Book Review

Ellen LaFleche's slim chapbook Estella, With One Lung is quite simply put - a jewel. First books of poetry tend to go in one of two directions. Either they are composed of individually well wrought poems whose connection with each other are tenuous, or they constitute an interesting but prosaic narrative. In Estella LaFleche has managed to put it all together.

The book portrays some of the salient experiences in the lives of Estella Beauregard and her husband Bert, from Estella's chemotherapy treatment until her death. LaFleche skillfully avoids sentimentality, moralizing, didacticism and attempts at inspiration, the Bermuda quadrangle of disability poetry. As a result, her poems are real and we believe her.

LaFleche's attention to detail builds up a genuine sense of location. Estella buys her jewelry at Wal-mart, get the Kut and Kurl Special at Brenda's Beauty Box, eats birthday cake from the Sweet Nothings Bakery and, ironically, bowls at the Lucky Strike. You know this town. And, yes, her daughters are named April and June. The milieu in which Estella's life exists is almost palpable. Of course, if this were all, the book would be merely amusing. It is LaFleche's ability to unsentimentally portray the dignity and humanity of the Walmart-shopping Estella and Bert that raises the poetry to a higher level.

Estella, With One Lung opens with "Brenda's Beauty Box" the first place poem in the 2008 Inglis Poetry Contest.

Estella is going to lose her hair
but she comes in anyway
for the weekly Kut And Kurl special.

Brenda ties the plastic apron around Estella's neck
with the brisk efficiency of an x-ray technician.

Estella slouches in the beauty chair.
Not as roomy as the padded chemo
recliner, but it's good comfort along with
the strawberry shampoo and sweet coffee in a Styrofoam cup.

In the next poem "Breath" at the visit to the doctor

While he warms his stethoscope Estella puffs up
her hair. The curls are sprayed
into place but they come out anyway.

Estella tries to stick them back on. She looks at her doctor,

LaFleche's images are carried over from poem to poem, not just in adjacent images such as that of the deciduating hair, but in less initially obvious ways as well. One of those leitmotifs is that of cigarettes and smoking. Back in the first poem, for example, "Brenda spits out the pins for a puff of a cigarette" and in the second the doctor "puffs up her hair". A few poems later we are at the "Lucky Strike Bowling Lanes" and then a little further down the line the images take on a particular poignancy in "Bertram Beauregard Feels His Guilt."

It was Bert who taught Estella
how to smoke. That morning
in the sweet corn, Estella was sixteen
when Bert pushed
an unlit Lucky between her lips.

Estella leaned in close. Bert lifted
fire to her mouth.

In the sickroom
Bert smells the dying sugar corn.
He hears the wheeze and
rattle of the stalks. The cobs flaunt their long yellow hairs like little Rapunzels.

It's my fault you're so sick.

Estella allows Bertram to see that it was not him, but her life itself that has brought her to this juncture. Unfortunately, the power of the ending is almost totally diffused by the one preachy ending in the entire book:

That's what did it, Bert.
Second hand smoke is worse
than smoking. Doctor Morgenstern said.

In addition to interweaving language throughout the poems, LaFleche also demonstrates her skill at words within individual poems. This is especially evident in "Thursday Night Ladies' League, The Lucky Strike Bowling Lanes." Aside from the Lucky Strikes of the title, Estella's wobbly strike on the alley is followed by an observation of how "illness strikes" those in the Ladies Group with which she bowls.

One of the finest poems is "Halloween Intruder," which depicts Estella's death. As Estella's family gathers about her on Halloween night:

A ghost knock on the door. An angel with tinfoil
wings. A bloody ghoul.

All are forms that a spirit released from its body might potentially take on this All Soul's night. Among those who show up at the door is the nurse dressed as a witch. June and April light votive candles while the nurse prepares her own brews for the company. As Bert sits by Estella for the last time:

The votives give up their perfumes like smoky souls.

Each person in the room deals with the death in a different way, but

When the witch says
It was a good death    a beautiful death
Bert slams down his cup.

It shatters into sharp red petals.

The condescension of the nurse is so profound that upon reading this, the reader feels Bert's anger almost as if it were his own. And it is in this state the poem leaves the reader emotionally. The final poem "Before the Undertaker Comes" allows Bert the chance to make gestures towards overcoming his helplessness and inability by belatedly placing some salt and pepper shakers that Estella had wanted in her hands, but the reader is not let off the hook so easily. For all of its humor and delicacy of feeling Estella With One Lung is an unsettling book.

It is hard to overstate the beauty of LaFleche's book. Between Estella's refusal of further chemotherapy and her death lie an unlikely assortment of experiences that accumulate both to intensify the reader's emotional identification with Estella and to set off a slow smoldering at the way Estella is treated by society, especially by the medical establishment. These include a trip to a wig emporium, a birthday party, picking out a casket and a day at the town carnival. Each in some way contributes to the overall texture of the book through its language, imagery and motifs. For such a small book it packs a powerful punch.

For anyone interested in the potential power of disability poetry or in the ways that it can be developed, Estella, With One Lung is essential reading. It is a book that serves equally well the reader unaquainted with disability writing, the student or teacher in a course on disability literature, or the reader who somehow still finds it necessary to equate disability poetry with inspirational literature. The one drawback to LaFleche's book is that, though it is now under consideration from several publishers, you will not find it in your local bookstore or even on Anyone interested in Estella will need to contact Ellen LaFleche at It is an emailing well worth the effort.