Shapes Against a Dark Screen: Caroline Goodwin on Donna de la Perriere’s True Crime


True Crime, Donna de la Perriere, Talisman House

Donna de la Perrière’s thrilling and beautiful book, True Crime, is a museum of sorts. As a physical object, it is shiny in the hands. Its cover, an old photograph of an abandoned railroad trestle in de la Perrière’s home town of Athens, Georgia, evokes the layers of history, the shaky voices, the undercurrents of Christian faith and doubt that recur throughout the work. As an experience, it is shiny in the mind; each poem glows for a long time. The reader wants to walk back through the exhibit, more slowly this time, to really look at each display (poem, persona, shape).

The collection begins with ‘The Great and Secret Show’, a poem of eighteen short lines where the reader becomes the voyeur in a cold room. Here, in death, ‘the body has been remade/ as the center point on a graph/’, has been transformed into a ‘dazzling field’. The reader sits under the ceiling fan, watching as ‘they’ flop the body onto a stretcher, remove its jewelry, wait ‘in the body’s secret as if it were a shadow’.

This sense of waiting, of the very air pressing down, is central to the texture of the book. It comes back again and again, in the heat, the humidity, the leaves blowing through the door. By rendering this plain and graphic reminder of our own mortality, the poet sets the stage for what is to come. Here the language is simple, the images clear, the music pleasing. It’s as if the fact of this particular death, and the story behind it, are of no real consequence. No names are attached to anyone. The eyes are ‘flat and milkshot’. But now, having entered the room, we are bound, as witnesses, as participants. We are bound to travel into de la Perrière’s rendering of the American South as equals, immediately made somehow of the place because of our own bodies. We, too, will someday make our own ‘center point on a graph.’ We, too, will lie under the ceiling fan in a cold room. But for now we are here with the poet, alive and waiting in the shadow (the shelter? from the heat?). We are the ones who get to watch.

In the first of the book’s two sections (bravely, de la Perrière has written a poetry collection that consists of TWO sections!), the poet builds and populates her wobbly, unfocused landscape. Houses and memory, gravestones and ‘funny’ uncles, garbage and vines. Everything feels as though it’s happening underwater, clouded, suspended, but this fits with the section’s central argument: that we ‘make up what we cannot remember’. That death is the only fixed point, the only event of which we can be absolutely certain. The voices that move through these poems are searching, ever questioning. They are almost ghosts, whispering in our ears. They seem to want to stop us, to make us call out, wait! Did I hear something? Hang on a minute! Did I see that? Who’s there?

As if to reinforce the awareness of the spirit-world, the rhythmic breathing of the other side, the poems in the first section take a variety of forms. ‘House: The History of Us All’ is a five-page sequence of longer lines that makes use of white space on the page. It hints at the unspoken, the shameful, in a sideways and understated way. Here, the slabs of the family burial ground have ‘fallen in on themselves’ like the mother’s house later on in ‘Gospel’. We are introduced to the cow pasture, which also returns as the site (in ‘What They All Say’) of the dead ‘forgetting themselves molecule by molecule’. In the other longer sequence, ‘Life of the Saints’, the landscape is abandoned yet very much alive. Here, ‘thick, pulpy leaves reach toward the eaves of the house’ and ‘things peel off and fray at the edges’. All of it in the second-person POV, you (me? him? her? all of us?) who continues ‘hoping for something like a body but bearable’. This is the realm of the spirit, where the humanoid walks upright and almost belongs, but not quite.

Reading this first section, I am reminded of C.D. Wright’s Deepstep Come Shining (Copper Canyon Press, 1998) in which ‘Just the sentence is chilling. I am a painter. I was a painter. I/once was a painter. And now I see. Not. The comfort of her/mother’s white piano’. And, of course, Williams’ Paterson, where ‘Voices!/ multiple and inarticulate . voices/ clattering loudly to the sun’.

The second part of True Crime is one 25-section sequence entitled ‘Return to the Scene’. Many of the titles are legal terms, for example Felo de Se (a felon of himself) and Prima Facie (on its face). The use of the Latin here serves to push the argument even further: while we certainly make up what we cannot remember, we are bound to use language to distance ourselves from that which is unbearable. We must! (What else can we do? I think of Creeley: drive, he sd, for/ christ’s sake, look/out where yr going.) But here, of course, even the dry vocabulary of the courtroom, even the most detached legalese, will fail. After all, we can’t help but stand right in the middle of that ‘dazzling field.’ We were placed there at the beginning and de la Perrière reminds us of this, with ‘the fires that had been starting in the hills’ and kudzu that ‘is thick and green there—lush, pulsingly bright. It whispers around the clothes; it hurts the eyes and seems dangerous.’ We do travel back to the scene, to the cold room, the cow pasture, the dazzling field, because to be alive is to be at risk.

‘Return to the Scene’ almost reads like a play, with characters such as the former debutante from Charleston, the guy on the El, the legal aid attorney, the small press managing editor, the philosophy grad student, the psychiatrist, the periodontist’s wife who wants to have a lovely party with gardenias ‘in big glass bowls all over the place.’ These voices recur off and on with their odd assertions: ‘I offend at least one person in the room at any given party’ and ‘We’d salivate and get down on all fours if we had to.’ Almost hiding in the middle of this cast of characters we find the narrator’s own father ‘sprawled across the living room rug, dead, head tilted back at an unnatural angle and mouth hanging open’. How amazing! How brave! There he is, that center point on his own particular graph, that transformative moment for the narrator just as clear and plain and natural as any of the other moments. It is this kind of restraint and understatement, this mindfulness of the grand scheme of things, that I admire.

Lastly, ‘Return to the Scene’ makes a different use of white space, with more italics and some pieces that include a bold black horizontal line and a kind of footnote, without numbers. These footnotes read like parenthetical asides, another version of ‘truth’ underneath the reporting of the event, the crime. For me, they further complicate matters in a wonderful way. I love how slippery it all is, how uncertain and dream-like. I get to hear the poet make such assertions as ‘there nevertheless, and always, exists a nagging doubt, some peripheral vision of the mind, that perhaps we are, or have been, the real killers. In the end.’ Oh yes, Ms. de la Perrière. Oh, yes.

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