Tag Archives: documentary poetry

Making poetry in these slurred times

This may not be the most coherent piece I’ve written but it might be the most heartfelt and urgent. We’ll start with some context. It’s now April 19th 2020 and I’m living with my lover, for the first time, in Ventnor in the UK and we’re in lockdown.

I don’t know about others but I write verse in order to work out about how I feel about something. The previous blog was a poem I made in response to the current and ongoing disaster, I’ve also made a v short performance piece (see below) in response to how this thing seems to be unfolding.

The shock for me is how hard this is. It should be ideal because I use documentary material, I’m a vaguely anarcho-lefty policy wonk with specific interests in health and social care and I hover on one of the main ‘vulnerable’ groups. This should therefore be the ideal opportunity, in a spacious property overlooking the Channel, to write at least one epic of Spenserian length and probably two.

In fact, there is an argument that gently points out that we creative types have a duty to spend this time documenting the disaster and how we feel about it from the inside in, more or less, ‘real’ time. To go further, I would hold up Celan’s Todesfugue as one of the greatest poems we have that did exactly that.

I’m under no illusions, I am at best an interested amateur who writes in order to perform rather than to be read. I’ve written and had performed lengthy pieces on Bloody Sunday, Ferguson and the Newtown shootings, I’m thus not averse to dealing with challenging subjects and am drawn to the complicated.

Covid-19 has, however, from nowhere on my horizon, has scrambled any feelings and thoughts that I might have.

We’ll start with bigness. In terms of a single Whiteheadian event, this particular virus is huge. A glance at one of those fucking dashboards reveals that it is infecting and killing everywhere and our collective response is hugely passive. As I type the global economy is continuing to collapse and a return to any kind of normal is looking increasingly unlikely for any of us. From this viewpoint, the making of art in itself can appear to be trivial and poetry making then becomes even more self-indulgent and vain than normal.

I’m not suggesting that all art is of little import but that big events and themes require a degree of brilliance that few of us have. In fact the bebrowed rule is that the quality of material required increases in step with the importance of the subject matter. The most obvious examples to me are Dante on the afterlife, Milton on the Fall, David Jones on World War One and Celan on the Holocaust. There are quite a few others.

Those of us who aren’t brilliant then have to try and avoid irrelevance by saying something that might be useful to the reader by presenting a different perspective and providing a consequent moment or two of reflection..

Moving on to plenitude, this catastrophe is producing too many aspects and too much data as it scythes through us. All of the media, quality and otherwise, is feasting on this stuff and putting forth opinions on everything from the plight of those locked in with their abusers to the chemistry of enzymes and proteins. None of these very many concerns are minor issues and they will all be struggled over in the years to come.

In the face of this poetry can become:

a ranting thorn in the side of the powers that be;

a record of the disaster and its effects;

a memorialisation of the dead;

a blueprint for the future;

an interrogation of the nature of science and expertise

a personal response providing one possible way feeling about this stuff.

My problem is that I want to do all of these (except perhaps the blueprint), and they all keep crowding on to my page and all of them seem really important which results in either clever-clever rantery or a major wallow.

As well as complexity, I’m also struggling creatively with adjusting to the disaster as it reveals different aspects of itself. This weekend the British media have discovered that residents of care and nursing homes may be dying in their thousands in addition to those currently recorded. As an ex-manager of the inspection and regulation of such homes I know that these figures are readily and easily available and national collation should have begun in February at the very latest. I’m also disgusted that politicians failed to act upon the bleeding obvious fact that these homes are by far the most vulnerable part of society. I’ve ranted about this on social media this morning but now feel that I need to add this specific negligence into the creative mix.

The other problem that I have is that of sudden isolation. We’re living in a small town that,for all its many faults, has a strong sense of community and collective endeavour, these things have, literally, kept me sane over the last ten years and now going out on our daily walks reveals a blank page.

Both Megan and I want/need to talk to others face to face about the weight and complexity of what’s going on and that is the activity that is most Against The Rules. Incidentally, we now have a society that’s governed by rules rather than laws and nobody seems to have noticed.

I’ve just realised that this may have turned into an extended whinge, the kind of semi-ranting self indulgence that I’m wary of. My only excuse is that at least it’s an honest exploration of the bewilderment and angst that I feel in the gripof Covid 19.

Within Minutes, read by John Armstrong (writer) and Megan Mackney (actor)

David Jones, In Parenthesis as Documentary..

What follows is a version of the brief paper I was going to give at the York University Jones conference in July 2016 The reason for putting it here is that heart surgery had prevented any long distance travel and various other normal activities a couple of months. I originally put this on my arduity site but it may well be of interest to readers here.

In Parenthesis is a heartbreakingly beautiful account of the days leading up to and including the first day of the Somme offensive on July 1st in 1916. According to our foremost military historian, Michael Howard, it is also one of the greatest ever accounts of warfare.

In 1938 IP won the then prestigious Hawthornden Prize, in his 1961 Note of Introduction T S Eliot describes it as a “work of genius” and places Jones in the same group as himself, Pound and Joyce.

Before beginning, I’d like to acknowledge Tom Dilworth’s account of the very close parallels between IP and David Jones’ personal experience of the war, a proximity I’ll return to more than once as we progress.

Regular readers will know that I’m a fan of the documentary poem but I’m suggesting that that this is more, that IP transcends this particular Poetry Mode and spills over into a thing both more specific and, at the same time, universal. I’m fully aware that this doesn’t make any kind of sense but (please) bear with me. As well as being a fan on the Poetry Mode, I’m also a devotee of the documentary film because great factual films bring with them a sense of immediacy and exactness that both moves and fascinates me.

