Monday, April 14, 2008

Murder-Mystery Poem

In a course on the Harlem Renaissance, we finished Rudolph Fisher's detective novel, The Conjure-Man Dies, not long ago. It's a well plotted novel immersed in Harlem society of the 1930s, and it also plays some inventive riffs on detective-novel conventions. Fisher tries to get it all in there: amateur-genius detective, police-detective, gothic elements, a locked room of sorts, the gathering of suspects, a whiff of the supernatural, science and forensics, and so on. Fisher, a physcian and experimenter with X-Rays, unfortunately died in his 30s; otherwise we might have a series of detective novels from him, but it's nice at least to have this one. On my own, I've been reading some detective novels by Michael Innes, Agatha Christie, and Chester Himes, too. Himes's crime novels are set in Harlem, too, but their grittier and more hard-boiled than Fisher's book.

A great afficianado of detective fiction, W.H. Auden wrote a kind of tribute-poem for the genre. Auden very much favored the "village cozy" subgenre of the form, and in an essay, he developed a rationale for his preference, asserting that the setting of the murder should be Edenic. Here's a link to his detective-story poem:

I decided to write a murder-mystery poem, too:

Murder-Mystery Poem

Among fictional live bodies lies a fictionally dead one,
made so not by itself but by one or more bodies who
had minds, means, and opportunity
to kill. Identification ensues. Who is dead, who
killed, who will mislead, confess, and reveal? Enter

empiricism, wearing a thick coat and having a look
around with those unmistakable Aristotelian
eyes. The empiricist is foe of secrecy, friend
of plodders who trod paths of data, and assistant
to the plot. In death, on ice, a body in this fiction
forms information incarnate. It is cause

for apprehensiveness and apprehension,
justice and correction. Ah, there in a meadow
of likelihood stands a murderer, defined
by spores of imperfection and pride, caught
by humble fact, a residue of act. Under
arrest, a fictional transgressor is held, as I,

satisfied, hold the soft paperback book in my hands.

(Copyright 2008 Hans Ostrom)

The last line alludes to one of the main reasons I like detective novels: I love the feel of those pulpy paperbacks in my hands. I've been reading them for several decades, after all, and the physical aspect of a book contributes a lot to the experience--if, that is, you're a bibliophile. If you haven't read an Innes book yet, you might try From London Far, and even if you're not a detective-fiction fan, you'll probalby enjoy The Conjure Man Dies.

If you're a poet and haven't done so yet, you ought to write a poem about a kind of reading you like to do, or a memory of reading, or a genre. Or an homage to a favorite writer. The homage need not be full of unalloyed praise; it might express ambivalence, or even a kind of love-hate attitude toward the writer and/or her/his works.

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