HOME / THE POETS / ESSAYS / THE NUTS AND THE BOLTS / RESOURCES.


The brilliant heartbreak that is Vanessa Place's Last Words.

This might take some time, It might take some time for your humble servant to explore the various dimensions released by the above and hy they are important. In brief, this is a collection of photographs of men executed by the state of Texas together a cd of Place reading those men's final words.

Here's a personal digression, the death penalty is barbaric and, this is important, it doesn't work as a deterrent. On this side of the water, over the last fifty years I have seen a move from majority support for hanging murderers to acceptance of life imprisonment as the most appropriate way of dealing with even the most prolific and determined killers.

However, the current anxiety is that the Trump playbook is currently been read by all members of our political class with a view to developing our very own brand of Populist Buffoonery.

As someone who spent more than enough time working in the criminal justice system, the idea of deterrent, especially with murder, is not effective. Most murders occur in the heat of the moment where the prospect of a lengthy sentence doesn't have time to occur to the perpetrator. Those who plan to kill someone don't think they are going to get caught and thus don't give any thought to the prospect of a life sentence. This is not to suggest that society doesn't need to be protected from those individuals who will continue to kill if left free in society.

As someone who has been offended against I understand the need for a sense of retribution but I don't think the criminal justice system delivers it, no matter how lengthy the sentence. The media-friendly notion of closure is also Complete Bollocks.

Here in the more than provincial backwater that is Sunny Ventnor, it has come to my attention that there has been some recent kerfuffling going on with regard to Place's twitter posts and associated pic with accusations of racism being flung in her direction. Now I don't understand why these posts might be construed as racist and I don't particularly care, what bothers me is that so much energy can be spent by others on this kind of extremely esoteric quibble. The world of the anglophone Poem is still exceptionally good at arguing about Not Very Much

Moving on to the poem, Place is a conceptualist and thus not seen as a Real Poet by the vast majority of poets and critics. I'm not of that view even though I'm not the greatest admirer of conceptual work. I've written elsewhere Of Place's strategic importance in showing the rest of us the way in which the Poem may save itself from its current and dismal malaise. The central features of this condition are: introspection; self-congratulation: irrelevance; factionalism and mediocrity. What Place's work does is destroy the outdated and complacent notions of what the Poem might be and provide quite crucial examples of how it must be in order to flourish.

Lyric poetry needs to die and Place claims, somewhat disingenuously, to have killed it. She hasn't but the point is that as long as we stay in the overhang of the Romantics (of 200 years ago), we're not going to even consider ways of making it new. The work that she produces is neither lyrical nor poetic but it is very serious indeed. I know that many of the poets that I admire and write about are particularly scornful of conceptual work as a fraudulent distraction but this strikes me as a case of Protesting Too Much rather than a considered response to a major challenge. Using poetic derision instead is self-destructive and childish. I'md isappointed by the later work of Kenneth Goldsmith but this comes from the work rather than the label.

Incidentally, other aspects of creative endeavour can and do learn from and respond constructively to challenges. I am old enough to recall the jazzers' collective horror when Miles Davis released Bitches Brew because it challenged the accepted notion of What Jazz Is. Since then critics, fans and musicians have learned from and now revere this landmark work. The same can be said for the early work of Cy Twombly, now viewed as one of the greatest artist of recent years.

We now come to reading out loud. I'm of the firm view that the Poem must be read out loud and if it can't be, for whatever reason, it fails as Poem. I know that this won't be accepted by many but there is a distinct clunkiness that arises from cadential failure (a newly devised technical term entirely of my own making. As I hope the examples below demonstrate that there is a complete absence of said clunkiness in Last Words even though the words were originally spoken in prose. The reason that giving voice to serious work is simply because listening is a much more involving affair than reading on its own.

There's one final 'point' I'd like to attend to before we get to the reading, The blurb on the back of the book has "Vanessa Place reads the last words of the dead, collected by the state before the start of the procedure, and made public by the Department of Criminal Justice of Texas on its website. I'll leave that fact dangling for now.

It turns out that these last words hold very few surprises, some are protestations of innocence, some are apologies to the victim's family whilst others are expressions of love to friends and loved ones. Many have a religious 'frame' but all, as you might expect, exude a deep humanity. As can be seen from the opening, the temptation to become all sociological is Very Great Indeed but, thankfully, it seems to me that the Big Thing going on here concerns mortality more than it does Foucault. So, we are invited to think about two kinds of death, that of the victim(s) and that of the condemned man. The former is alluded to and this places us in the position of the victim's family and friends, working out whether we would want, demand that kind of retribution. Of course, as a wooly-minded leftist, I'd like to think that I'd continue to hold the principles set out above but I also know myself well enough to know that this might not be the case..

The statements speak more directly of the prospect of certain death, of not having anything left, of attempting to comfort those left behind and of expectations of life after death. It seems glaringly apparent to this listener that the heartbreaking quality of these statements lies in their unadorned directness. Some accept their guilt, some protest their innocence but the overall tone is one of quiet resignation, which isn't the same as acceptance. Being a jaded, seen it all and done most of it, sceptic it really does take a lot to play around with my emotions but these short statements completely dismantle any kind of feelings related balance that I might have. Every time I listen to these, I think of another ingredient that might be responsible for this sorry state of affairs. Here's a few:

These combined dismantle the structure that holds my feelings together. I'm aware that there are elements of the voyeur and the ghoul within me together with an unhealthy interest in Bad Things what happen. I don't however get the same kind of gratification here (there is no other noun, sadly) that I do from other documentary material on similar subjects. The only other documentary that has a greater emotional effect is Lanzmann's Shoah.

I want now to pay some attention to media and the ways these are used here to deliver the material. First we have the audio, which is a reasonably straightforward reading of the Words, then we have the book which is a series of those men's mugshots. Finally we have the written statements and other details placed on the Department of Criminal Justice of Texas site which now needs further consideration. I've just discovered that Texas has a population of 27 million, which is bigger than a middle-sized European country, therefore one would assume that the Criminal Justice Dept. is run by people who are Not Bonkers and am thus left wondering as to why such a Plainly Bonkers Thing should be done.

Now, Foucault's view is that the public execution and subsequent display of the body was, among Many Other Things, a much more honest statement of the state's sovereignty than the current by invitation only American Method. Without again getting too sociological, my best guess is that this should be seen as the State of Texas' inept and decidedly clunky attempt at something similar.

My point with regard to this sequence of poems is that, when taken together, they represent a form more compelling and involving readerly and aural experience than the Standard Poem ever can. They also throw down the gauntlet to the rest of us with an interest in de-fettering all things poetic from their current dismal state.

Here's three of the tracks giving some idea of the range of the sequence. Apologies for the less than 'clean' sound quality, I am trying to get better.

Last Words is available on Amazon for less than 30 quid. Buy it.