Susana H. Case

From ” The Damage Done”: Selections, Susana H. Case

The following are excerpts from a book-length narrative poem, in a series of parts, about a character, a fashion model named Janey, and the covert and illegal projects of the FBI that, under the name COINTELPRO (Counter Intelligence Program), surveilled, infiltrated, attempted to destroy the reputations of, and otherwise disrupted various American political organizations, including the Black Panther Party, anti-Vietnam War activists, civil rights activists, feminist groups, and many other groups, beginning with J. Edgar Hoover in 1956, and continuing unofficially, it is generally believed, to the present. Tactics included psychological interference, forged papers, assassination, illegal searches, and other mechanisms, sometimes in cooperation with local police and sometimes not. Ultimately, the Church Committee in the United States Senate investigated FBI abuses. This is a historical fiction, following the contours of activities in the nineteen seventies, with some borrowings from the nineteen sixties, to create a crime story, but also a political story. It is, essentially, a collage.

1. Woman Speaking Distinctly

If you’re flame-licked,
chain-nicked,
does it mean you like

playing with fire?
All kinds of things
spin out of control;

pyres end in burned
torsos. If you think
it’s enough

to be the country’s
sweetheart,
you might be

surprised
when you’re suddenly
not.

In that turnaround,
you could make book
on being watched.

And make your plan—
the only way
to avoid the stake

on which you die—
the way to rise
above the blaze.

2. Woman, Recumbent in Car

A car sits in violation
of parking rules, the only car
on the street, and in it,

blond hair peeks out
from a blanket on the seat.
It’s early in the morning,

a tow truck operator, new
on the job. Perhaps
he’s back from vacation,

wonders if he should
have remained on the beach,
the blanket reminding him

of scratchy sand,
piña coladas,
his newly minted wife.

Every day, people come back
from vacations to tragedies.
Women are found dead

in their cars or homes.
Sometimes they look
like they’re just sleeping.

Every day, these women thought
about places they might die.
Picture him sitting

in his truck, waiting
for the police, as he plays
cuts from Blonde on Blonde.

Every day, people
listen to these songs.
He’s a Dylan / classic rock

appassionato,
wonders if the dead woman
is a debutante like Edie Sedgwick

in “Just Like a Woman.”
He wonders if his new wife
is full of feminine tricks.

3. Dear Ghia

Dear Type 34 lipstick-red Karmann Ghia,
dear razor-edge Ghia,
expensive Ghia,
styled in Italy,

and, thus, anointed by the gods,
you are the car I would drive
if I weren’t the Volkswagen van type.
Ghia, seemingly more BMW than VW,

finished by 1969, unlike the war,
the surveillance, other things
from the sixties. So fast and sexy,
the wood-grain dash,

so lusciously not a clunky
American machine,
my car that’s not my car,
that will probably never

be my car.
I will always love you.
Dear coupe that is not mine,
I want to cry

at this deprivation, life so unfair.
Dare I steal you?
There’s so much lust for you,
so much larceny in my heart.

4. The Detective Can’t Sleep

If he smokes too much,
maybe he won’t think too much.
So here are the Marlboros,

and there are the backup
Marlboros. And here are his teeth,
a yellowing, broken-up roadway

of too many cigarettes.
He’s thinking about a pigeon
grazing nearby, a cooing

ruin, how every trash pigeon
in New York City is descended
from a banded homing pigeon

that didn’t go straight home.
Nights, he tosses, sweats.
It’s the D-Bol, steroid

for weightlifting. It’s the rust-
colored stain on his bedroom
ceiling that looks like a fish,

one with no insides,
like the drawing a child makes.
But there are no children

playing here, his woman not looking
at him fondly. It’s the dead
that keep him awake, and a crowd—

like today, at a double feature
of the gorgeous/grotesque—hovering,
noticing something not right.

