Donna de la Perrière’s True Crime
Talisman House 2009
This is a crime story in a large and violent place. Too large for subject and object.
—Susan Howe, The Birthmark: Unsettling the Wilderness in American Literary History
Donna de la Perrière’s True Crime opens with a corpse: “the body’s eyes are flat and milkshot/ head propped on a wooden block” (“The Great and Secret Show”). A crime has occurred, but we have missed the event of it and we are left “waiting in the body’s secret as if it were a shadow.” Looking for clues as to what’s happened, there is only the endless reading of echoes. That is to say, this is a detective story a la Gertrude Stein: one that rejects closure.
Attempting to track the author of the crime begins with a flight to origins: “In the place where you live the sky is white./ In the winter stones blow up the shore./ You grow up in your mother’s house” (“House: The History of Us All”). But none of these facts provide any rest. The houses in True Crime are never home.
As memory fails, we are simply left with the idea of crime: “We make up what we can’t remember./ We no longer recall what is true”We are left with traces: voices, tombstones with the names worn off, leaves that have been tracked into the house. “I-really-do-not-remember” (“Return to the Scene: Ex Post Facto”).
Tracking leads is a compulsive activity; each and every trace is important because “Nothing is just filler,” and True Crime goes on amassing evidence: “I know a few things. I know there are crimes. That there is often evidence at the scene of the crime. That there is, perhaps, only evidence” (“Return to the Scene: Voir Dire”). We acquire witnesses, evidence, footnotes to the evidence, etc., but the pieces are incommensurate. The possibilities are endless as snowflakes, and “The universe resumes its course/ its millions of white paths”The story is literally different every time, versions a matter of “a relocation of fragments” (“Penelope at the Wheel”).
“Penelope at the Wheel” spins the threads of a story (a yarn), only to undo them later (negating the danger of closure). The speaker of “Field Composition (Fort Da)” keeps asking, “let me start again,” “here let me start again” in a way that seems to suggest that, in the absence of the truth, we can only do our best [my emphasis]. In this sense, it is important that the title of the second half of True Crime, “Return to the Scene,” calls to scene as a performance. (As in a play, or better yet, court TV.) Rejecting the falsity of closure, the voices of True Crime are increasingly caught-up in the forgetful present of their performance: “We do sometimes lose the ability to differentiate” (“Return to the Scene: Summation”). There is no stopping and there is no accountability
“it just kept
happening, and we were driving, and”
never actually said stop
(“Penelope at the Wheel”)
This is the way accidents happen: We’re not them. We’re not there. We’re here: “here let me start again” (“Field Composition (Fort Da)”).
In True Crime, we find that the past is present; it cannot be located. History is not static. It is rather a part of the activity that is underway. Voices are as haunted as the Southern landscape in which they are witnessed; they suffer the return of the repressed: “I have ghosts,” (“The Beautiful South”) there is “a cold spot somewhere in the back bedroom” (“Life of the Saints”). Part of the evidence that is returned (uncovered) is a “heritage” of violence (“Return to the Scene: Exculpatory Evidence”). There are killers, and the echoes of the crimes committed have psychic consequences: voices are wounded, they have suffered great loss, they evidence schizophrenia, hallucinations, ignorance, paranoia, delusions of grandeur, night terrors, etc. They commit suicide (“Return to the Scene: Exculpatory Evidence”) and overdose on pills (“Felo De Se”). I can’t stop thinking of Pap’s drunken nightmare in Huck Finn: “Tramp—tramp—tramp; that’s the dead; tramp—tramp—tramp; they’re coming after me.”
“House: The History of Us All”: It takes forever to believe the dead are friendly
Authorship is transformation, and the activity of writing necessarily means that we are changed because “the way we attach ourselves, so easily, so neatly, to words” is not really so neat after all (“Prima Facie”). Writing is a messy business. The body of evidence we assemble is always another body; it does what it wants like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Transformation is a fact of True Crime. Climbing into an old washer in “Wash Fragment: Shirley in the Yard,” Shirley wants to be a part of a transformation that is underway around her—she wants to glow like an abandoned appliance in the moonlight. Attempting to read the traces at hand, the speaker of “The Beautiful South” admits “(I am living someone else’s life).” “Risen” likewise suggests that the body at the outset of the text has been abandoned for another body: “In the new body ryder clouds twist the moon into/ torsos legs arms heels.”
As the self is changed in the act of authorship, so is history transformed in its accumulation in the present. The new body that we sew together reading is a new circumstance and it is always, finally, a letting go. Some of the voices embrace the potential of this change as an opportunity to do better: “I am trying to change my view of history” (“Surface Tension”). Some of them reel in terror as they hopelessly attempt to hold onto their agency, worrying about issues of translation: “I have been writing about my life and I have realized that you don’t understand some things” (“Found”). We think we are the witness when, in fact, we are witnessed to: “nature’s logic knocks the shit out of you” (“Risen”). Ego is death: “I dig graves for a living” (“Found”).
The crime we are investigating might well be a matter of self-consciousness that convinces us to look to where we were rather than to where we are: “as if we are living, have been living, unknowingly, all along” (“Fall”). (“Here let me start again” [my emphasis] (“Field Composition (Fort Da)”.) Maybe we are living “with this perverse desire to play devil’s advocate” (“Witness”). Maybe the dead are friendly. Maybe we are like the woman with night terrors in “Return to the Scene: Ex Post Facto,” and we just want someone to wake us up. True Crime, Donna de la Perrière’s first collection, marks her as a major voice in American poetry. Read it!