Friday, March 6, 2009

Review of Pat Riviere-Seel's "The Serial Killer's Daughter"

Review of Pat Riviere-Seel’s The Serial Killer’s Daughter (Main Street Rag)

What is it that keeps us reading books and watching Discovery Channel specials about Jeffrey Dahmer, Charles Manson, and Ted Kaczynski? Is it fear, some desire to protect ourselves from the dark potential of human nature by knowing more about it, or just a sense of fascination with what happens when the human mind goes awry?
We’re all fascinated with the perverse, that turning from normalcy that marks all of our lives to some degree at one time or another. Pat Riviere-Seel, as a self-proclaimed “recovering journalist” might have a bit more of that fascination than most of us, however. So perhaps it is not surprising that the subject of her latest collection of poetry is the daughter of Velma Barfield, a grandmother who was executed at Central Prison in Raleigh, NC, in 1984, after being found guilty of committing multiple murders.
Knowing the background of Riviere-Seel’s collection, The Serial Killer’s Daughter, one might ask, why the daughter? Why not Barfield herself? That is the imaginative genius behind the book. After all, several books have been written about Velma Barfield, including one herself. What Riviere-Seel creates, however, is the imaginative story of a women who discovers what for most of us would be beyond the realm of imagination, that one’s own mother is a murderer, and in fact had played a role in the death of one’s grandmother, and in all likelihood of one’s father as well.
Perhaps to the disappointment of some readers, however, Riviere-Seel’s collection is not a sensationalistic, tabloid-style rendering of gory details and pop psychology, but rather a sensitive treatment of the humanity that exists preceding, during, and following such extraordinary events. The poems begin by establishing the setting, Robeson County, NC, where “Baptist preachers seek salvation / from the shallows, but find little solace” and “Muscles ache from a day’s labor / in the fields, textile mill or both,” and where “Hate is no stranger” (“Robeson County”).
Certainly such a setting of poverty, hard labor, spiritual restriction and frustration forms a fertile ground for internal and external conflicts. Such conflicts are made apparent in the poem “Prophecy,” in which the daughter’s father pronounces after an argument, “Ah, shug . . ./
That woman’s gonna kill me.” These setting poems are followed by poems that reveal the daughter’s early intuitions, as in “A Second Look,” where the daughter realizes, after leaving her father passed out on the bed, “Daddy wanted Winstons. / We stopped for ice cream. / She didn’t buy him cigarettes.” As the narrative continues, the reader discovers moments of greater conviction, as in “A Body Count,” where the daughter reflects, “I know, Mama, / Someone has to stop you.”
As engaging as the narrative of these poems is, it is not the story itself that absorbs the reader but the revelation of emotions the daughter experiences through the events. These range from desperate sympathy as she attempts to believe in the possibility of salvation in “Prey” to the inevitable shame as she encounters the outside world in “After My Mother is Arrested and Charged with Murder,” and to a Frostian sort of existential determination in the closing lines of that poem (perhaps the strongest in the book):

Everyone wants to know
what’s going to happen next.
I’ll tell you: at the end of the day
four small arms will circle my neck,
I’ll fry chicken, bake rolls, and pray
to any god that will listen.

Words like riveting, spellbinding, and seductive are usually reserved for mystery or suspense novels not for poetry. But in this case, they all seem to apply as Pat Riviere-Seel examines the humanity behind the story of one of America’s most notorious murder cases. The result is a collection that deserves to be read not only for its narrative but for its depth of emotion and poetic beauty as well.

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