Poetics of Guilt
The distinction between an ethical and a moral approach to guilt, suggests poet and appellate attorney Vanessa Place in The Guilt Project: Rape, Morality, and Law (2010), is this: while the ethical "wonders what the collective us is doing" when we do what we do (to "innocent" citizens and convicted criminals alike), the moral "is hot and murky, circling the question of what makes us human." The Guilt Project presents a nuanced argument about criminal law, specifically the counter-intuitive laws concerning rape; it is aimed at the concerned and curious lay reader, whom it leaves bursting with ethical wonder. By contrast, Place's Tragodía 1: Statement of Facts plunges its reader hard into the murk. There is no evident polemic, no well-deliberated thesis, in Statement of Facts, and this is precisely the point: it earns its moral weight in spite of, and because of, its status as conceptual poetry.
Like The Weather, Kenneth Goldsmith's 2005 book of New York City weather reports transcribed from the radio, Statement of Facts can be seen as an example of what Goldsmith terms "uncreative writing," an anti-Romantic methodology that emphasizes the importance of the idea or concept above other literary considerations, producing texts in which "all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair." It is certainly (again like The Weather) an example of appropriation, a technique in which language is lifted by the writer directly from another (often non-literary) context with another (often more utilitarian) use. Unavoidably reminiscent of Marcel Duchamp's readymades—in which an object becomes art by virtue of its placement in an [End Page 9] art context—appropriation is also a technique that Place and her co-author, Robert Fitterman, locate on the "pure" end of the continuum laid out in their primer on conceptual writing, Notes on Conceptualisms (2009).
All this alone is enough to turn some readers on or off, depending on their proclivities and aesthetic allegiances. But content, too, matters. Duchamp's Fountain (1917) may not have made the same splash had it been a slop sink instead of a urinal that the artist signed and installed in a gallery. Unlike The Weather, which deliberately takes as its subject the least taboo topic in our culture, Statement of Facts deliberately takes up one of the most: sex crimes, in all their gory and mundane detail.
According to the book's jacket copy, a statement of facts is "a legal document which sets forward factual information without argument." The statements that comprise the book pertain, apparently, to convicted sex offenders who have registered an appeal (in each case, the offender is referred to as "Appellant"). I say "apparently" because, apart from the minimal jacket copy and blurbs, there is no apparatus to ease entry into Statement of Facts—no introduction, notes, critical gloss, or explanatory gesture from the author. Just the murk, ma'am. And what murk it is. The book's 430 pages contain tale after tale of touching, sucking, forcing, cutting, binding, stalking, hitting, whipping, burning, cajoling, drugging, abducting, imprisoning, deceiving, crying, apologizing, and raping, raping, raping. The victims are mothers, daughters, students, neighbor boys, wives, cousins, infants, employees, prostitutes, and the elderly. The appellants are gang members, pimps, drug dealers, dropouts, respected teachers, former police officers, members of the military, and psychologists. Most cases include accounts of the prosecution's narrative, the defense's narrative, and the prosecution's rebuttal; some proffer additional sections of expert testimony or scientific evidence. While the writing style is consistently deadpan, sentences range from the plainly factual—"At the time of trial, Tye was ten years old; appellant is her great uncle"—to the patently interpretive: "Doe began cutting her arm in 8th grade as a way to deal with the abuse." The variety in severity among the cases is notable, as is the order of their presentation (there is no obvious arbitrary order such as chronological or alphabetical): a consensual drunken grope-fest between teenagers (the girls under 17, the boys over 17) in which no injuries were reported is followed by a gang rape at gunpoint that landed the accused on America's Most Wanted (the defense told a different story, of a drug deal and consensual orgy turned sour). In some of the cases, no complaint of abuse has been lodged, but the State has stumbled upon some evidence—for example, a sex tape recording seemingly consensual sex that included rough play—and won a conviction, creating a victim where there was none.
An obvious precedent to Statement of Facts is Charles Reznikoff's 1965 Testimony, The United States 1885-1890 (Recitative), in which the Objectivist poet mined American court documents, altering the recorded statements little but rearranging them into verse to form his poem. Testimony offered a revealing view of American fin-de-siècle society, especially with respect to race:
Williams—a Negro—Davis, Sweeney, and Robbwere in a saloon together. Williams was talking to Daviswhen Sweeney jerked off Williams' hattearing a piece out of the brim.Sweeney and Williams were having words about thiswhen Robb stepped up and found fault with Williamsfor wrangling with a white man.
