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"A Certain Slant of Light..."
Christopher Conlon's Blog
Starkweather Dreams: A Preview 
1st-Mar-2009 11:15 am
self

With He Is Legend: An Anthology Celebrating Richard Matheson now safely released, my attentions have turned toward my next book—a poetry collection called Starkweather Dreams, to be brought forth into the world later this year by an eccentrically outstanding small press called Creative Guy Publishing. Check them out online at http://creativeguypublishing.com/.

 

As with my previous books of poems, Starkweather Dreams focuses on real-life people and events: in this case the notorious Nebraska spree killer Charles Starkweather and his girlfriend-accomplice, Caril Ann Fugate, who over a nine-day period in January 1958 murdered ten individuals, including Caril’s own mother, stepfather, and sister. A first killing, performed by Starkweather alone in early December, brought the ghastly total to eleven.

 

Starkweather was nineteen years old. Caril was fourteen.

 

Countdown

 

She won’t know,

as the two figures materialize

on the road before them—a young man

with a shotgun, and a girl—that

 

In forty-seven minutes the young man

will be ripping a hunting knife

through her vagina,

 

Or that in forty-three minutes

he’ll be pulling the pants down

from her dead body,

 

Or that in thirty-eight minutes

he’ll place the shotgun behind her head

and burst her brain like crushing an egg,

 

Or that in thirty-seven minutes

he’ll order her to walk down

the steps of the storm cellar,

 

Or that in thirty-five minutes

she’ll stand in the Nebraska night

unable to move for terror or breathe,

 

Or that in thirty-four minutes

she’ll watch him shove her fiancé Bob

down the steps and explode six shots

into the back of his skull,

 

Or that in twenty-eight minutes

he’ll march both of them

across the frozen ground, shotgun

at their backs,

 

Or that in twenty-five minutes

he’ll order them both out

of the truck, the girl holding

the gun on them as they move,

 

Or that in twenty-two minutes

he’ll demand that they pull over here,

stop right here, while the girl tells them

they damn well better do it,

 

Or that in sixteen minutes

the shotgun will be aimed at Bob’s neck

while the girl rifles through his wallet

and extracts four dollars,

 

Or that in twelve minutes

the young man will declare You just do

what I tell you and you won’t get hurt,

 

Or that in four minutes

Bob will ask Don’t you drive

a Ford? Black? ’49?

 

Or that in two minutes

he’ll turn the truck around

to give those kids a lift to town,

 

Or that in one minute

he’ll look at her and say, We should

pick ’em up, I think I know that guy,

 

Or that in one second

two figures will materialize

on the road before them, a young man

with a shotgun, and a girl….

 

(Originally published in Poet Lore)

 

There was a time when Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate were as famous, and as notorious, as Al Capone or John Wilkes Booth or Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow. In fact, when a publisher brought out a major biography of Fugate a full fifteen years after the killings, the complete title of the book was simply Caril. No explanatory subtitle was required.

 

Well, that was a long time ago. Caril Ann Fugate’s name has no currency today, and as for Starkweather, well, he is still remembered as an infamous killer, but few seem to recall exactly which one he was—there have been so many. Was he the man who shot all those people from a tower in Texas? The guy who killed all those nurses? The one who…?

 

In fact, Starkweather was a bow-legged kid who wore glasses and dreamed of being like his heroes in the movies—Mitchum, Bogart, Brando, James Dean. He came from a background of poverty-stricken, uneducated people, and was a poor student himself; the local school system had tested his intelligence and found it at the low end of the scale of normality (“dull-normal”). He left school after ninth grade and became a garbage collector.

 

Numbered for the Bottom

 

He sees, at sixteen, how the world works.

His hands bruised, torn, infected half the time

from the garbage he hauls, chucking great

bins filled with rancid cheese, rotten meat,

paint cans, maggoty rats, his body drenched

in the filth of it, the stench that brands him,

that doesn’t go away no matter how he washes

and scrubs. Even if he puts on a jacket and tie,

takes a girl to a nice restaurant with proper silver

and cloth napkins, he knows they’re laughing

at him, garbage man in fancy pants, dumb-looking

as a little girl in her mother’s cocktail dress.

They had me numbered for the bottom, he’d say

later, even then wondering who did the numbering

in this world, wondering if he could rip away

someone’s other, better number, re-number

the entire earth, before his own number was up.

 

     (Originally published in Poetic Voices Without Borders 2)

 

 

The Skins of Dead Men

 

He does what he can to dress

like the man he should be:

but thrift shops don’t have atomic-white

form-fitting T-shirts, or bright red

windbreakers with collars

that angle just so, or blue jeans that hug

your groin tight like a woman, so

Charlie’s shirts are stained gray

in the armpits, his windbreaker too big

and not red at all, his blue jeans

colorless, too loose, ripped at the crotch

and fixed with heavy black thread

that’s slowly unraveling.     

In the mirror, without         

his glasses, he can convince himself

for a moment of his swaggering cool,

but if he moves at all it’s

Stumblebum City, bumping into walls,

knocking over tables, and yet with them on

he sees himself, knows

himself for what he is, cut-rate, fake,

a Salvation Army Dean, and he knows

that the people who’d owned these clothes

would have despised him as everyone

everywhere despises him, and later he’ll say

it was like wearing their skins, being in

those clothes, like wearing the skins

of dead men, and it makes him dead, him,

Charlie Starkweather, doomed from the start

to be dead, to die, to keep on dying.

 

         (Originally published in Tamaphyr Mountain Poetry)

 

Cultural memories of all but the most spectacular murderers are short, and while Starkweather (who was executed in 1959) was spectacular in his day, he has since been outstripped by any number of psychopaths with higher body counts or more grisly methods of killing. The Manson Family, Jeffrey Dahmer, the Green River Killer…it’s a long list. Still, the idea of Starkweather and Fugate—teenaged killers on the run—has survived, at least in fictionalized form. A number of movies, including Badlands and Natural Born Killers, were inspired by the murders.

