Vanessa Place's Tragodia: an introduction.

This may take some time. Vanessa Place is a conceptualist poet and she and I have some previous. I once, in half-jest, referred to her as the "scariest poet on the planet" which now crops up on the back of her "Tragodia" series paperback. I also was one of those who queried her claim to have killed poetry. There is now a video somewhere on the interweb of Place killing a poet.

Here's a brief digression on conceptualist poetry and its worth. Most conceptual work is very bad indeed, most of the better known practitioners are devoid of talent which is a crying shame because this particular 'thread' is one of the few ways that the Poem can recover from its current malaise. Fortunately Place stands head and shoulders above the rest and her Tragodia trilogy and her Radio Break are the most strategically important works of the last ten years. I surprise myself with this conclusion because I'm mostly stuck in either the modernist vein or work made before 1670. For many years I was of the view that all conceptualists, in any field of expression, were opportunist charlatans worthy only of disdainful contempt. Vanessa Place is an exception to this rule because of her selection of material and her refusal to compromise. In what follows I will try to demonstrate this and give my (entirely subjective and provisional) reasons as to theimportance of Tragodia in the wider scheme of things.

Statement of Facts.

On one level the Tragodia trilogy is about the Californian criminal justice system and makes use of the crimes, arrest and trial of The Belmont Shore Rapist, Mark Wayne Rathbun, who committed at least 14 rapes between 1997 and 2002 and was sentenced to 1030 years plus ten life sentences in 2004.

The work is entirely documentary in that it reproduces verbatim official documents relating to this and other cases. Place refers to it as a work of 'self-plagiarisation' because of the use it makes of her work as a criminal lawyer. As might be expected, this not an easy read both because of its subject matter and the sheer density of many of the legal documents. It does however raise many crucial issues with regard to evidence, judgement and the ways in which legal recedents have effect.

The first part of Tragodia is Statement of Facts which starts by providing accounts of some of the attacks:

Counts 1, 2, 3 and 4: Jane Doe #1: Dorothy C.

On January 17, 1997, Dorothy C. was living alone on Vista Avenue, in Long Beach; she went into her bedroom between 11:00 and 12:00 p.m., without giving anyone permission to enter her home. As she was preparing for bed, a man came up from behind, grabbed her arms, and told her to cooperate and she wouldn't get hurt. The man, wearing a navy blue ski mask, forced her onto her bed, removed her underwear and orally copulated her, stopping periodically to talk. If Dorothy C. began crying, the man would threaten her again; at some point, he put his mouth on Dorothy C.'s breasts and neck, and asked her to put his penis in her mouth. She orally copulated him, a minute later, he turned her over and put his penis in her vagina, ejaculating outside the vagina one to five minutes later. (RT 798-801, 803-804)

After ejaculating, the man retrieved his underwear, wiped Dorothy C.'s back, and told her he had broken in, waiting while she left the house and returned a video. The man said he walked through her home while she was gone, looking at her things; he asked Dorothy C. if she had a boyfriend. She said she did; she told him she went to church. He mentioned things he'd noticed in the house, like a light that needed repair, and asked her when she was to get up the next morning, and if she'd set the alarm. The man did not say anything about himself, or identify himself by name. After twenty minutes, the man dressed and left. Before leaving, he told Dorothy C. not to do anything for twenty minutes; after he was gone, Dorothy C. called the rape hotline, then the police. The man was in Dorothy C.'s home for at least two hours. (RT 800-802)

This is obviously an horrific and traumatising attack and yet this is, or purports to be a factual account which avoids any kind of elaboration, actions are recounted but the passage does not contain any adjectives or adverbs, except for the colour of the man's ski mask. The other aspect that comes to mind is how much information the criminal justice system needs in order to arrive at a conviction. Although the victim is anonymised, the knowledge that this kind of information has been dispassionately recorded must cause additional trauma. It might be argued that 'forcible oral copulation' is a separate crime in addition to rape but might it not be enough to state the offences comitted without the additional context?

