What happens when a poet attempts to grapple with the unspeakable horrors of their own family tragedy? That’s exactly the literary experiment poet Maggie Nelson embarks upon in The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trial, which tells the story of her Aunt Jane’s murder in 1969 and the trial to bring her killer to justice three decades later that almost tore their shared family apart.
Equal parts memoir, criticism, and cultural analysis, The Red Parts takes up the procedural nightmare that is rehashing a loved one’s murder and reinterprets it with a deeply lyrical and wholly personal voice. Nelson attacks the injustices of the legal system and provides readers with a sharp, factual critique of the way victim’s families often are re-victimized by it as a public forum, while simultaneously wading through the private reactions of her mother and her grandfather as they emotionally unravel before her eyes.
“I know what I want is impossible. If I can make my language flat enough, exact enough, if I can rinse each sentence clean enough, like washing a stone over and over again in river water, if I can find the right perch or crevice from which to record everything, if I can give myself enough white space, maybe I could do it. I could tell you this story while walking out of this story. I could — it all could — just disappear.”
–- Maggie Nelson, author of The Red Parts
As Nelson’s aunt Jane died in early adulthood several years before Nelson’s birth, she also reflects on her journey to get to know her beyond the forensic details shared on the witness stand and the difficulties of growing up in the aftermath of a wound in her family that could never fully heal. Though it is written in prose, Nelson’s poetry background lingers in her melodious passages that skillfully contend with one of the least poetic topics imaginable.
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