Right from the devastating cover image, Michael Lista’s second collection is rife with craft and cultural implication. A VCR tape masks a grinning skull with a sickly smile that evokes Shakespeare’s Mercutio: “Ask for me / tomorrow, and you shall find me a grave man.” The visual rhetoric is only the first indication that The Scarborough, which takes place on the 1992 Easter weekend of Kristen French’s disappearance and murder at the hands of Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka, will layer metaphor, geography, psychology, mythology, and pop culture.
Lista’s poetic control is fastidious, employing both metrical and formal constraints, including rhymed couplets, terza rima, and sonnets. Every choice is conscious, including the poet’s decision never to name the killers: in denial and erasure they are so present in their absence. Still, he addresses the larger question: how does evil manifest?
One connotation in the poem “Mickey Mouse Watch” involves the titular, ghoulish souvenir:
At midnight he points straight up while you dream,
Harrowing a heaven overhead;
Of two minds, east and west, at nine fifteen,
Then none, hung by a nail above your bed.
At six time bends his smaller hour arm
Out of its joint, but seems to do no harm,
Ascending backwards to time’s forward charm
As Mickey’s face registers no alarm.
Consider the pronouns here. This watch belonged to French. Reports claim that Karla Holmolka was wearing it on the night of the notorious domestic beating that led to her “deal with the devil” and present freedom. The watch is passive witness to unfathomable villainy. The slippery pronoun “you” instills tightness in the poem as the object’s significance and muteness intensifies.
The Scarborough is technically brilliant, precisely researched, and formally astute, deserving of a craftsperson’s praise. But the poet’s concentrated eye on evil reminds readers that form and function make uncomforting bedfellows. Shakespearean in its tragedy, The Scarborough has all the cheer of King Lear.
Lista’s intentions are not to mollify or explain, but to catalogue, and signify an ugly time and place in Canadian crime history with the precision of the obsessed.