what we owe each other

by Risa Denenberg

About the author:

Risa Denenberg is a self-proclaimed, aging hippy who currently lives a solitary life in the pacific northwest.  She is Jewish, a lesbian, and a grandmother.  With a compelling interest in science and medicine and as an autodidact, she is always studying something, be it psychology, religion, philosophy, or physics.

Though an introvert, she has always had a strong need to be a caregiver.  She has worked in health care for the past 35 years as a nursing aide, EMT, RN, freelance medical writer, and nurse practitioner and has always chosen to work in the cracks of the system — in HIV care, substance abuse, women’s health, emergency care, and end-of-life care.  She is drawn to exploring themes of suffering and death and their intersections with medicine, art, and religion.

Denenberg has written poems since her childhood, and she reads poetry ravenously.  Her writing comes out of a need to understand and witness struggle and suffering and to acknowledge aging, pain, illness, and death.  She tries to give voice to the body, while also trying to make visible the soul.  Reading and writing are the threads that have sewn her life together.

From the author:

The most profound death I have witnessed, that of my friend Jon Greenberg, has been suffused with and somewhat diluted by my subsequent 20 years of experiences with deaths, and yet, his death remains a foundation of how I understand the world.  Jon taught me so many things, in particular, that it is possible to accept death and honor it, rather than ignore death and live in denial.

$15 US
Chapbook - 20 poemsChapbooks.html

Table of Contents

Ode to Brevity

Rummaging the Sacristy

Last Rites

I sat by the bed


Moral Equivalency

What we owe each other

The last mourner


At the library

Bridges and Redemption

Angels and Pigeons

Alternative Medicine


Last Words


Book of the Dead

Dear Solitude

Last Request

Dear Jon

When asked to consider the word owe, as in to owe something, many of us will offer an example of a tangible or monetary debt to a person or company.  However, if asked to broaden this concept, we may imagine an obligation, be it an obligation to someone, or possibly, to society as a whole.  If pressed to explore further, we may consider what we might owe to ourselves.  Risa Denenberg delves into the deeper of these definitions here in her first published collection of poetry, what we owe each other.

Through these poems, we will learn about the relationship between Denenberg, a nurse practitioner, and Jon, a man whom she first befriended and then ultimately cared for during his struggles with complications from HIV/AIDS.  In addition, the poems document Jon’s horrific responses to his medical treatment more than a decade after the CDC coined the names, human immunodeficiency virus and acquired immunodeficiency syndrome. They take place during the months surrounding Jon’s death in the summer of 1993 and recall the years that follow when Denenberg contemplates how her memories of that time still impact her life.  They are presented in an unchronicled fashion just as the tumultuous memories that surround the death of a friend or loved one tend to return, with the clarity of brief, pivotal moments that are often filled with regret and that pose more questions than answers.

Denenberg combines the clinical acuity of a practitioner’s eye with the sensitivity of a poet’s heart to convey the emotional rift that can occur in someone who must draw upon their professional caregiver skills while simultaneously experiencing the emotional turmoil of being present while a loved one is dying.  Many of the poems simultaneously address her feelings of loss with the multifaceted reality of our existence and the implications that a death can have for those who remain.  Others offer us her observations of the many different cultural and religious practices that take place at that time and their moral implications.

If we are present at the last moment of life, as was Risa with Jon,

If we are present at the last moment of life, as was Risa with Jon, our memories of that time can be the most intense, because we can never be fully prepared for the final breath.  She transports us to that moment where she reveals the often brutal realities of a life lost to HIV/AIDS.  She doesn’t shy away from documenting the fluids, the smells and sounds, and the behaviors and reactions of those who are present, yet she imbues a level of grace that is often only found in spiritual and religious ceremonies into what are the practical realities of the hours that follow a death, portraying them as sacred, human intimacies.

For anyone who has lost a loved one, the return of their image while being preoccupied with something completely unrelated will be familiar.  In the days and years that followed Jon’s death, Denenberg recounts the moments and settings when his image returned.  They are vibrant in color, palpable in texture, and striking in sound.  A scarf or cap, the movements of his limbs, the sound of his voice, and the meaning behind his words cause us to take notice or recoil with alarm as we try to process the implications of these memories.

It is through the processing of memories that we learn their meaning, and it is through a recognition of the implications of our deeds and thoughts that we only begin to gain an understanding of the effects we can have on others and the lasting effects that others ultimately can have on us.  This collection expands our understanding of what it means to owe as Denenberg offers us her insights into the obligations we have to others.  Her experience teaches us that just when we think we have come to terms with a death, our resolve can be affected by the ebb and flow of returning memories and the challenges we face to balance our emotions with acceptance and our questioning with answers.  The lesson we can take from this is that if we are to leave this world less burdened, then perhaps we owe it to ourselves to remember the impact we can make on it, and the effects we have on those who comprise our circle of existence while we are alive.  We owe it to ourselves to consider that what we owe each other is what is most important.

