Reviewed by Jonathan Harrington
The Damage Done
Susana H. Case’s The Damage Done is a crime novel in verse that explores the murder of a fashion model named Janey. Although a crime novel-in-verse might seem like an unusual genre, in the skilled hands of poet Susana Case, The Damage Done satisfies both the poetry and novel reader with its intriguing plot and evocative images.
In this sequence of verse, poem by poem, the narrative uncovers the impact on a model of a covert, illegal project of the FBI. The narrative is loosely based on the history of COINTELPRO (Counter Intelligence Program) which began with J. Edgar Hoover and, as some believe, continues today. These counter-intelligence operations sought to destroy the reputations of civil rights and feminist organizations. The narrative surrounding the death of “Janey” is entirely fictional but is drawn from the history of the FBI in the sixties and seventies.
Each poem is a skillfully crafted work in itself while furthering the plot of the over-all book creating tension and suspense. Case’s jazzy and inventive language contributes to the noir feel of this accomplished book. Describing the detective who investigates after Janey is found dead in her “lip-stick-red Karmann Ghia…” the poet writes:
“And here are his teeth,
a yellowing, broken-up roadway
of too many cigarettes.”
Characters in the sequence include The Detective, The Medical Examiner, various cops, a federal agent, a Jimi Hendrix look-alike snitching for the Feds. No one can be trusted:
“Surely the new fake doorman
is a spy for the FBI…
Never mind that he’s a published poet.
Surely that’s part of his cover.”
But the point-of-view stays sharply focused on the victim, Janey. Some of the poems take the form of letters from Janey and even from the poet herself.
This cycle of poems chronicles a period of revolt and upheaval in the 60’s and 70’s that is still very much relevant in today’s fractured society. But social commentary aside, Susana H. Case exhibits her skills as a poet with striking images such as these from the epistolary segments of the book:
“Dear tightly wound killers of those already kneeling
in submission on the worn, bare floor, dear tactical unit
cops, more than a little cranky, heads going off
like percussion caps, once the cool professional,
the detonator-in-waiting, arranges deaths…”
The book is not explicitly political and certainly not didactic. It is first and foremost poetry. Yet, the shadow cast over the book by the turbulent 60’s era as well as our own troubled times is impossible to ignore.
Unlike the classical mystery narrative there is no neat ending here…
“…one in which the clever detective…figures everything out.”
Instead of a tidy resolution on the part of the detective:
“…the crime sticks in his gut,
like fried food, long after he’s given up
and gone fishing.”
This ambiguous conclusion leaves the reader pondering the fate of the victim and the fate of our country as federal agencies carry out nefarious deeds far beneath public scrutiny. This ambiguity is a good move by the poet but it also may leave readers fond of the “whodunit” type crime story somewhat disappointed. Nevertheless, a useful “Notes” addendum casts light on the historical events that inspired these poems. Since many of the actions on the part of federal agents at the time were shadowy and covert, this would explain the poet’s choice of ending the sequence on a cryptic note.
Besides, this is poetry and it is primarily for the poetry that we are here and Susana H. Case delivers an abundant amount of dazzling poetry in this absorbing and well-crafted book.
Broadstone Books. 2022 ISBN: 978-1-956782-00-4
Jonathan Harrington has published twenty books including poetry, novels, essays and translations. A graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop he has lived in Mexico for over twenty years. His latest book of poems is called Lift Up the Stone: The Gospel According to Jonathan (bilingual English/Spanish).