In his Preface, Jones sets out his two main aims, the first being to memorialise his fallen comrades and the second to give an account of the period leading up to the mechanization of warfare that, as he saw it, coincided with the slaughter on the Somme:

This writing has to do with some things I saw, felt and was part of. The period covered begins early in December 1915 and ends early in July in 1916. The first date corresponds to my going to France. The latter roughly marks a change in the character of our lives in the infantry on the West Front. From then on things hardened into a more relentless, mechanical affair, took on a more sinister aspect. The wholesale slaughter of the later years, the conscripted levies filling the gaps in every file of four, knocked the bottom out of the intimate, continuing, domestic life of men, within whose structures Roland could find, and, for a reasonable while, enjoy, his Oliver. In the earlier months there was a certain attractive amateurishness, and elbow-room for idiosyncrasy that connected one with a less exacting past.

The are the opening lines of Jones’ preface and I’m suggesting that it might be useful to take him at his word. It’s a writing that a specific period of time, not a written record, nor a memoir, nor an elegaic account but a having to do with and it’s this aspect that I’d like to pay some attention to here.

This writing proceeds by way of narrative, by telling the story of its protagonist, private John Ball, as he makes his way from the English parade ground to the first day of the battle. The focus is almost entirely on the internal relationships within Ball’s company, the men’s responses to each other and the events going on around them. In this way Jones’ captures and conveys a specific and personal kind of reality. Now, I know very little about the Great War, only a little more than the consensus cultural view of a senseless slaughter that didn’t achieve anything for either side. I am therefore in no position whatsoever to assess the accuracy or otherwise of this story. What I have done is noted how it has affected me and my perspective on these events. The first thing to be said is that this tired old cynic continues to be emotionally stirred up and that his view of the quotidian existence of these men has changed dramatically.

Because of the reported conversations and behaviours, I feel as if I know all of these characters and yet throughout the story I know that many of them are going to die. During the first reading i attempted to maintain some kind of manly distance from the characters but still managed to be heartbroken and emotionally mangled for them, as living and breathing individuals, as they fell. In terms of my perspective, that’s changed on both the event and on the priorities I give to historical trends and the bigger perspective in general.

In terms of the event, I now understand that WWI wasn’t four years of continuous and relentless hell, that there were periods of respite and recuperation to be had whilst behind the trenches, that the main thing that kept men going was their camaraderie and resolve, even though they didn’t hold the officer class in any great regard. The second is the importance of personal experience in the scheme of things, as in it is of little use knowing and understanding the causes of and the general progress of things without an at least equal understanding of the effect of these on individual lives.

I’ve written before about the physical awkwardness and effort involved in getting to and living in the front lines but here I want to think about this in terms of documentary, of this ‘having to do with’. This brief extract is from Part 3, Starlight Order which deals with the Company moving at night towards the forward positions:

And sleepy-eyed see Jimmy Grove’s irregular bundle-figure, totter upward labouringly, immediately next in front, his dark silhouette sways a moment above you – he drops away into the night – and your feet follow where he seemed to be. Each in turn labours over whatever it is – this piled brokenness – dragged over and a scared hurrying on, the slobber was ankle-deep where you found the road again.

And this as the troops near their destination:

The night dilapidates over your head and scarlet lightning annihilates the nice adjustments of your vision, used now to, and cat-eyed for the shades. You stumble under this latest demonstration, white-hot nine-inch splinters hiss, water-tempered, or slice the cross-slats between his feet – you hurry in your panic, which hurrying gives you clumsy foothold, which falling angers you, and you are less afraid; you call them bastards – you laugh aloud.

Before we proceed, theere is a note to ‘Jimmy Grove’s’ but I don’t understand it (the notes don’t always ‘work’). Whatever this may refer to, I don’t think my ignorance in any way detracts from the jaw-dropping brilliance of the above. Incidentally ‘hedropsaway’ isn’t a typo, it’s how it appears in the 2010 Faber edition.

Reading part 4, I’m on this road with these men, I’m struggling with them, I’m aware of the immediacy of danger and equally scared by the annihilating lightning. I’m sucked in by the use of ‘you’ and carried along by the quicknesses of the rhythm and the exquisite use of language. All of these convey to me the most convincing ‘having to do with’ warfare that I have ever read. Of course, this is a subjective and personal view but I’m happy to argue for it against other contenders for the above reasons.

Jones’ is also keen to describe aspects of life behind the trenches and there is one passage concerning a local couple who run a bar serving the troops during their days of respite. This is from Part 5, Squat Garlands for White Knights:

   She bolted the door for the night
and when it was morning
Jacques said that the Englishman's guns had kept him awake.
   She said that it was a pleasant morning, and the first in June.
   He said it was time the English advanced, that they were a
stupid race, anyhow.
   She said they were not.
   He would like to remind her of the Pastoral,
for which she laughed a long time,
with: Vah, vah,
and her head wagging
with: La - la, la, and her finger pointed, with:
Tawny-tooth go watch the priest, and,
Bent-wit.
   She said that the war was lucrative, and chid him feed the
fowl, and smoothed her pinafore: sometimes the Siege Artil-
lery came in during the morning, If there wasn't a shoot on.

There are many conversations in IP but this is the only one between non-combatants and thus the only one that is likely to have be supposition rather than direct experience. The Preface addresses the issue of the authentic thus:

Each person and every event are free reflections of people and things remembered, or projected from intimately known possibilities.

