Helena Nelson reviews Isdal by Susannah Dickey (Picador, 2023)
Poetry these days could look like almost anything. The jacket of Susannah Dickey’s debut, Isdal, features a pinky-black collage of a photo of a woman’s face. The deep dark eyes and / or mouth are repeated at different angles / sizes, like torn slices with black depths between the edges. It’s like picking up a mystery thriller – nothing like poetry. Except these days poetry frequently looks nothing like poetry (barring Faber editions, of course) and I’m not just talking about the jacket. But why does anything look like anything? Is this all about shaping expectations?
Maybe. The blurb on the back jacket also usually plays a role in that shaping. Certainly, it’s where I learned I was about to engage with a “timely interrogation of the true crime genre”, but in three parts. First I would “follow the flirty co-presenters of a podcast on the mystery of the ‘Isdal Woman’, whose burnt remains were discovered in Norway in 1970”. This sounded interestingly familiar to me: I remembered a podcast about the case. The poet was going to start by satirizing “the ways in which we eroticize and dehumanize victims, revealing how narrative often occludes truth in favour of meaning.” Then, in part two, she would engage in “a philosophical inquiry into our cultural obsession with female victims, sexiness and death”. In part three, there was to be “a final suite of poems” that “explore[d] and enact[ed] the ethical ambiguities of the genre”. I sensed I was about to encounter serious intellectual challenge, buffered by “offbeat wit, technical verve, and wordplay born of a copious vocabulary”.
Thank goodness I already knew the Ice Valley story. (Skip to the next paragraph if you know it too.) In 1970 a woman’s body was found in the scree of a mountain hillside near Bergen in Norway. Her face was burned beyond recognition. She had been staying in a local hotel the week before under a false name. An in-depth police enquiry revealed that she had been travelling under several assumed identities, possibly using wigs to aid disguise. Her cause of death was a combination of barbiturates (she had swallowed, or been forced to swallow, a lethal dose of sleeping pills) and carbon monoxide inhalation (from burning). It has never been agreed whether her death was murder, suicide, an accident or a combination. The source of the fire was never confirmed. Her true identity has never been discovered. A video summary of the case from NRK (Norway’s equivalent of the BBC) can be found here.
I sensed I was about to encounter serious intellectual challenge, buffered by “offbeat wit, technical verve, and wordplay born of a copious vocabulary”
Susannah Dickey’s Isdal is not another telling of the same story. But the first 63 pages could be described as a commentary on one specific version. Her opening poem quotes (without quotation marks) from ‘Death in Ice Valley’, the 2018 podcast from NRK (the Norwegian BBC) and the BBC World Service. Dickey writes: “When a person goes missing, don’t they usually go missed?” Neil McCarthy, one of the podcast presenters, says: “When someone goes missing, they’re usually missed”. As Isdal progresses, there are many more quotations and near-quotations from the NRK / BBC podcast, though this source is not formally acknowledged. Dickey’s text is clearly flagged as poetry: the line-ends mostly rhyme in pairs, the formatting is ragged right, the line breaks often interrupt natural phrasing, and there are white-space gaps between line groups (stanzas).
What about the tone? A suggestion of satiric mockery is there from the get-go. In describing the unknown woman’s funeral, the poet writes:
She gets buried in a zinc
-lined coffin, fresher than a BLT. The pianos plink.
The zinc-lined coffin is true to facts. The simile is the poet’s. The zinc / plink rhyme echoes the sound effects of the award-winning podcast’s ‘soundscape’. A sense of playfulness has been established, and in the final couplet ‘lineage’ is rhymed with ‘signage’, perhaps an off-rhyme joke.
But what’s the main priority: being poetically compelling / entertaining or carrying out a serious “interrogation”? I’m not sure. I was uncomfortable when the (still unnamed) podcast was described as a “ten-part audio description of cruelty”. (The NRK / BBC podcast doesn’t, by any stretch of the imagination, dwell on cruelty.) On the other hand I loved a certain phrase the poet uses several times: “The silence of implied gesture”. This is a lovely evocation, it seems to me, of what you imagine in the pauses between radio interactions. On the other hand, I jibbed at the podcast presenters’ banter being described as “flirty repartee”. I went back and listened to check: the banter of Neil McCarthy and Marit Higraff is not, to my ear, flirtatious.
The ensuing sections of part I of Dickey’s Isdal observe the running order of the podcast, though some (‘*Dream of a postmortem’, for example) are entirely the poet’s internal experience. Sometimes she combines a real element from the podcast with an invented one. For example:
When a person is burned the skin contracts: arms up, legs down.
She looked like the Fiji mermaid (or someone with abandon).
The first line here draws directly on the podcast. The second is presumably a satirical comment since there is nothing about mermaids from NRK / BBC, and in any case comparing her burnt body with the Fiji mermaid seems … unkind. But why? And does it matter that the poet mixes accurate detail with invented ‘facts’? If an “interrogation of the true crime genre” is indeed “timely”, should it not report accurately on the methods of that form?