An even more apt precursor is Reznikoff's earlier poem "Holocaust," in which survivor testimony from the Eichmann and Nuremberg trials is given a similar poetic treatment. More apt because, while the crimes related in Testimony range from the trivial to the atrocious, "Holocaust" is a horror-fest from start to finish simply because of the setting. Today, with the popularity of To Catch a Predator and Law & Order: Special Victim's Unit, possibly only a Nazi could occupy as reviled a social position as a sexually violent predator. (It's worth noting that while the SVP label is embraced by the entertainment media, its validity is contested among legal and psychological professionals.)
One salient difference between Reznikoff's works and Place's book is that Place is appropriating herself. While Reznikoff takes found text and, through lineation, selection, and minor editing, makes it "read" like poetry, Place "finds" her own texts written with a different hat on. Statement of Facts is not only conceptual poetry written by a writer-slash-appellate attorney. These are appellate briefs written—the old-fashioned way—by a poet. They employ the techniques of assonance, repetition, anaphora. There are moments of literary resonance that seem almost to subordinate content to the pleasurable effect of some pitch-perfect irony, a subtly timed echo, a good last line. Take this passage from the case of an underage prostitute abused by her pimp:
She did not remember telling the detective appellant slapped her repeatedly, or that she dropped to the floor so as not to be hurt, or that appellant slapped and choked her and said not to get him mad, did she want him to go to jail. Or that they returned to the motel, or that the next day appellant asked Joncey if she was mad because he'd hit her, and to stop her from being angry, took her to Disneyland.
Or this one, from the story of Katrina, repeatedly raped and impregnated by her stepfather:
Katrina testified she found out she was pregnant when she was 14; it was a Friday in August, and her brother was in the shower. After taking the pregnancy test, she and appellant had intercourse, and appellant ejaculated inside Katrina. They then went to get Katrina's mother and go to a Thai restaurant.
There's the old truism about conceptual art, most often applied to Andy Warhol's movies: no need to see them; just knowing about them is enough. "Isn't it better that way?" Warhol himself is quoted as saying. (Those who have watched Sleep , Blow Job , or Empire  might argue that this is only half-true.) Conceptual poetry is putting up a fight against another would-be truism: the idea that poetry is, by definition, that which resists paraphrasing. Statement of Facts complicates both of these positions. After all, rape, torture, random acts of brutality, and systemic violence resist paraphrasing too. While a description of Statement of Facts may do a lot of the work's work, this is a book to be read, not just to know about. There is something of Viktor Shklovsky's ostranenie at work here: if reading The Weather makes descriptions of weather unfamiliar and therefore interesting, so you'll never read the weather report the same way again, reading Statement of Facts makes a wide range of acts of sex and violence seem almost banal, altering habitual responses to a whole category of content. You'll never read the news the same way again—and that is a good thing. So is the publication of Statement of Facts.
It's ethically good because it asks "what the collective us is doing" while illuminating such arcana as the honor code of prostitutes (never look another pimp in the eye); the vagaries of DNA analysis (it's not that reliable); and much about US criminal law.
It's morally good because it offers no place to hide. Is there something titillating, pornographic, in these explicit tales? Is that OK? OK with whom? In The Guilt Project, Place recalls attempting to desensitize herself, as a young lawyer, by reading sex-crime autopsy reports while eating lunch, before discovering that such desensitization was neither personally possible nor professionally desirable. Statement of Facts offers the reader a shadow of that discovery—or, perhaps, a different but equally instructive one.
What does it mean to say that it's aesthetically good, too? Certainly, Statement of Facts succeeds as uncreative writing. Specifically, it gives the reader—to appropriate Goldsmith's words—"whatever information she needs to understand the work...framed in such a way that will facilitate this understanding." Whether it succeeds as poetry is only as important as the question of what poetry is. [End Page 10]
Anna Moschovakis's most recent books are You And Three Others Are Approaching a Lake and The Jokers, a translation of a novel by Albert Cossery.