I’d argue that this rationale and these components embody the very best documentary form in every genre from Lanzman’s Shoah to the accounts of Eamon Duffy and Vanessa Place. I’d also like to observe that, as a close and attentive Jones reader, I have yet to encounter any aspect of dishonesty, as in things done exclusively for effect, or artifice in his work.

To return to these two and their conversation, the perspective is new to me in that I haven’t read an account of those who lived in proximity to these horrors and went on as, best they could, with their ‘ordinary’ lives. What I find particularly efficacious here is the casual, almost incidental, discussion of what I would consider to be terrifying and murderously destructive events. Both the artillery barrage (described with vivid clarity by Jones elsewhere) and an ‘advance’ are given this everyday tone. Again, I don’t empirically know if this is accurate or not but it does seem to me to be as close a ‘projection’ of the real that we are going to get.

This is also achieved by the Pastoral joke, the stupidity argument and the general observation that the war was an economic opportunity for those who chose to stay near the fronts. People talk like this, conversation is generally good-humoured and the subject under discussion tends to jump around a bit.

There a couple of possible quibbles that spring to mind and the first of these relates to genre. It could be argued that IP is a memoir or a personal history rather than a documentary, that the events describe an aspect of Jones’ life or an account of that period immediately before the descent into mechanised ‘wholesale slaughter’. It might also be argued that poetry-wise that it’s an extended elegy for the first half of 1916. In response, I’ll quote again from the preface:

None of the characters in this writing are real persons, nor is any sequence of events historically accurate. There are, I expect minor anachronisms, e.g. the suggestion in Part 4 of a rather too fully developed gas-defence system for Christmas 1915. The mention of ‘toffee-apples’ (a type of trench-mortar bomb so shaped) at perhaps too early a date.

That appears to me to be a clear refutation of the history argument. There is the last part of the above where Jones indicates his awareness of two inaccuracies and provides these to show that he either is arguing for the history reading or he is indicating that this is not his primary task. Given the preceding disclaimer, I’d go for the second option. This extract follows on from the ‘intimately known possibilities’ quote provided above:

I have only tried to make a shape in words, using as data the complex of sights, sounds, fears, hopes, apprehensions, smells, things exterior and interior, the landscape and paraphernalia of that singular time and of those particular men.

I’d like to think that this diminishes the memoir argument as especially by the careful ‘using as data the complex’ which would seem to enhance my case as this again is an essential part of the documentarist’s task.

The other supporting point is Jones’ sketch map of the relevant front lines that was included in the first Faber edition of 1937 but criminally excluded from the recent reprint. I only know about this object because I have a copy of John Matthias’ Selected Works of David Jones. I would reproduce it here but my scanning skills are less than brilliant and some of the names are faint and barely legible. However, there are two dates, ‘24.12.’15’ and ‘9.9.16’ , a scale (‘1.10000’) and no man’s land clearly marked out, together with the complex of trenches behind the front line.

I accept that these are by no means conclusive and that I may be making this argument because I want IP to be documentary. I’m less convinced by the argument that we shouldn’t take Jones’ Preface at face value. IP was 20 ye4ars in the making and our poet will have been fully aware of how an attentive of this frame would inform and perhaps direct readers’ approach- it certainly did for me.

In conclusion, I’m writing this on the morning of July 1st 2016, exactly a century since these men walked (walked) into that place of unnecessary slaughter. I’m not usually a fan of military commemoration for all sorts of reasons but I’d like to end with the fate of Mr. Jenkins, the 21 year old officer in charge of John Ball’s platoon:

Mr Jenkins half inclined his head to them - he walked just
barely in advance of his platoon and immediately to the left of 
Private Ball.
   He makes the conventional sign
and there is the deeply inw3ard effort of spent me who would
make response for him,
and take it at the double.
He sinks on one knee
and now on the other,
his upper body tilts in rigid inclination
this way and back;
weighted lanyard runs out to full tether,
                 swings like a pendulum
                 and the clock run down.
Lurched over, jerked iron saucer over tilted brow,
clamps unkindly over lip and chin
nor no ventaille to this darkening
         and marked face lifts to grope the air
and so disconsolate;
enfeebled fingering as a paltry strap - 
buckle holds,
holds him blind against the morning.
  Then stretch still where weeds pattern the chalk predella
-where it rises to his wire- and Sergeant T.Quilter takes
over.

This remarkable work is available second hand from Amazon at a mere 7 quid which is laughably cheap. There is no excuse not to get it and place yourself in the presence of greatness.

How collaborative poetry might work

The Fugalists

Rachael Berry, me, Chris Jones and Keri Highland post-gig 17.8 2013

Regular readers may know that I dabble in making my own attempts at the poetic. Recent efforts have used archive material, photography and/or multiple voices with minimalist piano. After more than a few months of working through permutations I think I’ve got a collaborative ‘form’ that works. I usually define my stuff as ‘working’ when it does what was in my head at the beginning (or thereabouts) regardless of the reaction of others- which has usually been one of mystification and/or disdain. On this occasion however, I seemed to have struck a balance between what I want to achieve and what people like. Last week-end my collaborators performed this vocal improvisation in a yurt at a local arts festival. It was the last item of the evening and I rounded things off and joined a friend outside in the gathering gloom to discuss the evening as a whole. Before we could start I was approached by a lady in her fifties who asked for my contact details, I asked her what she thought and she said the last piece really “worked” and then became quite emotional about how well it worked.

