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Book Review: Chanel Brenner's 'Vanilla Milk,' a poetry memoir from a grieving parent

Chanel Brenner’s Vanilla Milk: A Memoir Told in Poems, is a tempered, delicate unravelling of what must have been, and still is, a relentless and heartbreaking experience. Brenner turns to poetry as an outlet to express her palette of emotions that suddenly struck her. Her eldest son, Riley, suffers an arteriovenous malformation brain hemorrhage at the age of six. Following the verses provided by Brenner, a grieving parent, allows for a better, but still distant depiction of the immense hardship. The unravelling of this sad story reveals how such a loss alters a family’s relationship with others, daily routines and other aspects of life.

Whether the incessant reminder is brought about as a result of a toy in a store that reminds the family of Riley or even a pizza delivery worker who asks where the young boy who always comes running is, there is no room for the hurt to cease, and really, how could it? When a child is lost despite parents’ protectiveness and love, the suffering is immeasurable, inarticulable even. Brenner writes, “When I think of all I did to protect my son, all I worried he could die from … all distractions from the actual, his destiny at rest in its recliner biding time, death in his head like a landmine waiting.” The memoir unfolds in an ordered timeline starting from the hospital room where the bad news is first received all the way to when Riley’s heart takes flight.

Throughout the memoir, not only are we offered the point of view of the mother, the author herself, but also a look into Desmond’s experience, Riley’s younger brother, who continually asks questions about Riley from a place of innocent curiosity. But even a three-year-old’s curiosity can catch a mother off-guard. Especially when the question is, “Who is Riley?” Young Desmond asks simple questions or makes simple statements like, “I’m not Riley; I’m Desmond” and surely is left wondering what is going on when his parents react in a shocked manner or have a difficult time explaining where his older brother went and why. On top of it all, by the end of the memoir, you turn to a section entitled “Family Photos” that only makes you more involved in this story. A series of absolutely endearing and heartbreaking photos are shared of the family and both of their boys at play.

Brenner’s drive to put her sorrow into a work of art has not gone unnoticed and surely finds its way onto some of the 2014 lists of prominent works. Straightforwardly, Brenner admits, “I can’t stop writing poems about my dead son. He’s why I started and I worry I won’t be able to stop.”

Her inability to stop producing honest, insightful poems about Riley certainly constructs a tribute or perhaps ode to her son. By letting us into her family’s life after the loss of their eldest son, Brenner offers a deeply personal involvement in her suffering and uncertainty as to how to take her love for two children and supply it to the one she still has.

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Ghoncheh Azadeh

Ghoncheh Azadeh