Essay

Who Are We, Really?

What poems about murder can reveal about ourselves.

In The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning, Maggie Nelson details her unconventional response to a banner that reads: “IN VIOLENCE WE FORGET WHO WE ARE.” She writes:

The intention behind the banner was, no doubt, virtuous. Nonetheless, every time I drove by I found myself in loose, if inchoate, disagreement. For many have argued precisely the opposite: that it is through violence that our souls come, as it were, into focus. Greek tragedy likes this idea; it is also a good description of our American mythos of regenerative violence. (163)

I’ve long been compelled to read, write, and think about poems about murder, and in doing so I’ve found them to be many things: a means of plumbing the depths of human psychology and behavior; a lens through which institutional forms of violence—such as genocide and war—can be explored; a small, shadowy corner of the world’s chaos we can chew with our teeth; and a channel for critiquing our cultural obsession with portraying violent acts (usually against women). In looking specifically at poems narrated by the perpetrators of violence, and guided by Nelson’s quote, I’ve found something more: that exploring violent acts through the first-person perspective brings the nature of the self and the act of self-definition into sharp focus. Rather than looking at perpetrator-narrators as other, we’re forced to empathize—without excusing the acts themselves—with human beings who, like us, struggle to find and define themselves inside a large and chaotic world. However uncomfortable this identification may be, it seems unavoidably evident in poems by John Berryman, Reginald Dwayne Betts, Kenneth Patchen, Frank Bidart, and Louise Glück, whose narrators push us, in hearing their side of the story, to ask ourselves: who are we, really?  

In John Berryman’s “Dream Song 29,” Henry suffers terrible guilt and self-doubt upon having contemplated—and possibly committed—murder. Like Oedipus who had already slept with his mother, killed his father, and blinded himself, Henry, “Ghastly, / with open eyes, … attends, blind.” Even blindness cannot keep him from “attend[ing]” the specter of murder, and “the bells say: too late.” But Henry, unlike Oedipus, is quickly given a reprieve—or so it seems—when, in the final stanza, the poem takes a nearly comical turn: “But never did Henry, as he thought he did, / end anyone and hacks her body up.” So, to our relief, and ostensibly to Henry’s, we learn that he never did the deed.

But this relief is more provisional than one would think. The only reason Henry “knows” he didn’t murder anyone is because “he went over everyone, & nobody’s missing”; he knows due to external evidence, due to the lack of missing persons, not because he knows himself. He lingers on the act of “reckon[ing], in the dawn, them up,” and then repeats, in the final line, “Nobody is ever missing,” as if to reassure himself. That final line also carries a note of regret, as if to have actually killed someone would lend some certitude, some definition, to the ambiguities of human existence. Doubt, not murder, is the killer here. “Dream Song 29,” in upending the Oedipus myth, denies its protagonist the (strange) comfort of knowing who he is by way of knowing what horrible thing he has done. The result: Henry suffers, almost as he would if he had murdered someone. We leave him in a permanent state of limbo.  

The speaker of Reginald Dwayne Betts’s “The Sound of My Mother Crying” knows what he has done but doesn’t let his act of violence alone define him. Instead, he transforms what could be a standard confession into a work of art; in so doing, he reinvents himself and his crime. Unlike Henry, unlike Oedipus, this narrator “want[s] to remember”—power lies in the ability to remember and, crucially, to relate that memory. He seems to be advising someone who has recently committed a crime when he says, “The first step to confessing is to walk into a parking / lot with a pistol.” It’s unsettling to fold the crime’s resolution (confession) together with the crime’s opening act; it creates around the entire scenario a feeling of inevitability, as if the speaker had to commit the crime just so he could end up here, sharing his story. He goes on to say: “The light was jail cell light & reflected / a morning I wish hadn’t awakened me,” blurring the setting of the crime with the setting of its consequences. It highlights the speaker’s regret, but also his artistic control; he is leading us through the narrative, controlling its elements and perhaps even our reaction to them. He elaborates:

 … the man in his car wasn’t as much asleep as
waiting for something in his life to happen. To move
him from where he was to where he could go &
there are people I know who have died waiting to be.
I opened his hurt. I pushed the eye of the gun under
his ear & thought of what angle his shock against
my fear formed.

Here the speaker reveals an understanding of his victim that radically transforms his crime into something more than its frightening surface: an unorthodox connection between two people that could lead, surprisingly, to catharsis for the victim.  

But not so for the speaker, who acknowledges the limits of his powers by referencing a Tupac Shakur song: “There is a song, ‘Life Goes On,’ that ends / in a life sentence.” In the song, there are several overlapping “life sentences”: death, prison, and the continuation of a brutal life that leads to either of those outcomes. The victim may be on the verge of a new life (at least according to the speaker), but the speaker can only expect a “life sentence” of some kind. “Imagine this,” he says. And then: “I scribbled / my name on the confession.” It makes the directive, “Imagine this,” retroactively ironic, even bitter. However powerfully he has imagined around it, he has ultimately signed his name to the confession, thus locking himself into the official narrative and eradicating his literal freedom. But creative freedom can still help his listener, to whom he says: “Tell [your mother] you admitted that the gun was / a kiss & it was so close to the forehead of the sleeping / man that if you were his woman he would have moaned.” With this radical rewriting, the speaker proves that he is still able to breathe life and space into utterly confined places: the prison cell, the standard confession, and the label of “criminal.” The speaker’s selfhood may be circumscribed, but in some ways he is freer and more alive than Henry, who remains tortured by his imaginary act.