I’d liked to have been able to write this off s a single reaction but there has been positive feedback from equally unexpected quarters. I find myself to be ridiculously pleased about this but the main point of writing about it here is to try and fathom what it is that appeals and why it should appeal to such a broad group of people. I’ll start with the motivation: for many years I’ve been interested in work with multi layered vocals; I’m of the view that there’s too much of the poetic in poetry; I’m incredibly interested in what people say about their passions and how they say it.

So, the initial plan involved a collaboration between myself and Julian Winslow, a local photographer who is also my best friend. Our theme is landscape and my contribution involved interviewing a number of people who worked on or with the land in order to make a multi-layered sound file which would then be played at the same time as people viewed Julian’s pictures.

This ran alongside a series of interviews and discussions with a local musician/song writer, Keri Highland, about mental fragility. I then distilled these down to about twenty phrases each which we improvised around at a couple of gigs earlier this year. We were both taken aback by the response. As part of my collaboration with Julian we’d been recording interviews with each other as to the creative process and he suggested that I should interview others from different disciplines. Rachael Berry and Chris Jones had both been exhibiting their art at the second gig where Keri and I had performed together and I cajoled them both into a series of interviews as to their various processes, I also interviewed Keri on the same subject.

The next few weeks were spent playing the sound files and extracting what seemed to me the most honest and unvarnished things that the subjects had said and subtracting the same from the interview that I had with myself – which was essentially my response(s) to what the other three had said.

We then rehearsed once or twice a week, refining the format. I’d known from previous attempts on the landscape project that three voices talking together mostly descends into incoherence whereas it is possible to make some sense from two voice. After some tweaking we decided to alternate the two male voices (with some cross-over) whilst the two female voices should do the same. This produced a piece whereby a male and a female voice were speaking at the same time but not in response to each other. The improvised element was that people could read the phrase that they wanted whenever they wanted in response to or against what the other had just said.

After some further discussion we decided to try a fairly abstract keyboard backing. After some brief exchanges Keri came up with and recorded something that we all felt that we could ‘lean’ into and which enhanced the work rther than turning it into any kind of song.

I’d produced these events through the summer and could therefore decide on where to place this amongst the poets musicians and story tellers. Because the mental health improv had been so well received in previous gigs, I decided to finish the evening with it and was amazed by the warmth and enthusiasm of the response.

I’m still not sure why this material gets this kind of response, now why it should appeal to an audience with different interests and tastes. I’d like to think that it’s because it carries some transparent honesty that people can relate to and be absorbed in. The friend who was waiting outside the yurt is of the view that it demands some audience involvement in that people have to really listen to follow a particular thread. I think he’s right and I’m very pleased that people do seem prepared to pay attention.

The other element that is ideologically important for me in my ongoing war with the poetic is that it made use only of what people said in non-poetic and reasonably ordinary conversations. You may argue that interviewing myself is a bit of a cheat and you’d be right. The first ten minutes of my conversation with me are full of neat and pithy little phrases, I then realised that I wasn’t supposed to be making an impression and wittered on about the material that I think is incisively brilliant and the rest of the world is completely indifferent to.

I also discover that I’m on bit of mission to challenge assumptions about poetry: I red half an episode of a soap opera that I’d poeticised which was very well received and a much more standard poetic rant about cultural saturation that was inventive, lyrical and quite skilled but ws ded after about the third line of many.

The next challenge is to try and maintain the momentum without being too ambitious. The obvious dimensions that I seem to be playing with are: subject matter; number and gender of voices and the nature of the musical backing if we feel we need one. Beyond that there’s visual material but I’m concerned that this might detract from the attention that is currently paid to the words.

For some reason I’m also of the view that we should only perform this at the moment because it appears that this collective involvement / attention might be the core aspect.

A final note on collaboration, I know that some find it intolerable and other projects crash and burn due to big egos but I have to say that my experience both with John Matthias and these three have brought me out of my shell in quite unexpected ways.

Vanessa Place’s Tragodia

Vanessa Place is the scariest poet on the planet. I know this must be true because I’m quoted to that effect on the back of the two paperbacks that I’ve just bought in order to complete my reading of the above trilogy. In addition one K Goldsmith is quoted with: “arguably the most challenging, complex and controversial literature being written today”; Rae Armantrout with Vanessa Place “is writing terminal poetry” and Stephanie Hochet calls Place “etrange et forte” and “n’est pas un femme banale”.

I’ve written in the past about Place and how essential she is for the future of poetry, I’ve also been critical of some of her material that Isn’t Very Good and entered into a debate as to whether or not she has killed poetry (she hasn’t). My admiration started with reading “Statement of Facts” which immediately impressed me as strategically the most important event in poetry for many years. I probably need to explain – I’m of the view that the Poetry Problem stems from the fact that it continues to run on some notion of the poetic that was already clapped out by the end of the 16th century. This has led to the belief that radical breaks/fissures are needed to challenge and undermine this state of affairs- the Tragodia trilogy is the least compromised and most coherent of the current batch of breaks.

The first part of the trilogy is “Statement of Facts” which uses court documents to narrate some of the assaults carried out by Mark Wayne Rathbun aka the ‘Belmont Shore Rapist”. This is followed by an account of Rathbun’s arrest together with what appears to be a detailed precis of the dna evidence presented at trial and the defence experts’ rebuttal of this.