There's also something about the use of language to neutralise, almost nullify, the horror of events. It is a powerful demonstration of the effect words can have in determining the nature of trauma.

Accounts of other attacks are followed by Rathbun's arrest and questioning:

Kriskovic said the "next DNA hit" was one of the Los Alamitos victims, and outlined appellant's previous account of being dropped off in Los Alamitos by a friend around nine or ten o'clock p.m., intending to go to a school football field, getting "sidetracked" to the trailer park, going through an unlocked door, attacking an elderly woman, and "within five minutes," making his way to another trailer belonging to another elderly woman, attempting to assault her, leaving her trailer and taking her car; appellant said "yes" to each of these statements. Kriskovic noted appellant drove to and abandoned the car at 4801 E. Anaheim Street in Long Beach, but that appellant does not otherwise frequent the area or know anyone who lives there, and was able to pass police cars on the way without incident. When asked by Kriskovic what kind of car it was, appellant said he had "no idea. It's been awhile." Asked if it was a big or small car, appellant said, "Small car, I guess." Appellant could not remember if the woman gave him the keys or if he found the keys, if it was a single key or a ring of keys. (CT 914-916)

In 2002 DNA profiling / matching was much more controversial than it is now but we still haven't got to grips with the social and political implication of its use. In this instance the prosecution went ahead only on those attacks which had left a "DNA hit" because these were thought to be conclusive. The problem with this particular body of evidence is that the vast majority of us don't understand it and juries are confronted with making a decision largely based on evidence that they don't fully understand. In this case the defence tries to sow some doubts:

None of the crime laboratories in this case had protocol which would provide sufficient detail for analyzing mixtures to prescribe match criteria in all cases. A mixed sample definitionally contains at least two people; there is no definitive way for telling what the maximum number of contributors could be, given the possibility of allelic overlap There are several proposed calculations other than random match probability for generating a statistic that would account for all possible mix contributors, each proposal assuming that all alleles appear in the mixed sample. (RT 1987-1990) In appellant's case, a number of genetic markers indicated at least two alleles in were known to be mixed samples. The difficulty then lies in determining which allele or combination of alleles came from which person: each person might have two copies of different alleles, though usually there is overlap. For example, if a mixed sample shows a 16, 17, and the victim is a 16, 17, then the other donor could be a 16, 16, or a 17, 17, or a 16, 17: statistically, all possible types, including the victim's, would have to be included. It is not scientifically valid to pick out major and minor profiles in a forensic setting and perform a statistical analysis of either profile in isolation because of the high error rate: mistakes are made in identifying minor donors up to 30% of the time, and the certainty of the analyst in the accuracy of the test is not an indicator of the actual accuracy of the test. (RT 1990-1993)

Of course, both sides use this kind of jargon and convoluted logic not to make their case but to get the jury to focus on the simpler either / or decision that they have to make.

There are those who would argue quite strongly that this isn't poetry, that it lacks originality and the genius, or otherwise, of a creator who plucks language out of his own head. There others who would counter this with the sad fact that poetry is in intensive care because of this bizarre emotional hang-up that poetry types cling to. In the case of Tragodia, Place is using her own work from a legal setting and throwing it into a poem. The work examines one of the essential functions of poetry, bearing witness, and asks difficult questions about the status of evidential testimony in the world. Tragodia gains its strength from the fact that it is a 'straight' appropriation and that it apprpriates and reproduces verbatim the most official of official documents. Thankfully, this isn't the place to get into theoretical speculation so I'll just make the point that some of us (me, at least) view this and other quests for truth with some scepticism but are nevertheless fascinated by the various language strategies and ploys that are used to give an impression of authority and a kind of authenticity.

Statement of Case.

