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Missing Children

by Lynn Crosbie

If you write an unflinchingly human portrait of a murderer, are you glamorizing his crimes? That’s the question Lynn Crosbie has posed in four previous poetry collections (most notoriously with her piece of true-crime poetry, Paul’s Case). Her astute columns in The Globe & Mail suggest she is aware of the ethical minefields her poems lay before the reader.

Her latest collection, Missing Children, is a departure in that it is not based on fact. Perhaps that is why it feels like her most sophisticated sortie so far: the poems are linked fragments, like stills from a film, and the narrative follows a distinctly cinematic arc. If you want a poetry collection that’s also a page-turner, this is the book for you.

In the voice of the perpetrator himself, we hear a tale that echoes both Paul Bernardo and Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert: a well-read former TV executive becomes obsessed with tormenting the parents of missing children, sending them cryptic letters about their kids’ whereabouts and never following up. He abandons his family, gets involved with a married woman, and dreams of leaving her for younger blood. Increasingly, the poems are jammed with hints that his crimes are far more sinister than mail abuse.

Crosbie deploys her most vivid and economical language here. Describing his disgust at how his mistress (think Shelley Winters in Lolita) leaves the bathroom, the narrator snarls: “a farrago of blackened towels, the washcloths also/a pen of skunks./Toothpaste dried in the basin like bakery roses.” And Crosbie is a master of the resonating image that concludes a poem: “…Lily began turning cartwheels./Orange chevrons, a streak of white feathers.”

But given the subject matter, this undercurrent of stillness and longing doesn’t always fit. The protagonist’s voice isn’t driven by psychosis but by a standard CanLit lyricism that describes cheerleaders’ panties as “flashing like phosphorus” and Dove soap as looking “like Love when I am/scraping off the letters.” Crosbie’s narrator lacks the remorse and self-conscious artistry of Humbert Humbert, yet his “fancy prose style” is even more unctuous, making the reader ask: is Crosbie seducing the reader with her anti-hero (and therefore implicated in his acts) or has she been seduced herself?