 

What has fascinated me in reading and dreaming about this case has been less Starkweather himself—a young man often bullied and ridiculed, who finally lashed out in the kind of ecstatic rage we would associate later with the Columbine killers—than his girlfriend, whose role in the killings has been debated for fifty years. After their arrests, Caril consistently claimed that Starkweather had held her hostage and that she’d had no choice but to participate in the murders. What she was unable to explain was why she made no attempt to escape him, despite numerous opportunities she’d had when they were in public places together. There were even occasions when she’d gone into stores and restaurants alone to get them supplies.

 

Caril’s story did not hold up, and she was sentenced to life in prison at the Nebraska Correctional Center for Women. Having served seventeen years, she was paroled in 1976, after which she became a medical janitor, a position from which she is said to have since retired. She is reported to be living quietly in Michigan today.

 

Reading about the case, I found myself thinking about all the fourteen-year-old girls I’ve known in my capacity as a teacher.  

 

What have I learned about them over all these years?

 

Mostly that, my God, a fourteen-year-old girl is young.

 

She’s even younger when, like Caril, she has learning disabilities, social adjustment issues, and comes from a broken home only imperfectly mended by her stepfather, a man twenty-two years older than her mother and known as a stern, old-fashioned disciplinarian. Add a new half-sister—blood relative to the stepfather as Caril could never be—and all the ingredients for an adolescent girl’s anger, resentment, anxiety, and confusion are in place.

 

Slow Learner

 

Once she stands naked

before her bedroom mirror,

leans close to the glass, studies

her forehead, then slams it

hard with the heel of her hand.

Stupid, stupid, stop being stupid,

she whispers, repeating what

her teacher had said to her that day,

Caril Ann, a year behind

everyone else, math skills bad,

reading skills bad, spelling, everything

bad, just plain, well, stupid,

that’s all, and she bangs her head

again and again, making it hurt,

trying to dislodge the brains

she feels sure must be in there somewhere,

hits herself until tears of rage fly down

her cheeks, spatter her shoulders

and stomach, hiding the other tears

she’ll always refuse to set free, to see.

 

                                            (Previously unpublished)

 

Such a girl is all too eager to be impressed by a nineteen-year-old in a James Dean windbreaker—one who drives his own car.

 

Garbage Man

 

They tell her to stay away from him,

too old for her, good-for-nothing

garbage man, and she pictures him

covered in garbage, sees herself

licking garbage from his face,

mustard, oil, butter, grease,

eating garbage from his clothes,

old newspapers, hamburger wrappers,

wilted lettuce leaves, bloody Kotexes:

until he’s clean again, until they both are,

like snow, like sun, unsoiled, baby-pure.

 

                                            (Previously unpublished)

 

Is her background an excuse? No, but surely it offers something of an explanation. When violence broke out in Caril’s home—Starkweather was arguing with her parents about how much time she was spending with him when he grabbed a nearby rifle, shot both parents and then killed Caril’s half-sister with the butt of the gun—it’s hardly a wonder that she was frozen into submission. This was a deeply troubled child whose world ended in a single cataclysmic instant. She had no money, no education, no home, no future. Nothing but her boyfriend, Charlie Starkweather.

 

The rest, as they say, is history.

 

Starkweather Dreams (subtitled Landscape With Figures) is moving through the production line at Creative Guy now. I’ve checked proofs twice, and a cover is being designed around a wonderful painting by the great Matt Sesow. With any luck we’ll be seeing the book soon. I think it’s one of my best, and some other worthy folks seem to like it too.

 

“…Christopher Conlon follows up his other masterful verse portraits (Gilbert and Garbo in Love, The Weeping Time, Mary Falls) with this stark—no pun intended—vision of inner torment and murder. In often savage, sometimes lyrical, and always jolting poetic images, Conlon word-paints a dark blood canvas which reveals the soul of one of history’s most notorious serial killers. Charlie Starkweather lives, loves, and death-dreams once again in these nightmare pages.” – William F. Nolan

 

“…If ‘True Crime Poetry’ is a genre, then Conlon is the reigning master of it, and this is his most accomplished work to date.  Anyone who harbors a morbid curiosity for the underbelly of both life and love should spend some time with this dark and disturbing book of verse.” – Michael A. Arnzen

 

“…The poems in this collection deliver a series of searing portraits, often graphically violent and/or sexual, framed by the popular and everyday culture of that time. Recommended highly!” – Bruce Boston

 

I hope you’ll consider picking up a copy of Starkweather Dreams.

 

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Comments 
1st-Mar-2009 05:05 pm (UTC)
It's a fabulous collection -- I'm looking forward to seeing it in print!
1st-Mar-2009 06:04 pm (UTC)
Thanks for the taste of things to come, Chris. I can see this is going to be a harrowing read, and as with all your books of verse, enlightening -- you really excel at showing the humanity in the most marginal, difficult, unattractive characters.

Mark
1st-Mar-2009 06:48 pm (UTC)
Lucy, Mark, thanks for that. I try, I surely do.

I hope people know that Lucy's own fine collection of poems, CHIMERIC MACHINES, is also forthcoming from Creative Guy--in fact, it's the book in front of mine in their production schedule.
13th-Sep-2009 09:54 pm (UTC) - Charlie and Caril
Thought you'd be interested in this -- New Line Theatre in St. Louis is producing a really fascinating, smart, emotional new rock musical called LOVE KILLS about Charlie and Caril. Info at www.newlinetheatre.com/lovekillspage.html -- and I've linked to this page. Can't wait to read Starkweather Dreams!
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