The chilling topic of filicide (the killing of one's child) casts a shadow over the pages of Killer Verse, as it recurs throughout several sections of the book - most powerfully in Cornelius Eady's "Birthing," a key poem from his cycle, Brutal Imagination, which was inspired by the murder of two young boys by their mother.
For nine days in the fall of 1994, the citizens of Union, South Carolina, as well as an increasing number of people throughout the United States, believed that Susan Smith had suffered the worst tragedy a mother could experience: the abduction of her two sons, Michael (age 3) and Alex (age 14 months), by a mysterious figure who had carjacked her at night on an abandoned road. Media coverage soon expanded from local news outlets to national talk shows and magazines, with Susan and her husband David pleading with the carjacker to safely return their sons. Flyers featuring a vague drawing of the alleged abductor, an African-American man wearing a knit cap, saturated the small, predominantly white, town of Union.
Yet from the very first time that investigators interviewed the distraught mother, they harbored doubts as to the authenticity of her story and quietly began to look for cracks in her carefully crafted façade. Their work paid off on November 3, 1994, when Susan Smith confessed the truth: there had never been an abductor. In the process of filing for divorce from David and having been jilted by her current boyfriend, the severely depressed woman had driven her sons to John D. Long Lake, gotten out of the car, lowered the emergency brake, and allowed the Mazda to roll into the water, drowning the children. All who had followed the story expressed shock, outrage, and horror, and justice proved relatively swift. Despite the defense team's attempts to portray Susan as an emotionally damaged woman who had committed her crime in a moment of confusion and weakness, the jury convicted her of murder on July 22, 1995. Susan is currently serving a life sentence, but she will be eligible for parole in 2025. The prosecuting attorney had argued for the death penalty.
In the days following Susan's confession, her brother tried to ameliorate the pain that her lies had caused the black community by writing an open letter to the media, in which he stated, "We apologize to all of the black citizens of Union and everywhere and hope you won't believe any of the rumors that this was ever a racial issue." While the letter writer's intentions were no doubt sincere, the ill will that Susan's accusations generated also stirred the imagination of African American poet Cornelius Eady, resulting in the poems that comprise Brutal Imagination, a finalist for the 2001 National Book Award in Poetry. This collection explores the racial stereotypes that Susan so easily tapped into when covering up her own responsibility for the murder. In "My Heart," the imaginary criminal bluntly explains how he has come into being: "Susan Smith invented me because / Nobody else will do what / She needs me to do."
In the second section of the cycle, Eady presents a gallery of characters familiar to Americans from popular culture: Uncle Tom, Uncle Ben, Aunt Jemima, Buckwheat, and Stepin Fetchit. Each one comments on the role that he or she has been forced to play by white creators, recognizing a kindred spirit in Susan's creation. "I watch another black man pour from a / White woman's head," laments Uncle Tom, comparing Susan to his own author, Harriet Beecher Stowe. Such a story lends itself to dramatization; fittingly, Brutal Imagination has also been staged as a play. Reminiscent of Amiri Baraka's seminal Dutchman (1964) in its sparse staging and focus on a white woman who manipulates a black man for her own gain, Eady's theatrical adaptation fleshes out the bare-bones feel of the poems. Music, props, and lighting augment the text without overwhelming it. As Susan and her phantom carjacker negotiate their deadly agreement, Brutal Imagination plumbs the depths of an unfathomable crime and its equally sinister cover-up.
Watch the clip below to hear Cornelius Eady read his poem, "Dance at the Amherst County Public Library," in a segment of Rachel Eliza Griffith's documentary P.O.P. (Poets on Poetry).
This article is from the October 19, 2011 issue of BookBrowse Recommends.
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