The other two parts both have this preface:

All quotations and accounts in this book were taken directly from the trial transcripts of cases that Vanessa Place handled on appeal. All these transcripts and the appellate briefs filed in each case, are matters of public record. However, the names of the people herein, as well as other direct modes of identification, have been changed to protect their privacy.

Place has said that she has plagiarised herself in making Tragodia. We’ll come to that later – the second part is “Statement of the Case” which has 33 statements setting out the grounds of appeal against a range of convictions. The third is “Argument” which is 33 densely worded attempts to demonstrate why specific convictions should be reversed.

The eighteenth statement and the fifth argument relate to the Belmont Shore case and conviction and I’m going to use those to show why this material is so very important. Before doing this I need to admit to a couple of biases, I’m a fan of documentary poetry and especially that which has some kind of archival base. My own creative endeavours in the recent past have looked at Bloody Sunday and the Shipman Inquiry as sources of material for thinking bout evidence and the need to bear witness, to give voice to experience.

What follows doesn’t make easy or comfortable reading, the details are factually presented but graphic accounts of rape that most will find difficult to read. This is a brief extract:

On April 2, 2000, Francine J. was living alone on Marakita, in Long Beach; by 6:00 or 7:00 p.m., she had showered and gone to sleep, wearing an old short nightgown. As was her habit, Francine J. had locked all doors: she also had sticks behind the doors and windows except for the bathroom window, which she kept partially open for ventilation. Francine J. woke to find a hall light on which she never used, and then someone “pounced” on her. A gloved hand was put over her face, a finger into her mouth; Francine J. bit down hard. The glove felt rough, like a work glove. A man rolled up Francine J.’s nightgown and used it to cover her eyes and ears, tying it in the back, and putting her hands behind her. He told Francine J., “Do as I say and I won’t hurt you.” Francine J. said she would, and asked him please not to hurt her. The man asked Francine J. what her name was, and if she was alone; Francine J. told him her name, and said she had a friend who occasionally came in after midnight to sleep at the house. Francine J. lied about the friend. (RT D-35-D-39, D-49)

The man asked how long it had been since Francine J.’d been sexually active, she said it had been many years. The man put his penis in Francine J.’s vagina, removed his penis, and told Francine J. to put his penis in her mouth. As she did, she noticed the man had a “metal ring” around his penis. At some point, the man took his penis from Francine J.’s mouth and put it back into her vagina; periodically, he had her change positions from her back to her side, removing his penis to do so. Francine J. didn’t remember how many times this happened, though it was more than twice. The man told Francine J. to lie face down; Francine J. became worried he would anally penetrate her, and asked him not to, because she had hemorrhoids. He did not. The man had Francine J. orally copulate him again. Francine J. could not recall if she orally copulated him two or three times. During the encounter, the man left and went to the bathroom more than once. After the second oral copulation, he went to the bathroom, returned, and put his penis in Francine J.’s vagina again. At some point, Francine J. asked the man for a drink of water; he gave her the bottle she kept on her bed stand. Francine J. could not remember if the man touched her breasts. Francine J. was in a lot of pain as the attack happened shortly before she had hip replacement surgery; she told the man about her discomfort, and he put a pillow on the night stand to support her leg. (RT D-39-D-42, D-46-D-49)

After a while, Francine J. told the man she was in a great deal of pain; he asked her for five more minutes, and after five minutes, left, telling her not to move for twenty minutes. She didn’t hear him, and he repeated the instruction. About ten minutes later, Francine J. went into her dining room, found the sliding glass door open, then called the emergency number. (RT D-44-D-45) The police arrived, and took Francine J. to be examined by a forensic nurse specialist. Francine J. had bruises on her body, and one breast was reddened, in addition to “pinpoint” bruises and multiple tears around her labia and outside her genitalia. Swabs were taken from Francine J.’s right shoulder, left breast, right breast and mouth, transported to the police station and then to the crime laboratory; a reference swab was taken at a subsequent date and transported to the crime lab. (RT D-45, 1355-1358, 1411-1412, 1437-1439, 1441, 1444-1445)

During the assault, Francine J.’s nightgown periodically “slipped a little” so she would catch “glimpses” of her assailant’s face. The man’s hair was either dark blonde or light brown, “loose curls” on top and short on the sides, a “neat haircut.” She thought his eyes slanted a little on the outside, and noted he had “quite a bit” of body hair, but not dark or black body hair. Francine J. told police he had a medium build, “not a real big heavy guy”; she testified he seemed “not real tall,” with more of a slender build. The room was lit by a light from outside Francine J.’s bedroom window, the small nightlight in the base of her night stand lamp, at one point, the light from the television after the man asked Francine J. to turn it on. Francine J. said her attacker did not look dark, and described him to police as white. (RT D-43-D-44, D-49-D-53, 1440).

