Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Cornelius Eady, Brutal Imagination, and Crime Poetry

Is Cornelius Eady's Brutal Imagination (2001) still one of our best pieces of crime poetry? Wait. I'm not even sure if we have a clear enough sense of crime poetry to pinpoint where Eady's volume fits in the larger scheme of things. We do have an expansive body of crime fiction with sub-genres such as detective fiction and legal thrillers. Maybe what I'm calling "crime poetry" fits within those sub-genres as well.

In Brutal Imagination, Eady writes from the first-person perspective of a black man who allegedly kidnapped a white woman's children. The lead character in the series of poems  is the fictive criminal created by Susan Smith who had in fact killed her own young sons. Eady gives voice to a non-existent criminal who was for a brief moment the subject of an extensive manhunt.   

The ghostly hoodlum black man of Eady's volume haunts the public's imagination. "Susan Smith has invented me because / Nobody else in town will do what / She needs me to do," the figure says at one point. And later, he notes "My shape came from out-of-nowhere." As a non-existent criminal, there was no way to catch him.

Bad black men have long been muses for black poets. So perhaps we have at least glimpses of crime poetry already. Langston Hughes's "Bad Man," Margaret Walker's "Bad-Man Stagolee," and Etheridge Knight's "Hard Rock Returns to Prison From  the Hospital for the Criminal Insane," to name a few, all feature criminal or potentially criminal black men. We also have Kevin Young's Black Maria, a film noir in verse.

Eady's Brutal Imagination presents us with one of our most fully realized would-be black criminals in poetry. Although Susan Smith initially created the figure to shoulder the blame for a kidnapping, Eady reclaimed that figure, gave him an elevated intellect, and placed him in the tradition of bad man culture heroes and villains.          

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