A Remembrance by Erica Orloff

ShannEvery time I think I am all cried out about the death of my beloved friend, poet Shann Palmer, it turns out I am not. As I fell into bed last night, again I sobbed for missing her. She left us far too soon, collapsing in mid-December from a heart attack, lingering in a coma for about ten days, before passing on December 21st, just before her birthday. This was a spitfire of a woman.  I fully expected her to be raising hell well into her nineties, or to be sitting side by side with her in rocking chairs laughing and talking poetry and words.

But I know, because that is how mourning works, that time will lessen the intensity of the grief, until it feels less like a blade and more like a butter knife. I, and all who loved this amazing woman, will cry less often. And then we’ll have What Remains.

Her funeral was a glimpse of What Remains.  Everyone, it seemed, had a “Shann Story.” How she got this person or that person to start writing again—or perhaps for the first time. How she lured this writer or that one out of the Poetry Closet. After not writing poetry since my twenties, she pulled me into an online poetry group—and there I was writing poems again.
The stories were many—and nearly all of them accompanied by laughter. Because you could not be in Shann’s presence for very long before you were  laughing—and not giggling, but full-on belly laughs. Her wit was legendary. That woman could whisper a zinger under her breath, off-handed, that most comic writers would have to work on for days.

Like most writers, she mined her own life for her work. She had an eccentric Texan family and a colorful life—and she used that “material.” I attended a reading of hers at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, when she had “curated” a poetry reading. Suddenly, she was her eccentric aunt, embodied in a poem. She pulled out her drawl, affected a different person, became someone else as she read. I was in awe. She took my breath away. This was not only a poetess but a performer. She left boxes of her poems and writings that her family will now have to sort through and catalog, like archeologists at the dig of a legendary pharaoh. And those poems and writings are part of What Remains.

The reception after the funeral was a veritable tapestry of the different facets of Shann’s full and rich life. You could tell—even if you never met her—that this was a woman who lived life in living Technicolor. There were the musicians. Over there the James River Writers’ folks (she was a very active and devoted board member). Her personal friends. Her poetry friends. Those she organized poetry events for and with at places like art 6 and cafes and coffee shops. The open mic poets. The slam poets.

Those she sang with. The Virginia Chorale singers who beautifully sent her off in the church where her funeral was held. Her church friends, from the years she was the organist and choir director at Grace Episcopal in Goochland, and other churches throughout the area. Her teacher friends from the years she taught music at schools throughout Richmond. Her former students.

All trading stories about one amazing woman.

And of course, her much-loved family. Because you couldn’t spend very long in Shann’s company before she was bragging about Alia and Paul, talking about her husband and children and her love for them, how proud she was of both her kids as they were making their way in their world, not to mention Paul’s writing and Alia’s incredibly creative gifts working in the theatre in costume design (as well as the fabulous haircuts she gave Shann). Most of all, Shann was pleased they were good people. Because if you knew Shann well, you knew a couple of things. She didn’t suffer fools or pretentious people gladly. And she was good people. She valued the things that are truly important: friends, family, a beautiful poem, love, laughter, the things that count.

When someone lives a life well, their passing leaves a gaping hole. I am not sure I will ever be able to attend any James River Writers gathering and not keenly feel the missing of my partner in crime, the woman who became one of my closest friends. But I know What Remains.

Her beautifully written poems. Her words. And the smiles that are stronger than the tears. Those smiles and the laughter and joy that are the remembrances of a woman who, all four-foot-eleven inches of her, lived large. 

What Remains of my dear friend and poet . . . is simply Love.

Erica Orloff with beloved JRW board member and volunteer Shann Palmer
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