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Steve Spence

The Confessions   Christopher Deweese   Periplum Poetry   106 pages

This is an intriguing collection of poems by an American poet whose work is new to me. I was fortunate enough to see Christopher Deweese read his poetry at the University in Plymouth recently and one of the things that most interested me, after the first five minutes or so when I wasn’t sure what to think, was the way in which his introductions to the pieces, the ‘patter’, so to speak, appeared so well integrated with the work that I began to think they probably existed ‘on the page’, alongside the poems as part of their construction. I shouldn’t over-emphasise this aspect but I’ve experienced quite a few readings where the poet (I’m not mentioning names) rambles on at length, ‘explaining’ the poem to the point where you begin to wonder why bother with the poem at all? Either that, or the banter is better than the poem itself in which case the same question applies. Deweese’s reading was not at all like this and was indeed a very stimulating and entertaining affair. Presented with the poems ‘on the page’ as I am now experiencing them, I realise that whether or not the intros were considered in the original composition process (I suspect not, actually) the pieces  stand alone, formally pretty consistent in length and layout. To the extent that each of the fifty poems starts with a repetitive phrase or trope (the ‘confession’ of the title) each poem appears engendered by its title which is repeated in the opening line. So we have, for example – ‘I was a pickle barrel modified to infamy’, or ‘I was twisted inside a tiny cabinet’, or ‘I was a revolutionary artist’. One of the poems I can recall from the reading and which was certainly given a ‘back story’ is ‘I was a lonely heiress’, which is worth quoting in full:

          I was a lonely heiress

          I was a lonely heiress
          born to a dynasty so traditional
          our mansion’s windowless-ness
          only seemed sensible,

          a pathologically confidential architecture
          concealing roomfuls
          of well-polished shackles
          where matrons ate manicured sandwiches.


          It was a terrifying life
          until all my relations died.

          I walked outside and hired a carpenter
          to construct dollhouses
          full of murder scenes.

          I enlarged the sky
          to create a more intricate problem.


          Wallpaper stood in for fingerprints
          in those tiny rooms,
          where everything was psychological.

          Policemen renamed me
          the Patron Saint of Evidence,

          the mother of a new forensics
          dependent on each inspector
          imagining themselves six inches tall.

The fact that this was based on an actual person (whose name I’ve forgotten) and who became famous as a forensic detective in later life after a privileged but extremely restricted/repressive upbringing is interesting but not perhaps essential for an appreciation of the poem. The claustrophobia of the doll’s house as an image of limited opportunities is telling I think (Ibsen?) and there’s a slightly disturbing yet intriguing hinting at the links between detection and criminality, a common psychology, perhaps?

Elsewhere the writing has a strong surrealist bent, incorporating skewed historical information, as in ‘I was a flea tamer’, for example, where we get ‘and John Wilkes Flea did his thing again, /aiming an eyelash rifle/from a neon-lit cardboard balcony.’ The concluding lines – ‘That anything is obscene/if you stare close enough.’ – adds both an element of menace and suggests again a sense of claustrophobia and an interest in focussing in on the minutia and on the small details. ‘I was encased in a block of ice’ and ‘I was a pickle barrel modified to infamy’ also point towards a sense of being ‘locked in’, an aspect of these poems which appears to recur, aided perhaps by the tight constructions/constrictions of the verses themselves and by the repeated motif of the poems’ titles.

The mix of actual events/history and a sort of scrambled, imaginative projection, rich with a sense of the absurd, is what makes these pieces really zing out when you read and re-read them, as I was inclined to do, forever trying to encapsulate and capture the enigma while being fully aware that I was never going to succeed in my aim. Perhaps I’m cutting across my own ‘narrative’ here, in the sense that my original comment about ‘over-explaining’ a poem is rarely a good idea but I never found Deweese’s ‘live commentaries’ on the poems – where they existed – anything but pleasurable additions to the performance.  I heartily recommend this collection of poetry and suggest that you go to see him read his work in person if you’re fortunate enough to get the opportunity.



Copyright © Steve Spence, 2018