True Crime by Donna de la Perriére
(Talisman House, 2009)
Any prescient poet or criminal forensics investigator knows that the physical body under examination needs a careful assessment of its condition, contours, and some definitive declaration of its mode of dispatch, if said body is no longer breathing, no longer with us.
Donna de la Perriére’s True Crime works, poetically and forensically, in a realm of counter-intuition, seeing bodies as silhouettes and shadows, amassing portents and reiterating tragedies of degradation, misunderstanding, and, gruesomely, as etchings of violence and sinister, unknowable motives. The body is a continual site of contemplation of this disturbing, enriching volume and consciousness, forever probing and attempting to define the scene of the crime or the scene at the time, sits like a raven or revenant upon it.
The volume opens with “The Great and Secret Show” which manifests the body as an atrocity exhibition. Here, the poetry of witness, the emblematic practice of historical recuperation, becomes clinical, a dry, dissecting reminder of how the body can be perceived as a merely reified object:
a ceiling fan cools the room
the body’s eyes are flat and milkshot
head propped on a wooden block
all afternoon they watch it, just here, just like this
waiting in the body’s secret as if were a shadow
What follows are poems which connect the archival with present tense, murdered relatives and passages where “you” forces the reader to deliberate the zig-zag labyrinth of menacing scenarios one can construe as “true” because the reality constructed is so rigorously conceived. Communities of dreaded circumstance, particularly engulfed in murder and trauma (whether true or invented, certainly criminal) and rooted in de la Perriére’s Southern background are configured with scalpel-sharp historical illustrations. The desultory nature of crime and its reception is recorded in chilling absence of pathos or prolonged deliberation of the reason for acts of savagery. In “Gospel,” the narrator documents the murder of a relative and the summation delivered is powerful in its cold, clear-eyed, non-therapeutic description:
Everyone in my family is dead.
Sometimes I think our lives have amounted to one
long lesson in crisis behavior.
Everyone lost everything.
It was exactly that simple.
The lack of apparent emotional register paradoxically suffuses the reader with an abiding alarm and pity, two fundamental possessions for which this kind of poetry becomes moving. In fact, possession and dispossession of bodies, emotionally or historically, a recurrent, mobilizing a resonant cross-hatching of presence and absence which encourages meditation on transience and transfer-- how we think about bodies and think through them, how their vitality and obsolescence is not just physiological truth but an ethically-loaded criterion of how our humanity is limited and extended by the attitudes we generate about life, mortality, true justice, and true crime.
The second section of the volume, “Return to the Scene,” employs legal terms as titles and fixes attention on both crime-based anecdotes and dizzying, occasionally hilarious studies of subjectivity. The entire poem “Prima Facie” runs accordingly:
I am bored. I am dying. I am having my period. I am so sick of this shit.
Imagine these understood in their literal extreme.
What we call “heritage.” I know a lot of people who. But no one knows
except him. I am no one knows. Interesting, our forms of self definition.
In True Crime, mysteries accrue as crimes abound. Recognition of self becomes, not fact, but a process. de la Perriére suggests that true crime exists without restraint, prevails as social evil and a woeful occasion for civic amnesia. She also seems to urge that it is a true crime not to document unseemly events but, perhaps more importantly, not to focus in on how we construct our senses of self and sensibility. This volume impressively conducts a forensics of ethics in poetic form and is a glistening debut.
Jon Curley teaches literature in Newark, New Jersey. His first book of poems, New Shadows, was just published by Dos Madres Press.