5. Dear Carol

On TV, when I see a marcher
decked in helmet, body armor,
carrying a gun, demonstrating

in support of the worst president
ever, and a cop shaking his hand,
as if greeting a member of the club,

I think of you, in skinny capris,
your light-brown hair teased
in a crown, so birdlike and so

damn young. Do you ever think
about the doo-wop we listened to
that summer in the Catskills

on my tinny transistor? Back
in the city after vacation, it took
three subway trains to visit you

in Brownsville, the graffiti-
covered halls of the walk-up
where you lived. I was a free-range

teen, savvy about the subway,
but less so about social class,
and I was the one who always

made the trip. Do you remember
when you announced
your engagement? He was a cop,

your voice rising at the end
in excitement, as you offered your
hand to show off your ring.

We were barely adults. By then,
it seemed the police were rioting
everywhere. Oh, I said,

forgetting my manners. Silence.
And the chasm already there
opened up, that last time we spoke.

6. Bystanders

The other cop is guessing
suicide—he wants
to go home. Pills on the floor

of the car, and empty
bottles: Valium, Librium,
seltzer water. They’ll know

after the weekend.
Nondescript yellow-brick
apartment buildings,

maybe a resident who says,
Yes, I saw something.
Or a porter, door fastened

with a wooden bar overnight.
Remember Kitty Genovese,
1964, murdered in Queens?

Nobody admits seeing
anything from apartment
windows. Hundreds

of windows, some curtained,
some not. The dog walkers
hunker down, sullen.

Nobody wants to be accused
of ignoring a dying woman,
not calling the police,

letting her die, right there
in the open, if that’s
what happened, next to

the pretty park, where the first
robin of the season picks
its way through ground cover.

7. Woman, Identified

A Tootsie Roll with arms,
the detective calls Janey,
now that they’ve ID’d her.
She’s skinny with a single name,
like Twiggy; a Vogue spread

and being dead each warrants
consideration by the tabloids,
a close-up of her face that’s not
a death mask, a point of view
that tsk tsks, here’s a sorry chick

who couldn’t hack the good life.
She’s pretty, angles like knife blades,
a torso straight, like a boy. In the largest
image, Janey looks untroubled
and is running in a bold-patterned

dress past a bridge, debris in soft
focus piled off by the side.
The detective laughs about it later
with his buddies, a strange photo
to sell clothes you can’t even

clearly see. Surrounded by rubble.
Painted-on eyelashes—as if
she’s a child’s doll—
she looks as if she could blow
away. Part of her did.

8. Secret Life

The Medical Examiner everyone
has a crush on, who looks
like a bird—long neck,

cap of red hair, blue eyeshadow—
says the dead woman had
toxic injury to the kidneys,

irritated esophagus, from years
of starvation, mixed with eating
and throwing up, the subsequent bloat.

In the toxicology: Librium, Valium,
alcohol in the system—not legally
drunk but possibly high.

Then there is the bruising,
arm and mouth, not consistent
with suicide. Look past the husband

for boyfriends, she advises; regular,
consensual. A cop notes
the stiff’s on the Security Index,

Priority 3, the Feds’ list—potential
pinko, free-love hippie.
The boyfriend in the Panthers

was what helped her make the list,
and the cops have fun with that,
talk slave names

versus names they can’t spell,
how they hate that interracial shit,
but worse, she funneled money,

maybe guns, rented them cars,
introduced them to her celebrity
friends. The cops nod their heads.

Blondes in expensive cars
are dangerous, one of them says.
And now a woman is dead.

If she offed herself though—
which they’d prefer—why can’t
they find the car keys?

SUSANA H. CASE is the author of seven books of poetry, most recently Dead Shark on the N Train, from Broadstone Books, 2020, which won a Pinnacle Book Award for Best Poetry Book and a NYC Big Book Award Distinguished Favorite. She is also the author of five chapbooks. Her first collection, The Scottish Café, from Slapering Hol Press, was re-released in a dual-language English-Polish version, Kawiarnia Szkocka by Opole University Press. She has co-edited, with Margo Taft Stever, the anthology I Wanna Be Loved by You: Poems on Marilyn Monroe, forthcoming in 2022 from Milk and Cake Press. www.susanahcase.com.