On May 1, 2000, Francine J. called Detective Kriskovic and told her she’d received a telephone call from a man; after the caller hung up, Francine J. recognized his voice as her attacker’s. Francine J. testified she wasn’t “100 percent sure” it was the same man, but it was a voice that was similar. (RT D-57-D-58)

“Statement of Facts” contains many of these accounts and the cumulative effect of reading these is disturbing at quite a deep level. These are then followed by a detailed record of Rathbun’s interrogation:

The interrogation resumed the next morning at 9:45 a.m.; appellant was asked if he remembered his rights, appellant said he did, and agreed to continue. Kriskovic told appellant he would be charged with all the DNA cases and, if convicted, would face a long prison term, possibly life. Appellant said he wished none of it had happened, and that he knew what he was doing was wrong when he was doing it; Kriskovic asked him what he meant by that, appellant said wasn’t it obvious he was making all of the bad decisions and wrong choices. Kriskovic asked if raping women was wrong; appellant said he knew it was wrong. Kriskovic asked if doing these things was contrary to the way his mother had raised him; appellant said yes. Kriskovic asked how appellant prepared himself when he entered his victims’ homes; appellant said sometimes he would enter the home, then undress, and would usually ask the victims to give him ten minutes to dress inside the house and leave. Appellant said he never stole anything from his victims. (RT 1241-1243, 1282, 1289) Kriskovic asked appellant about the attack on Rosalie M.: appellant said a friend named Donnovan Seeks or Sikes dropped him off near the Hilton in Huntington Beach, where he planned to meet other friends. Instead, appellant walked into the nearby trailer park, and broke into Rosalie M.’s trailer through her window; Rosalie M.’s trailer was located near the rear of the park. (RT 1244-1245)

According to Kriskovic, when questioned about the Gloria C. attack, appellant said it was possible he’d taken some of the louvered panes from her kitchen window, but if he did, it was not because offingerprints. When asked about the attack on Francine J., appellant said he had never worn a “cock ring.” When asked if he orally copulated his victims, appellant said he hadn’t; when asked if he’d forced his victims to orally copulate him, appellant said he hadn’t; later, appellant said maybe he had. He then indicated he had worn a cock ring once, and that the ring had been given him by an acquaintance. When asked if he’d ever identified himself to his victims, appellant said he didn’t remember, asked what names the victims recalled, then denied identifying himself as Max or Tito to any of the victims. (RT 1244-1246, 1309-1310).

This is followed by the dna evidence presented by different experts. Each of the experts also has a paragraph outlining his or her credentials in this field. This is from one expert’s work:

According to Fedor’s analysis, appellant’s standard genetic profile at the thirteen tested loci included, at the D3S1358 marker, 16 and 17 alleles, at the VWA marker, a 14, 16, and at D18S51, 14, 14. (RT 1463-1466) As retested, Dorothy C.’s breast swab was a mixture: a mixture can be discerned if there are more than two genetic traits at any one genetic marker.28 The presence of a Y chromosome indicated the other donor was a male; once Dorothy C.’s profile was deemed the minor donor, due to the relative degree of intensity, the remainder created the major donor profile. The chance a man unrelated to appellant could have been the major donor was one in forty-seven sextillion. There are six billion people on earth. (RT 1467-1471, 1569-1570)

Retesting the Barbara B. sample, Fedor determined the DNA profile from the sperm cells taken from the right buttocks swab matched appellant’s; the chance of a coincidental match was one in eight hundred forty-four septillion. Barbara B.’s right and left breast swabs also included appellant’s profile, with the same one in eight hundred forty-four septillion chance of a coincidental match. Appellant’s random match probability on Barbara B.’s external genital swab was one in seven trillion. Fedor assumed two contributors to the mix. (RT 1471-1475, 1491, 1503, 1605-1607-1608) The Marion J. breast swab was a mixture; appellant’s random match probability was one in nine septillion. The Marion J. external genital sample did not test positive for male DNA, and there was foreign female DNA in the sample: at the
VWA marker, Marion J. was a 14, 18, and the mixture shows a 14, 18 and a 16, 23. At D21S11, Marion J. was 29, 32.2; there was also 31.2 and 30. Sometimes, with some ethnicities, the Y chromosome does not amplify properly. (RT 1475-1477, 1597-1601) Appellant’s random match probability for a portion of the prepared DNA from the fecal material taken from Carol R.’s window was one in eight hundred forty five septillion, and his match for another portion one in eight hundred forty-four septillion. (RT 1477-1479, 1491-1492, 1502-1503, 1514-1515) The Esther R. nipple swab was a mixture, Esther R.’s DNA was subtracted, and the remaining profile matched to appellant with a one in nine septillion probability ratio. At VWA on Esther R.’s external genital swab, there was a 23 marker which belonged to neither appellant (14, 16) nor Esther R. (14, 15): the sample does not contain sperm, and the male components appear in the mixture to a lesser degree than the female: Fedor could not determine whether the male donor left the 23 allele, or how many people contributed to the mixture. Fedor still matched appellant to the external genital swab sample at a probability of one in nine septillion. (RT 1479-1482) In both the Marion J. and Esther R. genital swabs, there were
unaccounted-for 16, 23 alleles at VWA. (RT 1601-1603)

I first read ‘Statement of Facts’ a couple of years ago and immediately understood that it is radically different from the usual conceptual material because of its absolute refusal to compromise with accepted notions of the poetic but also because of the ‘breadth’ of the content. There isn’t any compromise because the material itself isn’t in any way fiddled about with, dressed up nor adjusted in the name of literature / poetry. It isn’t difficult to understand the language until we get some bits of the dn testing, the details of the assaults are absolutely explicit and relentless – in the same way that Bolano’s 2066 catalogues the torture and murder of women in northern Mexico – in recognition that the rejection of ‘style’ is the only way to deal adequately with some events.

It’s easy to get carried away by the impact of the assaults in all their terrible detail but what might be more relevant is the progressive presentation of evidence and what various parties might wish to do with it. We start with the victims’ accounts and the evidence collected/gathered at the time and then move on to what the defendant is alleged to have said during the police interrogation and then on to multiple aspects of the allele problem and what dna might have to say about the ‘truth’.