Kenneth Patchen’s “The Murder of Two Men by a Young Kid Wearing Lemon-colored Gloves” involves us directly in the creation of the speaker’s identity and the fulfillment of his crime. Whereas Betts fills our heads with details, Patchen gives us only the bare bones of the situation, those distracting “lemon-colored gloves” and the two words that make up the poem: “wait” (repeated 14 times amid the space of the page) and “now.” The poem’s power comes, in part, from what it leaves out: the weapon, the situation, the motivation, and the setting; it also places us immediately inside the mind of the would-be killer. The word that echoes in his mind (and ours), “wait,” drips repeatedly down the page, sounding its final Ts like the ticks of a clock, building tension and momentum toward the inevitable attack. This repetition, along with the layout of the words on the page, also controls the ebb and flow of panic and patience as “the young kid” waits. The tight downward flow of five “waits” early in the poem gestures, perhaps, toward the killer’s tense attempts to control himself. In the middle of the poem, the pace of the “waits” slows as he calms and observes the men carefully. The very last “wait” is italicized, as he uses his last iota of control. And then, finally, “NOW”: he strikes, and we strike with him.

But the poem sidesteps the act itself. Leaving the crime a blank spot makes it belong to us: we can opt to imagine it or not. And for those of us who do, Patchen’s poem makes us examine our own capacity to imagine violence, to complete the narrative. This may be more disturbing, even, than reading the complete rendition of a terrible crime.

Frank Bidart’s “Herbert White,” in its “complete rendition,” is plenty disturbing too. In it we meet White, the speaker, who can function in the world only by committing heinous acts and compartmentalizing them. He has molested young girls and committed murder again and again, but his personal hell comes when his multifarious identities fuse into one.

Like Betts’s speaker, Herbert White speaks to us about his brutal acts in a conversational, easy tone—as if we’re a friend of his, or possibly a cellmate, which leads us to ask: who are we, what have we done that such a man would speak to us so familiarly? The first line captures the essential conundrum of White’s life: “When I hit her on the head, it was good … but it was funny,—afterwards / it was as if somebody else did it …’” In the moment of being, the moment of action, of body hitting body in one way or other, White feels “good,” but afterward he detaches; the world goes “flat, without sharpness, richness or line.” And when he has a moment that allows him to perceive “a little girl … just lying there in the mud … in those ordinary, shitty leaves,” he says, “somebody else had to have done that.” One night White comes to the place where “nothing worked … I couldn’t, couldn’t, / get it to seem to me / that somebody else did it …” This is the defining moment of the poem, the turning point, when “there was just me there.” White no longer has any means of splitting off from the self, no means of coping.  He says, “I hope I fry,” because “Hell came when I saw / MYSELF … / and couldn’t stand / what I see …” The verb tense change is illuminating, for he uses the present tense, “what I see.” It seems to suggest that the hell was not in seeing what he had done, but in being trapped inside the horrifying, inescapable present.

The speaker of Louise Glück’s “Murderess” has no such difficulty occupying her particular present; her fanatical religious belief ensures her self-satisfaction. She stands before a “commissioner,” explaining how and why she murdered her own daughter. She describes her daughter’s sinful behavior: “She would pare / her skirt until her thighs grew / longer, till the split tongue slid into her brain.” The word “pare” brings to mind the biblical apple, and along with it Eve. The “slit tongue,” as of a snake, completes the Garden of Eden allusion, and just as Eve was tainted by her desire for knowledge—carnal or otherwise—so the daughter’s awakening desire made her guilty, made her deserving of death. But the death, according to her mother, was an act of redemption, one that saved her from going to hell. The murderess says, “Commissioner, the sun / opens to consume the Virgin on the fifteenth day. / It was like slitting fish. And then the stain / dissolved, and God presided at her body.” So the murder was easy. From her perspective, she was saving her daughter, removing “the stain” of sexuality to preserve her for a greater consumption: a spiritual consummation with God. The mother’s fanaticism is complete, unshakable, and terrifying. It is also disappointing in its circumscription; she seems powerful but is controlled by her belief in a patriarchal religious system that dictates appropriate female behavior—is this better than the “hell” of Herbert White? Or the limbo that Henry faces? Perhaps, because inside of her particular blindness, she does achieve what she wants—“God presided at her [daughter’s] body”—and though the speaker is “blind,” she does not, like Henry, have to attend. Her blindness is protective and satisfying in its totality.

The conventional motive for looking at art (or reading poetry) is to contemplate beauty; poems about murder would seem to be the last place to find this. But there is a strange and freeing beauty in such works that derives from their very immersion in darkness and brutality. In “Dream Song 29,” Henry likens the idea of committing murder to “a grave Sienese face a thousand years / would fail to blur the still profiled reproach of.” On the surface, it’s a fitting image—the graveness and the “reproach” fit with our notions of this most taboo of human activities. But it is also true that Henry has chosen a beautiful and ancient work of art—a Sienese profile painting from the Italian Middle Ages—to represent murder. In this light the choice may seem repugnant, but it remains supremely fitting. Murder, like art, is part of our essential and ancient human heritage, and poems about murder, in plumbing the depths of this heritage, hold up a mirror to the mysteries of human nature and behavior. This, too, is beautiful.

Originally Published: November 19th, 2014

Laura Sims is the author of three books of poems: My god is this a man (2014),  Stranger (2009) and Practice, Restraint (winner of the 2005 Alberta Prize), all from Fence Books. She received a Creative Artists Exchange Fellowship from the Japan-United States Friendship Commission in 2006, and has been a co-editor of Instance Press since...

  1. August 24, 2015
     Philip Drexler

    I read this article because I
    thought the author was the Laura
    Sims who is a healing storyteller.
    She is not, but the theme of the
    piece set me to thinking. Who
    suffers the greater violence in a
    murder? The victim who is
    presumably at peace? Or the
    murderer who must live with the
    violence he or she has committed
    for the rest of his or her natural
    life?