O.P.W. Fredericks, Editor

From the publisher:

From the critics:

Risa Denenberg’s title, what we owe each other, as I read it, suggests that she is going to tell us, her readers, in no uncertain terms, the kind of moral debt we are in as a necessary condition of our being in the world, living and dying, separately and together.  And she does just that, lining it out for us in a series of poems that stun with their straightforwardness and stark beauty, wherein she tends, in the strongest possible sense of that verb, to a friend who is dying in agony.

As it happens, Denenberg is a nurse and a poet, both callings of the highest order as she answers and practices them.  “I’d like to be of use, but no longer know what / use it is,” she says in “At the library,” giving herself and her readers serious pause.  What can she do?  What can anyone do when death is in the room?  She can give herself up to “the urge to perform some ritual with my hands,” as she says in “I sat by the bed.”  She can touch her friend who is dying with her hands, and she can touch us, her readers, with her poems.

That touch is the power and the virtue, the loving kindness, so compellingly present in Denenberg’s poems.  In “Dear Jon,” the last of the poems she has gathered here, she names her friend because she has to.  When we close her book which is, first and last, his book too, we need to know his name.  Jon, dying, has been her teacher as well as her friend.  Their book is made up of the lessons he has taught her and she, in turn, is teaching us, “what we owe each other.”

In “The last mourner,” Denenberg reminds us that “the dead cannot bury their dead,” a wonderfully elliptical line.  “So we,” the living, she goes on to say, “come to help,” because we can and because we must.  We are bound to them.  We bury the dead deep in our hearts, and “when the last mourner arrives,” Denenberg tells us, “we shall not mourn, but rejoice.”  That, for me, is the take away from her poems, what I keep for myself, their lasting value.

For me, Risa Denenberg is that mourner, the last one.  The poems in what we owe each other are what I hope for when I read poetry.  More than that, they are what hope is for.  They are cause for rejoicing.

William Slaughter, author of Untold Stories and

The Politics of My Hearts

Editor of Mudlark, An Electronic Journal of Poetry and Poetics


In the end (but, is there An End?) we are fortunate if we are not alone.  If we are not left to the shovel's burden without someone to take the shovel from our hand.  But what becomes of that person who takes the shovel from us?  Risa Denenberg knows.

It's a journey of which I've always known, but have been afraid to acknowledge.  To do so, I might have to embark, my name may be called up.  How long can I distract myself from the journey waiting to call my name? I don't want to deal with the dead and dying.

And yet, this is all around us.  We are born to die.  It's the journey that binds us to one another.  As Denenberg reminds us:

“The dying are not so sad to die

as we are for them to leave us behind.”

I've been a fan of Denenberg's poetry for some years because each time I encounter one of her poems, I feel stronger afterwards.  More trusting.  Perhaps, more resolved.  Just as we learn surrender is actually sweet acceptance and not defeat, Denenberg reminds and gives us strength to accept "that gentle dispatch,/not longevity, is the kinder portion."

In this collection of poetry, we are coaxed into the waters with a gentle, but firm voice.  Oh, come on in — the water's fine.  And so we dip our toes, wade in to meet the ebb and flow Denenberg knows so well.  We might think at first her poems are in theory, but it doesn't take too long before we realize we've stepped into the waters lapping at her shore.  And while the waves of detail are stirring and poetic, at times they pack such a punch.  Lines regarding the theory of Shiva, the mirthful Buddha, the Christian martyrs dissolve with one wallop: "I should never have read your journals."

Now we are in deep.  And what shall become of us as we read the poetry Denenberg has chosen to share with us?  Each of us is on a separate journey, each leading to the same result, and yet we vary in our levels of resolve, our ability to give voice to how we feel.  It doesn't take long before she reassures "what is needed is uttered without words."

Where does the journey end?  This is what I learn: it doesn't.  What we lose in one form returns to us.  "He is everywhere."  We have only to learn to be aware, to tune in.  To ask questions we didn't think to ask so many years ago.  In one of my favorite passages in this collection, Denenberg's words astound me:

“ .  .  .You were a bridge,

but I didn't know it when you were here.

I can't cross this bridge without you,

and yet, you are there.

Where is there?”

How long is the road to acceptance?  Please, I want to plea, someone take this trip for me.  But no, that is not possible and Denenberg knows this, understanding my fear of moving forward and my fear of being left behind.  That bridge.

Her poetry dips from her own pond to offer me a taste.  In this way, the personal spreads into the universe and reaches me.   "A solitary life/is the world's best kept secret."  Denenberg knows we are, each of us, alone.  And yet she shares with us the notes from her own journey, and for this I am grateful and for this, I will keep this chapbook on my favorite bookshelf at home.

