April 1988. A Murder & A Hanging.
by Michael Bussmann
Patient Sounds, PSS004, February 2013
14 pages / $12 Buy from Patient Sounds
Only one chapbook among my small library of codices made the journey with me this summer from my home in North Carolina to New Haven, where I’ll live for perhaps only enough time to make it a home. The postmark on the miniature manila envelope housing the chapbook dates the mailing for February 11, 2013, and upon my arrival to my new dwelling place in August, I had yet to pinch the tiny metal wings to open the package. Six weeks of seminary soon handed me a divine urging for more verse, and because I had recently overdosed on Wiman in preparation for sharing the same building as the man, I opened the envelope waiting on top of My Bright Abyss. Shipping tape covered those metal wings, so I ripped it open with my teeth.
I wish I hadn’t waited so long to travel back to April, 1988. A Murder & A Hanging (Patient Sounds, 2012). Michael Bussmann, one of two poet laureates of Fort Collins, Co., during the year of the collection’s printing, curates his first chapbook under a theme of “hyper-local horror poetry.” Specifically, he tells the story of a real murder, or rather murders, in his small Colorado town using seven poems. Bussmann first heard the tale (likely over beers since he works for the brewery that now makes the town famous) from a buddy, and the swiftness of death from life has haunted him since.
Bussmann sets the stage in his introductory note:
With “this fair town,” Bussmann shows, not tells, of his intimacy with Fort Collins, and it’s this relationship of place that contributes to the upsetting impact the horrid ballad has on him. “I have seen the sight [perhaps a purposeful homonym error] of the murder, and the hanging,” he notes. “And I have seen a piece of the rope they used to hang him.”
Bussmann begins his retelling with the site in “The Night Before” that ends with Eva’s ending the day of. He draws from his long nights in bars, on the job and other wise, in his deft description of James: “Long in night, he returns home too soon, / breath hot and rancid, stale from tall tales told.” Waking up in the morning after yelling, pints, and a forgotten teeth-brushing session bring me to James’s state. The taste is my mouth is a cross between peanut butter, sour patch kids, and old soy sauce.
It’s not long before Bussmann pairs these crude offensives with “beatings / and threats with knives” and Eva’s self-defense offense that starts as a thought and, like a buried lead, ends up a fatal action:
and packing the steamer trunk in your mind.
He sometimes lunched at home, but never
was the trunk packed. His eyes looked mean
and the knife came quickly. You pleaded, ran,
then cried murder (twice). Gertie wasn’t home
and for that you were grateful, and dead.
Bussmann’s spare but insightful use of a line break not solely before a transition shows he knows how to balladeer with suspenseful pauses (Compare, “He sometimes lunched at home, but never / was the trunk packed.” with “He sometimes lunched at home, / but never was the trunk packed.”) But I could have done without the concluding ode to Jerry Garcia. Instead of alarmed by a husband stabbing after his wife after she tries to leave an abusive relationship, I’m left thinking of “Sugar Magnolia” and Garcia’s missing middle finger.
Nonetheless, Bussmann soon recovers from a trite train of cocaine with the next two first-person poems from Eva and James, respectively. They further entrench the reader in the minds of two victims (everyone in this tale is a victim)—in a visceral, stream of consciousness manner. Quick, staccato pacing defines most of “Eva Howe, number one” as she looks down, unsure of what to do, where to go, and if she still lives:
in this dress’s duty completion.
It soaked through
as the slit gaped,
everything went red, wet,
the breech kept my bleedables
Bussmann’s alliteration of “breech,” “bleedables,” and “bleeding” drives how much “red, wet” flows around Eva after James stabs her. With later mentions of “muddy ways,” “arterial,” “deluge,” “pool was warming,” and “wet and dead,” Bussmann wants the reader soaked in the drained liquid of life—now unlife.
He shifts viewpoints to the killer in “James Howe,” who appears more occupied with thoughts of his bed than on his poor dead mate:
slightly acrid with this novel and bloody smell.
What has happened, just before now?
Beyond the footway’s darkness during lunchtime,
who’s to say … I found myself alone and dressed
in this bed, our (my) bed.
Bussmann’s parentheticals focus the reader’s attention on the newness of James’s situation. We discover the acute changes in James’s life at the same time he does. We don’t read after the fact; instead, we read with the fact.
The simultaneous tensing continues as the sheriff discovers James’s kidnapping from the prison in “The Under Sheriff,” and Bussmann backs up in time a bit in his next poem, “The Mob,” for James’s soon-to-be hangers to grab him. “Chink, chink goes the chisels” becomes a quaint refrain every eight to ten lines that Bussmann uses to remind the murderer of his impending doom. “What will ever become of your child? / Gertie’s alone, once your body swings.”
Perhaps my favorite contribution among Bussmann’s seven-poem saga lands in the sixth spot. “Rope” begins with a description of the second killing’s instrument, recounts the lynching, and expires with a shot back at the rope. The kicker lies, though, with the viewpoint—first-person rope, personified:
it will take more than one set of strong arms
to up-lift this cracked man’s sum.
I am friend to the pulley.
Pulled through I am Thanatos.
Bring of closed eyes.
The last man to tie my end off.
My strength will keep the guilty handing,
woven for elevation and grueling loads.
Come morning the sheriff’s knife
will cut me into two ropes.
I now find it impossible to read about any lynching or to see any hanging in a photograph or a film without imagining the rope as a singing twine from Beauty and the Beast with a prejudicial French beret and accent. Thanks, Bussmann. Also note his blasé name-dropping of the Greek god of non-violent death like he’s the secret eighth movement to Gustav Holst’s The Planets. I still hold out that Holst pulled a Green Day “All By Myself” in one of his suites.
April, 1988. ends with the longest poem in the chapbook, a second look at Eva and James in “Eva Howe, number two.” This time around, however, Bussmann does the speaking—largely from a women’s bathroom and largely from his eternally troubled self. “I crept into the women’s bathroom, / a century on from her muffled, blood-drowned cries.” I now think I don’t want to grab a pint with a guy who sneaks into women’s bathrooms in a place “of less-than / wonderful Tex-Mex,” but he’s disturbed by Eva’s murder and James’s lynching and Gertie’s orphaning decades ago in his little town. I cut him some slack, and it pays off:
Did you walk James? Or be dragged?
You were a slow hang James, till limp.
The last convulsions were very involuntary,
a few kicks, then you just hung, dead.
Though plenty of knife welders,
no one even cared to cut you down.
Come morning, I guess the sheriff’s knife didn’t end up cutting Mr. Rope into himself and his new twin. Bussmann’s theatrical repetition of addressing James by his name proves he knows how to perform when he “retold his murder ballad many times.” He adds, “[T]o any one that would listen.” I listened, Bussmann, and I would listen again.
Win Bassett is a writer, lawyer, and seminarian at Yale Divinity School. He’s written a lot of nonfiction pieces, but they’re all lies. The truth resides in his poems, which haven’t left his computer. Twitter: @winbassett.