A sharp look at the muddled generalisations that are used to characterise the 'criminal class'
This week's poem, "Positive Identification", is by Ken Smith, and comes from the collection Shed: Poems 1980-2001 published by Bloodaxe Books in 2002. Up until his sadly premature death the following year, Smith was writing as energetically as ever. His poems come out of lived experience: working in Wormwood Scrubs as writer-in-residence, for instance; travelling in eastern Europe and beyond. He was a poet who managed that difficult art of being both politically accountable and true to the demands of poetry in all its shadowy unpredictability.
"Positive Identification" seems, at first, to be written breathlessly from the point of view of someone who has been assaulted and is trying to describe their attackers. Its opening lines mimic the confusion of being surrounded by a swirl of violence, and the difficulty of recalling the faces, the distinguishing marks, and even the weapons.
But it's quickly made plain that "positive identification" is impossible, and the title is meant ironically. As the alternative possibilities build up, we realise that there is no single crime or crime scene in the poem. By listing the variety of identifying marks, forms of attack, weapon, and so on, the poem is pointing out differences that have become similarities and generalisations. It's not about identification but the blurring, and stereotyping, of identity. Even the distinction between perpetrators and victim is blurred.
The syntax is deliberately impressionistic. The lists flow on without separating commas. It's almost like being given a form in which there are boxes to be ticked. The categories may be unclear or pedantic. The poem asks, for example, if the tattooed line of dots, horribly labelled cut here, runs across, through or over the boy's neck. The distinction between "across" and "over" seems meaningless, or meaningless to anyone but a bureaucrat designing a form. The idea that the tattoo runs through the neck, like lettering through peppermint rock, is more chilling. The invitation to cut becomes an invitation to decapitate. Brain and body have already been fatally separated.
The poem deliberately uses stereotypes ("bully", "sissy", "absolute bastard") and at the same time it reveals, perhaps unexpectedly, the strong human emotion expressed by the attackers, their screaming, weeping and laughter. But they also have eyes which are "black nothing" and faces with "the same dead smile." The "same mad anger" is understood by the speaker to have emerged from a sense of betrayal by "someone long ago dead yesterday…" Even the psychological roots of the anti-social behaviour are generalised, and do not restore individuality or induce compassion. There is uncertainty about the very humanity of the criminals. After the clarities of white and black comes an unclassifiable figure who is "some other shade of human". The species of what is being identified seems at one point to be in doubt: "something quick I didn't see".
No injuries are detailed but the word "pain" in line 11 is made to pull its weight, even while subject to a joking tautology (pain hurts). After that climax of his own suffering, the speaker returns to the theme of identification. He falls "for the umpteenth last maybe time" and he is still trying to see his attackers, and see into them. The victim's own identity has become blurred. He too is an amalgamation of case histories.
The people in the poem are not individuals. They are consigned to a few limited categories, and are fundamentally the same. We see them through the eyes of society, and perhaps their own eyes. The speaker meanwhile becomes increasingly angry. His voice rises to a satirical platitude, "this great multi-ethnic society". Such a society ought to have produced something better in terms of human relationships. Instead, violence continues to be delivered, with the usual diversity of means and motivation.
The word "exotics" seems the final satirical flourish. It has been stripped of any glamorous association, and means simply the outsider – who is anyone, of either gender, of "any shade of human". The irony is that the "exotics" the poem has described have been so ordinary, and so drained of human meaning. The poem seems to be indirectly about the creation of "the criminal class" and the facelessness of those so identified. These are people we don't want to see as individuals; people who, we comfortingly pretend, are all alike, and different from ourselves.
Their eyes they were grey blue they were black nothing.
One had a scar a burn a birthmark one an earring one a tattoo
dotted across through over his neck and the legend cut here.
That makes two were there two was it 3? One with the headbutt
one with the fists and the finger rings one with a fancy blade.
One a white male one a girl one something quick I didn't see.
One a bully one a sissy and one who was an absolute bastard.
One with a knife one a razor one with a baseball bat.
One that wept the other one screaming and screaming
at the same time someone someone else laughing out loud.
I found pain pain however when wherever it comes hurts.
They all yelled the same kind of words you know them
the same mad anger the same eyes the same dead smile
the same fury at someone long ago dead yesterday perhaps.
One was white one black one some other shade of human.
I recall as I fell for the last umpteenth maybe time
my thought here in this great multi-ethnic society
you can be beaten and robbed you can die by all sorts
for all sorts of reasons for none by all sorts of exotics.