In 2010, the conceptual poet Vanessa Place published a provocative book called “Statement of Facts,” the first volume of a three-part project. Place has a day job as a lawyer who represents indigent sex offenders on appeal. To compose the book, she took the obscene tales of her clients as they were told in court documents and republished them, unaltered, as poetry. The book veers from the banal to the brutal; the words, in this new context, can be shocking: “She woke about 3:15 a.m. because someone’s hand was around her throat. The person took Marion J.’s glasses and told her if she screamed, he’d snap her neck.” Place’s gesture of simply reframing preëxisting language is the literary equivalent of Marcel Duchamp’s readymades; those same words mean one thing as a legal document and another as poetry. In the tradition of Charles Reznikoff’s soon-to-be reissued “Testimony,” which also took court transcripts as its basis, Place brought the poetry of witness into the twenty-first century.
Following in this tradition is Steven Zultanski’s “Bribery,” which came out late last year. It’s a book-length confession of horrific crimes, much of which is scraped from the Web. Zultanski visited true crime Web sites, copied hundreds of texts, and changed the pronouns from the third to the first person. He’s then massaged these raw texts until they were tonally unified and woven them into an epic, psychotic monologue. In one gruesome scene, the narrator meticulously describes the troubles of disposing of a decapitated head: “Folding one corner of the big soft white towel at a time, I wrap the prone head perfectly, so that the package / no longer looks like a head, but something square and misshapen, the kind of shape which doesn’t call any particular object to mind: if there’s a generic form of a generic item, it’s about the size and shape of a head, but wrapped up.” The prose is terse and dry, calculating and claustrophobic, the way one might imagine a serial killer’s inner voice to be. If Samuel Beckett wrote crime novels, they might read like this.