alliteration makes for memorable lines about flux: “grinding the finite grains / against the scarred linoleum.” Several passages are gently morbid: “Funny we called it permanent, / you only had it for a week” (“Your Permanent Tooth”) and “A washing machine outlives a little boy.” Inventive, extended metaphors personify death or mock opinions about God: Here is “Death’s finger pointing, / Eeny, meeny, miny, moe”; and in “God as a Waiter,” one must only “Place the order, / [and] Thou shall receive” another baby. Brenner contrasts the blithe early days of marriage—“We offered ourselves to each other / lightly as happy hour hors d’oeuvres”—with the strain Riley’s death placed on her and her husband, Lee. She also dwells on Riley’s physical remains—clothes under his bed, a rosebush he loved, as well as the organs he donated—and on others’ well-meaning but trite responses to her grief. Just as powerful are the one-page autobiographical vignettes interspersed throughout. Of these, best is “Choices,” in which the vocabulary foreshadows medical crisis: “coffin-shaped room,” “a cracker that clumps like ash on my tongue” and “the doctors file in like pallbearers.” However, the subtitle should indicate that nearly a quarter of the text is prose, and 17 continuous pages of family photos are perhaps excessive.

A noteworthy exploration of a parent’s grief.