Murder Stay Murder by Geoff Kagan Trenchard
A Review by Corrina Bain, Book Reviewer
Geoff Kagan Trenchard is a long-standing member of the performance poetry community, and his first book, Murder Stay Murder, was put out by Penmanship Press. Notably, Penmanship Press is the brainchild of Mahogany L. Browne, the woman who (amid many other pursuits) also runs Nuyorican Poets Café’s Friday night slam. This makes Trenchard’s first book, Murder Stay Murder, a kind of experiment for those who still feel that Slam/performance poetry is inferior to other parts of the literary tradition. The book is a test, to see if Trenchard can be bad, in the Michael Jackson sense, and still bookish.
The answer, of course, is yes. With this clever, dark bunch of narrative poems, Trenchard has given us a heartfelt book with a voice that is strong and realistic to the point of grittiness, yet tender. While language is still certainly a vehicle for story, it is clear in these poems that Trenchard also respects the language itself, in contrast with the frequent academic complaint that performance poets rely on the rant. Trenchard is telling us stories, and his use of language is expert, but not particularly ornamental. This may be the point of divergence with people who think that contemporary slam/performance poetry is not legitimate: they seem to dislike meaning, to experience it as an attack. If this is your feeling, stay away from Murder Stay Murder. Trenchard has plenty to say, and is not wasting time.
Take, for example, these lines from “Of Copper and Chipped Teeth:”
“All men who render money from
war should be made to watch this:
kids too young to cash lotto tickets
painting a wall red with their palms
curses to your clothes
as they attest defeat
down to their weave”
Trenchard’s poems are also unerring in their moral compass, effortlessly showing the juncture between the political and personal. Often, in reading socially conscious poetry, one feels that the writer is saying what they would like you to think. Rather than such blunt instruction, Trenchard tells stories that gesture towards the necessity of creating a more just world. His incisive yet offhand analysis of his white privilege in poems like “Powder Burn” sits beautifully alongside the more expansive pathos of poems like “The Notebook.” I could say similar things about Trenchard’s treatment of his own masculinity and bisexuality.
One criticism of slam is that it breeds narcissism, that it encourages the constant delivery of short monologues about a conflated author-speaker’s likability. How interesting, then, that the speaker of Trenchard’s book remains in many ways so mysterious. Often, the speaker of Murder Stay Murder is in the periphery of some dire violence. This positioning of the narrator-as-spectator, as a witness to various transgressions, allows for an easy entry into the work. The outsider is relatable. This sensation will be familiar to those who have been lucky enough to see Trenchard perform. Trenchard’s presence conveys an essential kindness towards the audience, even as he explores difficult subject matter.
Trenchard is unapologetically himself, and yet, there is still a strain of touching humility throughout this book. On every page, the reader can find something that the speaker is grappling with and learning. This is coupled with an implementation of formal verse that feels curiously searching. The use of formal components to showcase narratives that are so contemporary and personal creates an appealing juxtaposition, as well as demonstrating that Trenchard feels like these stories have value. Trenchard is at once a student and a teacher in this book.
Another way that Trenchard lets the reader into his process is an extended Nick-Flynn’s-Ticking-Is-The-Bomb-style appendix. This includes snippets of backstory and reference, as well as a writing prompt to accompany nearly every poem in the text. Trenchard’s strength as a respected teaching artist is in full evidence here, not just because he has supplied the writing prompts, but because in doing so with an entire full-length book he has provided a kind of blueprint for mining a writing prompt from any poem.
The juncture between the humorous and the macabre also resonates through this collection, perhaps best captured in “where do I get my sense of humor?” – a self-narrative of Trenchard’s childhood experience being Jewish in an un-Jewish neighborhood, punctuated with holocaust jokes. Or the hilarious closing stanza of a fictionalized character sketch of Trenchard’s ultimate enemy, entitled “My Nemesis:”
“My Nemesis grew up
five blocks from me
in a slightly nicer house.
Whenever he waited for the bus,
If anything betrays this book, it is an unfortunate number of obtrusive typos. While it is irritating and a little perplexing that a book would be so afflicted, as flaws go, I find it to be a tolerable one. A second infraction might be the line breaks, which seem to mostly be dictated by punctuation or breath. Though this is not the worst way to do line breaks, such a linear approach sometimes belies the complexity of the poems. Nonetheless, as someone who has seen Trenchard perform many times, and has seen the community reap the benefits of his presence, it is deeply gratifying to see his work given the physical legitimacy of this beautiful book.