The second part of Tragodia describes the conviction in a number of cases and sets out the grounds for the appeal. This is the shortest but by far the most densely worded. I've written before, with reference to John Bloomberg-Rissman's 2nd Notice of Modifications how the criminal justice system is dependent on an ever increasing amount of legislation and consequent regulation and the following is another illustration of that sad fact:

An information was filed charging appellant with aggravated sexual assault of a child (rape) (counts 1 and 2, Pen. Code S 269(a)(1)); forcible rape(counts 3 and 4, Pen. Code S 288a(c)(2)); forcible oral copulation (counts 5 and 6, Pen. Code S 288a(c)(2)), forcible sodomy (count 7 Pen Code S 286(c)(2)); and continous sexual abuse (count 8, Pen. Code 288.5(a)). Appellant pled not guilty. (CT 17)

(Note- The 'S' in the above and subsequent extracts is rendered as a strange character in the print version that I assume stands for 'section' but I can't reproduce it in HTML)

The statement goes on to set out the salient points, that the victim was impeached "under People v Green (1971) ", that the prosecutor "choked up during his opening statement", the defence motion for a new trial on the grounds of "juror misconduct, prosecutorial misconduct, erroneous admission of DNA and insufficient evidence" which was denied by the court. The sentence is then described in detail. The closing sentence is the same for each statement: "This appeal from a final judgement of conviction is timely".

The main point that I'd like to make is the way in which legal language has become divorced from the way people speak, how increasingly reliant that particular discourse is reliant on references to and increasingly complex array of regulations, codes and precedents which are far removed from daily life. Lawyers no doubt would argue that this amount of flummery is required in order to ensure both fairness and justice but it does have the effect of restricting access to 'ordinary' citizens who are required to live their lives by these rules. Tragodia, by simply bearing witness, brings these and other issues into sharp relief.


The third and longest part of the trilogy sets out the appeal in much greater detail. One of the issues raised is the nature of the burden of proof sand the 'weight' of evidence needed to achieve that. There is a huge amount of ongoing academic work produced that addresses both the theoretical and practical aspects of this issue and what much of this material does is to further remove this particular discourse from normal life. This extract addresses the value of evidence produced by polygraph (lie detector) lie detector tests:

In his concurrence, Justice Kennedy, joined by justices O'Connor, Ginsburg and Breyer, criticized the per se exclusion of polygraph evidence, and would leave to the various jurisdictions the decision whether the juries' role is usurped by the introduction of a polygraph test. (Id., at pp. 318-319 [agreeing with the dissent that juries are not so easily swayed}.) Justice Steven's dissent opposed the per se rule of exclusion as inconsistent with the Sixth Amendment right to present a defense. (ld., at pp. 325-328.) As the holding of a plurality opinion is the narrowest ground upon which an agreement of five justices may be inferred, the only postulate properly gleaned from the Court's decision in Scheffer is that admission of polygraph evidence implicates the trinity of State interests identified by the plurality. (See Marks v United States 1977 430 U.S. 188. 193.) In other words, the Evidence Code section 351.1 ban on polygraph evidence must cede to a defendant's right to present evidence if a the proof otherwise serves the government's evidentiary interests. Given the mandate of section 356, defendants multiple offers to undertake a lie detector test would have served these interests, and it was an error to exclude them. (People v Arias (1996) 13 Cal.4th, 156.)

In the ordinary, non-legal, world this is both exclusionary and deals with public issues, the charges here relate to child sexual abuse, in a way that few members of the public would be able to follow. I can only guess at to the nature of a per se rule of exclusion or a plurality opinion might be and the trinity of State interests is completely beyond me. The references to codes and cases is equally bewildering to make such a relatively straightforward point.

Of course, Place does not express any of this, she simply reproduces aspects of her work and leaves the reader to take from it what they will. One of my primary concerns as a poet and a reader is the role of evidence in formal proceedings and therefore my response, conclusions come from that perspective but other readers may take aspects of sex crimes, of serial offenders, how DNA evidence continues to change the burden of proof and others that are less immediately apparent. Above all, Tragodia is crucially important for those of us who want/need poetry to move away from the dead weight of the past and become more directly relevant to the socities that we live in.