The Coroner’s Photographs by Brent Staples ~ Literary Analysis   Leave a comment


The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time. ~ Mark Twain ~

Twain’s quote speaks of being prepared to die, just as the character Blake Melvin Staples must have felt. “The Corner’s Photographs” by African American author Brent Staples is a short story that is skillfully written and illustrates the death of a man and his surviving brother’s struggle when he confronts the image of the body.

It is the first sentence that captures the reader’s attention pulling them into the author’s profound thoughts. He uses the first person singular as he claims the feelings and words as his own, “I need this detail to see my brother full” (405). It is through the main characters eyes that we see the world, family and death. His distinctive narrative voice is powerful and filled with sadness, but no remorse. The style includes formal/informal words and strong sentence patterns that emerge because the action verbs that ends in “ing” only appear twice in the piece. The author also varies in sentence lengths which grabs the reader’s attention.

Repetition is applied in key words such as, dead, mourning (ed), and coroner’s report. These words emphasize their meanings to reinforce the theme of life and death. The tone, one is solemn and subdued as the story begins to reveal Staples personal disclosure of the events. This evokes emotions of sadness that lingers in the air above the reader as they absorb the traumatic event. The dialogue is minimal, yet connects to the theme, “Please don’t shoot me no more. I don’t want to die” and “Brent Blake is dead,” he said. Some guy pulled up in a car and emptied out on him with a magnum. Blake is dead” (420). The language spoken by Staples’s brothers is broken English. It depicts a street person, maybe they are uneducated individuals?

As the plot unfolds the reader is taken into a cold and sterile environment as the author places the reader in the coroner’s office with the dead body. The writer flashbacks to when his brother is alive, followed by his demise and then the corner’s examination. In the end it is revealed how a man’s life is summed up by one pouch, “The pouch contained a summary of the trial, the medical examiner’s report, and a separate inner pouch wrapped in twine and shaped like photographs” (421), coroner photographs.

Staples exposes new information in the ninth paragraph with a subtle riff by intertwining the element of irony with the backstory of the essay. It begins by naming a city, state and time, Roanoke, Chicago, six weeks ago. The irony is seen when the protagonist forecasts his brother’s death, “The signs of death were everywhere; his name was hot in the street” and “I told him that he was in danger of being killed if he didn’t leave town” (420).

The characterization incorporated within the essay begins with the protagonist. He is a strong man who has a heavy heart and is family oriented, “I bathed and diapered him when he was a baby and studied his features as he grew” (418). The sensitive doctor who tries to save Blake, the dying man, “I tied off everything I could, he said, and then he wept at the savagery and the waste” (418). The coroner is also a character in this piece through his/her actions. “The coroner dissects the body, organ by organ” (419). This brought the essay to a more complex level as medical terminology is given. In paragraph eleven the reader learns a new fact as part of the backstory, there is another sibling, “Six weeks later my brother Bruce called me with the news…” (420). And last but not least, Blake Melvin Staples, the deceased. His lifestyle and actions as a drug dealer in life and now death affects Staples deeply, “I had already mourned Blake and buried him and was determined not to suffer his death a second time…I skipped the funeral and avoided Roanoke for the next three years” (420).

There are two crises within the essay. The first appears when the author knows his brother is a target, “I sought Blake out to tell him it was time to get out of the business and leave Roanoke” (420). The second is an inner crisis that is uncovered, these are the mixed emotions about the untimely death of Staples brother, “I told myself to feel nothing” (420). The essay has no element of suspense and no real resolution, but hopefully holds closure for the author.

The writer uses sensory imagery and detail throughout the piece for instance, tap handles that mimicking wings…an inverted pyramid, boxy forehead…heart shaped face…a mouth whose lips are pouting and bloody…shattered vessels…a bullet track…pelvic bones jut up…smallest of the brothers…second toe is a signature…shot six times, three in the back…” plus the coroner’s report is very vivid in detail. Figurative language such as metaphors is used, “…taps handles mimicking wings, easily suggests a swan in mourning…his widow’s peak…an inverted pyramid” (417). The swan in mourning can be seen as the foreshadowing of the events that will soon follow.

The narrative arc shows how the protagonist has changed from the beginning to end of the essay. In the introduction, Staples speaks of his brother as a toddler and shows the strength within the family unit, “His feelings are mine as well” (418). It is in the body of the essay information is shared regarding Staple’s brother, the drug dealer. He struggles to have him leave the city for his own good, to stay alive. The conclusion brings the events to reality and stops the author’s world as the coroner’s photographs are viewed, “I opened the pouch; there was Blake dead and on the slab, photographed from several angles. The floor gave way, and I fell down and down for miles” (421).What the character has learned is that it is better to walk away from a loved one who is self-destructive, someone who will never change his ways then to stand by and watch their downfall.

The introduction is captivating and I couldn’t stop reading. The body of the essay developed as the events revolved around a coroner’s actions and flashbacks.  Each paragraph leads into the next smoothly connecting each thought. The conclusion reflected the first paragraph as it defined the medical examination of Staples’s brother in the coroner’s office.

I found this essay to be filled with love and a broken heart as it evoked strong emotions. It portrays the reality of life. It defines a man’s life as a pouch and the questions begin, what is life and death. Life is reaching your hand out to someone who is falling, “down and down for miles” and it is up to the individual to extend their hand or accept their fate. Blake Melvin Staples met his fate in death. I wonder, did Blake die in vain?

Works cited

Staples, Brent. “The Coroner’s Photographs.” Tell it slant: Writing and Shaping Creative Nonfiction. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2011. 417- 21.


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