In the case of the Belmont Shore Rapist the nature of confession as witness is the focal point of both the statement setting out the grounds of appeal and the argument against conviction. The appellant’s counsel argue that the courts refusal to admit expert testimony with regard to false confessions denied Rathbun a fair trial. This is the second paragraph of the grounds:

Pretrial, the court denied two defense requests to appoint an expert for purposes of presenting expert testimony on the phenomenon of false confessions, finding the evidence was inadmissible under People v Kelly (1976) 17 Cal.3d 24, inadmissible as expert testimony, irrelevant as to the facts of appellant’s case, and inadmissible pursuant to Evidence Code section 352.(CT 375-410, 412, 483-553; RT C-1, 385-395, 402-503, 834-835; Ex Parte Motion RT 1-7) The court denied defense request for discovery of DNA evidence relating to uncharged incidents, finding such incidents inherently irrelevant. (CT 648-683; RT C-9-C-12, 69-75). The court granted the State’s motion to exclude evidence of third party culpability. (CT 341-345, 714-738; RT699-708) Pursuant to People v Smith (2003) 107 Cal.App.4th 646, the court ruled evidence of mixed source sample testing would be admitted, admissible under the third prong of People v Kelly, supra 17 Cal.3d24, and under a separate admissibility challenge based on
People v Pizarro
2003 110 Cal.App.4th 530 (CT 739-788, 804=808; RT37-43, 47-58, 61-69, 76-142, 151-196, 200-260, 268-301, 334-338)

There are a further three paragraphs highlighting different aspects of the case, these are followed by a list of the 64 charges that Rathbun was convicted of and the sentence that he received for each. He was sentenced to a total of 1040 years, plus 10 life terms. The act of testifying in criminal cases is done in front of and facillitated by the state and this process is surrounded by all kinds of documented paraphernalia which are used and referred to so as to underpin what we think of as the ‘rule of law’. One of the many (many) issues raised in my mind by ‘Tragodia’ is the over-abundance of references and the names given to these references as if to add further credibility to the criminal justice system and that this may be an example of what Prynne means when he talks about how complicit language is in oppression.

Before we go any further, I’d like to make it clear that I’m of the view that Rathbun was guilty of these crimes and that it would have been an absolute travesty if he had been released on appeal. This is despite the fact that the behaviour of the police appears to have been extremely inept, Rathbun was subjected to six hours of questioning but only the sixth was taped. There is a marked difference between the full and frank confession described in the officers’ notes of the first five hours and the monosyllabic answers that Rathbun gave on the tape. He was told that he could speak to his mother (he was concerned that the media would contact her before he could tell her what was going on) only after the interrogation had been completed. I also think that the appeal is clutching at straws with regard to expert evidence on false confessions, not because the phenomenon is unlikely but because there is only one documented ‘version’ of the first five hours. Place presents the argument for appeal in its entirety – this is a brief extract of the part dealing with false confessions:

In People v Page, supra, 2 Cal.App.4th 184, expert testimony had been allowed on general factors which might influence somebody to falsely confess, examples of those factors, and evidence of relevant psychological experiments in the field; the trial court excluded opinion evidence on reliability of defendant’s confession, though counsel was able to argue application of the expert testimony to that confession. The First District found no constitutional violation in the exclusion because this “marginally curtailed” testimony did not deprive defendant of the ability to present evidence on the circumstances of his interrogation, ‘merely affected the way the defense could link the theories presented by the expert to the evidence introduced at trial. It did not prevent it from making that connection” (Id., at p.187.) There was no abuse of discretion under 801 because there had been no “wholesale” exclusion, citing People v McDonald (1984) Cal.3d 351, 370-371, the Page court reiterated that expert testimony is permitted where the testimony does not seek to “take over the jury’s task of judging credibility….does not tell the jury that any particular witness is or is not truthful……, “but rather informs the jury of factors that might affect the issue of credibility” “in a typical case and to the extent that it my refer to the particular circumstances” of the present case, may be limited to explaining “the potential effects of those circumstances….” People v Page, supra, 2Cal app 4th at p.188, original emphasis.)

So, why is this so important? Firstly it shows how startling work can be made without the usual poetic window dressing, secondly it demonstrates that there re other ways to say Really Big Things and that truly ‘open’ texts like this have just as much power to move and evoke as what is considered to be great poetry.

I think I need to make it clear that the primary importance of ‘Tragodia’ relates to strategy, given that there is a kind of tiredness in the overpoeticised material that is what most people consider to be contemporary poetry – this represents the kind of ‘jolt’ that may cause the ruptures of change that are needed.

David Jones as (profound) chronicler.

I owe an enormous debt of gratitude to Nathaniel Drake Carlson for pointing me in the direction of the Spring 1982 edition of Poetry Wales which contains two particularly fascinating pieces on ‘In Parenthesis’.

I know I should be reading all that Thomas Dilworth has written on Jones but I haven’t yet because I’m still having this internal debate with the insightful Rene Hague on ‘The Anathemata’ and because the person in charge of the Bebrowed accounts has gently pointed out that I should read the books I’ve acquired before buying any more, which is entirely reasonable.

In this particular issue of Poetry Wales there are articles by Dilworth and Joseph Cohen on aspects of ‘In Parenthesis’, the first deals with the poem as chronicle whereas Cohen considers the profundity of the work. Regular readers will know that I have a long standing interest in the archival / documentary / commemorative aspects of poetry and that I wrote a week ago about profundity and poetry which generated more than a little debate so I’ve read both with great interest.