Sherry O’Keefe, author of Cracking Geodes Open

“If we are born with an infinite debt to all those people who made our existence possible, but there is no natural unit called ‘society’ — then who or what exactly do we owe it to?  Everyone?  Everything?  Some people or things more than others?”

  David Graeber asks these questions in Debt: The First 5,000 Years.  Graeber’s follow-up question is one posed by Risa Denenberg in her incisive and moving chapbook, what we owe each other.  “What does it mean to imagine our responsibilities as debts?  To whom do we owe our existence?”

The first composition in this collection of twenty short poems, an “Ode To Brevity,” stakes out the anxiety that arises when life is bracketed as a minor interjection in an epic and semi-comprehendible text.  “It’s not difficult to grasp,” Denenberg writes. Yet her address belies that comment.  She implies that belated contemplation of the event of a death is necessary to reveal who and what might reconcile us to life’s temporal configuration.  This act of contemplation also prompts the recalibration of what we owe to another or others and to the humans and non-humans who offer us that knowledge.  To comprehend this knowledge as debt, Denenberg seizes upon what literally remains and reanimates those materials.  What is left becomes the conduit through which we revise our valuation of felt attachments.  Her poems recuperate, textualize, and aestheticize things: journals, a waxy body, and the solids and liquids used by some to dispatch their lives or the lives of others.  These materials act as the medium to ease our dis-ease by framing of life as non-being’s brief digression.

As Denenberg observes, the dying do not fully acquit their obligations to us when they allow us (with or without their consent) to become witnesses to their passing.  But in becoming a witness to their death there is always an exchange.  That exchange is remuneration for the consciousness we must endure as we draw a breath when another’s brain ceases to compel lungs to inflate.  These poems bear witness to the dying and witness dying’s witnesses, in their specificity, their singularity, and their commonality.  They are prayers to assist the living, for they transform dying from an incoherent series of unrelated events and symptoms linked by the fiction of an autonomous deteriorating body into a narrative.  They lend the event coherence, and I suspect the poems become even more resonant when recited aloud like a lament, reverberating in the bodies of others.  They demystify dying but do not denude it of its affective power.

Following the extended period of physical and mental changes that occur during the duration of dying, Denenberg selects moments within that framework.  Her poems then become trajectories that map out the flashpoints of the witnesses’ disquiet.  She steadily refuses writing as a mode of reconciliation with loss’ magnitude.  Instead “Last Rites,” “I Sat By The Bed,” and “Shaktipat” consider dying as a communication that, like words or sex, will always fail to fully express one being to another.  “The Last Mourner” reminds the reader that the event of death allows us to identify how others, who ritualize death, live: “we burn, we embalm, we wash, we salute, we rend.  We tend our own.  When the last mourner arrives, we shall not mourn, but rejoice.”  Cohering as a community salves the burden of our ongoing consciousness.  That vital debt is gladly acknowledged when acts-in-common reveal others who value life and death similarly.

Death of any other is always maddeningly about us, about we who still remain to consider it.  In “Last Words,” the furious friend or lover whose virus contaminates each page of this text hurls, “This isn’t about you,” to the poet who swallows his fury.  Is her highly sexualized gesture of incorporation retaliatory? Self-abnegating?  In writing of this relationship, Denenberg acknowledges that she has been parasitically occupied and that these poems could only have been generated through that occupation (more than likely to the consternation of her deceased friend).  But now her organs and the dis-ease of her emotions keep him animated.  As she indicates, there is an absurdity in remaining oblivious to the idea of human control as a fiction, for while people can host and (by the conscious act of hosting) elucidate the bonds that constitute our debt, there are other debts we become host to that never consider our feelings or respect our autonomy.  Those debts however can be felt as sublime, or lethal, or a combination of both, as Denenberg clinically observes in “Angels and Pigeons.”  Here she writes of the protozoa and fungi that owe their sustenance and replication to birds and humans whose waste fertilizes and animates them.  Minute microbes without a moral compass, fungi and protozoa sicken and kill those who unwittingly become hospitable to them.  That inversion of dominance rebukes any illusion of human superiority.  Seeing its effects in another is instructive and sobering.  And knowing there is no morality inherent in this occurrence might make our transient time in this world “easier to grasp” if we understand ourselves as a party to death’s framing of life through someone to whom we have become attached.

The “this” that Denenberg’s collection of poems acknowledges, our spirit and the flesh, can only remain vital if it recognizes and contends with attachment as debt to the dead and living.  The poems suggest that the experiential knowledge of what we owe each other might be just what we need when our own vitality ebbs.  For then, as Denenberg writes in “Shaktipat,” we might be comforted that our dying, “uttered without words,” becomes a partial repayment of our debt to those we leave behind.

Debra Levine, Assistant Professor of Theatre, NYU Abu Dhabi


Graeber, David.  Debt: The First 5,000 Years.  (Brooklyn, NY: Melville House Publishing, 2001)  66-67.

Graeber  67.

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