True Crime
Donna de la Perrière
Talisman House Press, 2009
Review by Kristin Abraham

What started with the popularity of such television shows as Law and Order and CSI Crime Scene Investigation has evolved into the popularity of a relatively new and virtually endless entertainment industry, that of "true crime" stories. Documentaries, dramatic reenactments, news stories about crime and the courtroom, real-life crime scene investigation, and fictional dramas that draw from these real-life scenarios have flooded American popular culture. So much so that most Americans have acquired a basic knowledge of "legalese" and violent crime forensics. The poems in True Crime challenge their readers to interrogate our understanding of what "crime" and "truth" actually mean; they even challenge us to ask if language itself, in any context, is capable of providing meaning.

The book exposes the multiple possible interpretation of terms—legal terms, intended to stand as the letter of the law—such as "Probable Cause," "Witness," "corpus delicti (the body of the offense, the essence of the crime)," "pro se (appearing on one's own behalf)," and "voi dire ('to speak the truth')." After all, de la Perrière says that "what we were talking about … was the way we attach ourselves, so easily, so neatly to words," and we rarely think about all that comes with them. The words, these poems insist, cannot possibly give us any singular, de facto meaning. "It was exactly that simple" ("Gospel").

This is a poetry that both welcomes and rejects the pop culture "criminal" phenomenon:  "Which, was, of course, the case. // Still, sometimes we are overly fastidious, almost fanatical in our habits, or, as it turns out, we simply misunderstand." 

The true crimes, de la Perrière seems to be saying, are in misunderstanding language and the way we ignore or distort memory or what is right in front of us: leaves inexplicably finding their way into the house repeatedly in "Fall"; the lonely child no one seems to nurture (in the poem "Wash Fragments (Shirley in the Yard)"): "she wonders what it would be like to sit out there until night   no one goes by on the road   she can see the side yard   the frail edge of a tree   the tree unwinds   twists in the wind   the dog whines   worries its rope"; and a deliberate distortion in "Field Composition (Fort-Da)": "it was only crows / only shadows / only wind in the eaves / it wasn't houses burning / or already broken" "it was only shadows / it was only screaming."

Thus, the true crimes are the secret crimes we—all of us—have: family secrets, family scandals, family "ghosts":

"Tommy Quinten’s father was a preacher; Tommy’s mother testified against him on the stand" ("Testimony").

"we / drink and drink and drink and none / of it is any help" ("What They All Say").

"the girls the police he tries to touch them when they sleep" ("House: The History of Us All").

While Donna de la Perrière's first full-length book of poetry is certain fuel for much in-depth critical commentary, I must also say that this book is just plain enjoyable to read. Reviews often overlook the very reason we read poetry—we read to seek the indescribable harmonious balance of cerebral and emotional satisfaction, thought and beauty—and what we seek is easy to find in True Crime.

Not only are the poems in this book thought provoking, they contain a haunting beauty in images, language and sound.  There is a music to these poems, whether they are written in prose or in lines; there is such music to inspire us to read the poems repeatedly, such music that we can savor its beauty. The poem "Triptych" is a perfect example of just such harmony:                 


the red strokes of loss

the torched clap of meat

broken bodies of animals

moving always away

this is the heart muscle

the violet interior

outside heat rasps toward us on the horizon

The third section/stanza of this poem is an excellent exhibition of the sounds and images in the book. Here, abstractions are made into images that somehow make sense even if one isn't sure what the "torched clap of meat" looks or sounds like. The image embodies the indescribable and hits the reader in the chest with a powerful blow. Repetition of sibilant "stroke," "loss," "muscle," and "rasps" evokes a quiet feeling of intensity and tension just under the surface, where we find the "violet interior"; this tension is not only felt in "Triptych," but in all of her poems.

Without a doubt, True Crime is one of the best books of poetry I have read in the last three years. De la Perrière’s second book, St. Erasure, will soon be released by Talisman House Press, and based on the strength of True Crime, this book should prove to be another phenomenal collection of poetry.

Kristin Abraham is the author of two poetry chapbooks: Little Red Riding Hood Missed the Bus (Subito Press, 2008), and Orange Reminds You of Listening (Elixir Press, 2006); her poem "Little Red Riding Hood Missed the Bus" was selected for Best New Poets 2005. Additional poetry, lyric essays, and critical essays have been published in such places as Court Green, Columbia Poetry Review, LIT, Quarter After Eight, and The Journal. She currently teaches English at Ashford University in Iowa.

© Kristin Abraham, 2010