Before we proceed I need to point out (again) that David Jones is one of the greatest poets of the twentieth century and I remain dismayed that his work isn’t better known. ‘In Parenthesis’ is a sequence of poems that recount Jones’ experience as a soldier from training in England to being wounded during the disastrous Somme offensive of 1916. It is a work of immense humanity and technical skill, in his piece Dilworth makes a claim for it being “one of the world’s four or five great war books. It is far better than any other work or collection of works on the Great War”, I don’t know enough about war books to support this claim but it is certainly the best book on conflict that I have ever read.

So, Dilworth concentrates on the poem as an authentic / accurate account of Jones’ experiences which in itself (for us devotees) is valuable in itself but I’m a bit concerned that this focus might be missing other aspects of what the poem might be about- and whether ‘chronicle’ is the right noun.

Jones’ dedication at the beginning of the poem is long and complex but it includes “especially Pte. R.A. Lewis- gunner from Newport Monmouthshire killed in action in the Boesinghe sector N.W. of Ypres some time in the winter 1916-17” and his preface starts with “This writing has to do with some things I saw, felt, & was part of” which might indicate that this is more of a personal memoir which also commemorates a fallen comrade. There’s also a ‘political’ edge – Jones goes on to condemn the increasing mechanisation of the war which led to even more ‘wholesale slaughter’.

Dilworth is the expert on all things David Jones but it does seem to me that there are a couple of quibbles. He writes:

Such changes in chronology indicate that Jones is not recording history, but he is being over careful when he writes in his preface that no ‘sequence of events’ in the poem is ‘historically accurate’.

The full quote is “None of the characters in this writing are real persons, nor is any sequence of events historically accurate” – this may be an indication of being overly careful but it is also an indication that it isn’t his intention that the poem should be read as a historical account, in fact the preceding passage seems to indicate more of a memorialisation of a time and a way of soldiering ( “a certain amateurishness, and elbow-room for idiosyncrasy that connected one with a less exacting past”) that was obliterated in the Somme offensive of 1916- the end-point of Jones’ narrative.

Dilworth rightly points to Jones’ technical brilliance and the ‘documentary’ feel of the sequence as a whole but also states that Jones doesn’t do anecdote. I’m struggling a bit with this observation because there is at least one (albeit loaded) innstance that seems to me to be anecdotal.

The OED’s primary definition of anecdote is “Secret, private, or hitherto unpublished narratives or details of history” and this seems to me that this (from part 2) might fit:

One day the Adjutant addressed them on the history of the regiment. Lectures by the Bombing Officer: he sat in the straw, a mild young man, who told them lightly of the efficacy of his trade; he predicted an important future for the new Mills Mk. IV grenade, just on the market; he discussed the improvised jam-tins of the veterans, of the bombs of after the Marne, grenades of Loos and Laventie – he compared these elementary, amateurish, inefficiencies with the compact and supremely satisfactory invention of this Mr Mills, to whom his country was so greatly indebted.

He took the names of all those men who professed efficiency on the cricket field – more particularly those who claimed to bowl effectively – and brushing away with his hand pieces of straw from his breeches, he sauntered off with his sections of grenades and fuses and explanatory diagrams of their mechanisms stuffed into the pockets of his raincoat, like a departing commercial traveller.

Ignoring the bitter sarcasm for the moment this strikes me as a previously unpublished detail of history. The Mills bomb was the first fragmentation grenade – a device which not only exploded but threw out shrapnel over the surrounding area and it would make sense for good bowlers to be recruited to throw these things far enough to prevent themselves being injured. This weapon was first introduced in 1915 and is one of the elements of mechanised brutality that Jones deplores so there is an additional ‘point’ being made in this particular passage which seems to me to be anecdotal.

I also accept that the sales rep device is particularly effective but it is entirely feasible that such an officer would do what he could to ‘sell’ this kind of innovation to the troops whilst providing explanation and context because that was part of his role.

Turning now to Joseph Cohen we find this:

In Parenthesis, if it is anything, is a profound work. It has unusual depth. It is a product of two complex cerebral functions: (1) reflection and the play of the imagination on the poet’s experience as an infantryman on the Western Front: an extreme condition, prolonged, marked by danger, suffering, privation and loss, unparalleled in history to that time; and (2) subsequent omnivorous reading and more reflection on the literature and history of individual and collective military experience reaching back to antiquity. Through this juxtaposition of the experience of the past with that of the present, Jones focuses out attention on the panoramic range of feelings human beings express in the throes of war. By comparing the past to the present, Jones emphasizes the supreme value of human life.

I don’t want to revisit the recent debate on the various elements of profundity but for me the above combination is not where this particular quality of ‘In Parenthesis’ lies- it is rather in the accuracy and honesty of what it was like to be in the midst of this senseless carnage and the sensitive portrayal of the human dynamics between officers, NCOs and the ‘ordinary’ rank and file. Once again, I accept that my definition of ‘profound’ is entirely subjective and (probably) subject to change but, as with Hill’s observation, there is this sense of insightful/useful humanity that makes ‘In Parenthesis’ so profound.

I also think Cohen misses the point about the past and the present which he sees as a juxtaposition- I’m of the view that all of Jones’ work is about the real existence of the past in the present, one of his many strengths is his ability to quietly insist on this in both ‘In Parenthesis’ and ‘The Anathemata’. I’m currently writing an extended page on the former for arduity and this seems clearer to me with each reading.