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The Damage Done

April 11, 2022

The poems in Susana H. Case’s volume The Damage Done form a layered Case study focusing on the investigation into the death of a fashion model named Janey by agents of the FBI working in the Counter Intelligence Program that began with J. Edgar Hoover in 1956. As a preface to the volume states, this program was an attempt to destroy the reputations of movements like the Black Panther Party and anti-Vietnam War activists. The events that led to Janey’s murder are drawn from the history of the FBI in the 1960s and 1970s.

As a kind of omniscient investigator, Case layers her volume with 43 poems concerning the culture, politics, pressures, and individual choices that led to Janey’s death and may lead to readers’ indictment of her society and their own.

The question at the heart of the narrative is who killed Janey, or how she died; at the beginning of the volume, a tow truck operator finds her body in a car. Her story is told in flashbacks, views from those who knew her, those who are investigating her death, and letters from the poet.

Telling the story in poems gives it a depth that facts or fiction alone could not; even our thoughts about the car Janey’s body is found in, a “type 34 lipstick-red Karmann Ghia,” are influenced by a poem signed by the poet herself in which she tells the car that “there’s so much lust for you,/so much larceny in my heart,” as if the car could itself be part of the motive for the murder.

We get a lot of looks at Janey before we see anything from her point of view. The detective who identifies her says “she’s skinny” several poems before we see in a flashback that “all she’s had for days” is “black coffee, water,/sugarless gum” and she’s so anorexic that she’s begun to grow lanugo over her ribs.

One of the best—and the most revealing—poems is #23, “The Fed Likes a Well-Ordered Universe.” The point of view is scathing, from “he loves/the convenience of how the bitch died/at just the right time; she was a sin bucket,/deserver of grief” to “success means bending the law.”

In one flashback, we see the “snap decisions” that led to Janey’s death and how the Fed is

this snitch, given the chance
to save himself, will turn faster
than a corpse in the tropics,
will spill out their links to the lethal raid
on the Panthers”

Different styles of poems and different points of view converge. One of the most interesting poems is #22, “Dear Jimi Hendrix,” because it’s a cento, a poem made up of lines from other poems—or in this case, lyrics to Hendrix songs. Ostensibly, the styles and perspectives converge on Janey’s death and the mystery of how it happened.

Ostensibly, Janey’s story is about the sixties. But this story has implications for today. If poem #14, “Dear So-Called Bad Apples,” weren’t in the middle of Janey’s story, readers might think that “the Fed/who steps back into shadow, know the dead can’t/speak” is a story from today’s world. And it is. After so many like George Floyd, Daunte Wright, Stephon Clark, Philando Castile, Tamir Rice, and Ahmaud Arbery, it’s clear that lines like “Hey, when you’re a black man, just walking down the street is political stuff” is not nearly dated enough.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. April 12, 2022 2:27 pm

    I’ve read a novel in verse for kids (Brown Girl Dreaming) but not one like this – sort of a crime/political novel for adults? Sounds fascinating.

    • April 15, 2022 8:48 am

      I read Brown Girl Dreaming (reviewed it on Sept. 14, 2014).
      Verse novels are more common in YA fiction than you might think, before you start looking! The idea here is the same, that the story can only be told in all of its complexity with poems.

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