November 3, 2013
This is a review of my book, ‘murder’. I did not write it though I will confess that I had something to do with its existence. (Unfortunately I cannot discover who wrote this wonderful review.)
Review: murder by David Halliday
David Halliday’s murder is one of those great little books I’d never have discovered except for the internet. It was originally published in 1978 by the now defunct Coach House Press, then again as an ebook by Wonderbeams before they closed up shop at the end of 2001, and now David Halliday has released murder into the public domain.
Murder is a series of poems telling the story of a murder and subsequent trial and lynching. Yeah, I said poems. Don’t flinch and imagine this is a book in Iambic pentameter packed with e’ens and whences and e’res.
David Halliday is not that kind of a poet.
Halliday doesn’t mince words, he uses them with the precision of scalpels. He’s tough and honest and a little cheeky and raw in places. He writes the essence of the world in all its delicate ugly humanity.
Every word is deftly placed, sometimes down to its physical location on the page, to evoke the story Halliday is telling. Each poem is a finely wrought link in the chain—the killer stalking his victim, the police report and investigation, even the victim’s identification of her killer (“No one heard. No one listens to the dead.”) through the culmination of the trial and a mob stringing up the innocent man accused. (“a french girl pointed to the flag pole the mob unraveled him and hung him from the top where he waved in the wind to the crowd”)
The meat of the book is devoted to the trial; there are sketches of the jury, the media circus, the attorneys and the judge. (“Hammocks of flesh swinging below his waist skin melts sliding down his bone stocking overflowing in his shoes.”) Witnesses give testimony in their own poem-scenes and some of the most compelling moments are when Halliday turns to the spectators, the people for whom the trial is a kind of post-Roman Colosseum where justice justifies blood lust. There is the old woman who thinks, “these problems we all go on about are just a social disease,” and the cub reporter whose buxom neighbor masturbates him while he sleeps, the flasher wrapped in his flag, the murder groupie in her black satin jacket. These people are all redolent with their own sins and the carnal and carnival atmosphere of execution reinforces the Christ-like image of the wrongly accused man on trial. (“x flower child root bound barb’d wire head band”)
The rule of law in Halliday’s world is decaying. The plaster of his courthouse is crumbling and the paint is peeling. There are cockroaches and flies and bats in these hallowed halls, and while justice is miscarried to appease the appetites of the crowd, a cat is “laughing like a gatling gun.”
As I read murder, I keep returning to the idea of violence as entertainment in modern life. The killer sees his victim in the terms of a film. “I thought you were my leading lady,” he says. The witnesses watch the attack and later entertain the spectators with their evidence. There are reporters throughout; they are outside the courthouse with their cameras, inside reporting on the trial, they are there for the lynching.
In the end it is just a tiny injustice in the world. A single woman raped and murdered while a crowd watches, a single innocent man hanged from a flagpole. A single killer goes free. The people drift away, the spectacle is over. The TV cameras are packed up; there’s no more blood to be had in this place. If there is redemption, too, in Halliday’s narrative, it is in this: in a world where horror has become a commodity packaged to amuse, there is still innocence and hope. “two kids were flying a kite tugging at the moon with the wind.”
I wonder, if the innocent man wrongly hanged is Halliday’s Christ, what sin is his blood intended to wash from our souls?
A note for readers: The physical form of the words on the page is important to Halliday’s work. I had to set the font to the smallest size to get the full effect of the layout when reading the .epub on my Nook. I had no problems with the .pdf on my computer screen. (All versions seem to have an extraneous page 8: “Click to edit this text.”)