I listened again to the whole podcast series to compare the poet’s reportage with it more closely. In ‘*New day, new episode’ Dickey refers to “The (redacted for ethical reasons) Hotel, Stavanger”. The hotel’s name certainly might have been redacted in the podcast. Except it wasn’t. In episode 2 the presenters visit “The Comfort Hotel”, formerly called “Hotel St Svithun”. Perhaps the satirist is mocking the ‘ethical reasons’? Then two witnesses share memories of the dead woman. At first, the poet draws detail accurately, albeit playfully, from the NRK / BBC source. When she gets to the former bellboy, however, she diverges. Her reader would probably visualise him from her lines as an excitable lad:
[…] The bellboy has info too! He remembers Isdal well, then
hesitates. He can’t remember exactly but wow! – his first Belgian!
You never forget your first Belgian. Wow! A woman paying
attention to him! You don’t forget a woman like that, is all he’s saying.
Five exclamation marks? If the former bellboy had actually said this, it might support an idea raised later: “Explorations into the Isdal woman’s death are notable for their fixation with her sexiness.” Here is what he actually said in the podcast (the ‘bellboy’ is now a man in his sixties):
Uwe Bernd Ramstran (former bellboy): This lady she had a suitcase and a bag so I … I offered her help. In a strange way I remember this lift em .. er…. went up to the sixth floor.
[Sounds of lift going up]
Marit Higraff: Do you remember now – we’re going with a lift upstairs – did … did you speak with her in the lift?
Ramstran: Yeah. I don’t know how the conversation started but … er … I remember I … I asked her where she came from … because she had an accent, especially English accent when she spoke … and er … she said she came from Belgian … Belgium?
Neil McCarthy: Belgium, yes.
Ramstran: Belgium, ja. And I don’t think I’ve met a Belgian before [diffident laugh] … I think it … first and foremost it was the look of lady that … er … paid my attention.
McCarthy: What about her look?
Ramstran: She wasn’t one of the crowd. Lot of make-up, red lips, and … and very dark eyes and dark hair and she was quite … er … serious? No smile … er … that’s what I can say about her.
It’s apparent that Ramstran is struggling to express himself in English. So when he says “it was the look of lady that paid my attention”, he means it was the way she looked that caught his attention. In the poem, this was distorted, or misreported, into “A woman paying / attention to him”.
Sometimes the detail in Isdal is totally consistent with the podcast. Often it isn’t
Sometimes the detail in Isdal is totally consistent with the podcast. Often it isn’t. Dickey makes several references to a Facebook group. One of these certainly exists for ‘Death in Ice Valley’ and the presenters refer to it during the podcast. But Dickey also has them “take a moment to thank our sponsors”, which they don’t (NRK and BBC are government funded services). But then, she has never officially said which podcast is the subject of her satire.
In ‘Transcript of the interview with a spy catcher (hairspray monologue)’, she must surely be referring to Episode 6 of NRK / BBC’s ‘Death in Ice Valley’, in which there is an interview with the late Ørnulf Tofte, a famous Norwegian spyhunter involved in the original case. Despite its title, this poem is neither a ‘found’ poem, nor a ‘transcript’ of that interview. In the podcast Tofte shares his theory about a can of hairspray that the victim was seen carrying. She was perhaps near a small fire, he suggests, the hairspray rolled too near the flames, she picked it up and it exploded in her hand causing an accidental death. The poet accurately summarises his point of view: “Intelligence murders were done with knives and guns / and poison, not burning.” But then she goes on to include things he didn’t say (she mentions neither him nor the podcast by name, of course):
Asked about the possible presence of espionage he says: Nothing
more potentially fatal for women than women’s vanity.
A little later she has him add, “Unimportant little woman set herself alight”, and then “Women are obsolescent / and they hate it”. She is satirising a misogynistic attitude – but did he have one? Has she sensed it in his tone? He doesn’t speak in such a way (so far as I can tell) as to deserve her acid wit. Also the poet herself is hardly free from gender-bias. In ‘*Isotope disappointment’ the victim’s age becomes clear from her teeth: her documents have suggested she was in her twenties when in fact, she was closer to forty. Susannah Dickey attributes the following remark to the male presenter: “Why tell lies / about your age if not to appeal to men?” But it is actually Marit Higraff who says: “As a woman I can find only one reason for making yourself younger […] and that is to make yourself more attractive.”
Does any of this matter, so long as the poetry is compelling? Podcast producers and contributors have moral rights too, so I think it does matter, but I’m not sure how much. On my first reading of Isdal I assumed Susannah Dickey’s emphasis was accurate, and her satiric edge justified. That’s because I tend to expect the worst of the broadcast media and I didn’t remember the recording well. Why would I? But when I went back and listened again, the podcast seemed to me well-balanced and interesting. At times, the presenters do make a great deal of not much. But they don’t seem prurient, or focussed on eroticism or violence. Marit Higraff strikes me as sincere when she says: “When we are talking about our theories in trying to solve the case, we must not forget she was a real person, someone’s daughter, someone’s friend.”
Does any of this matter, so long as the poetry is compelling?
Back to the poetry. How compelling is it? It’s hard to disentangle my interest in the Isdal case from my interest in Isdal, a collection of poetry. Ironically, a book that claims to show “how narrative often occludes truth in favour of meaning” attracted me because of the narrative at its core. It’s why I picked it up. The NRK / BBC podcast has been downloaded or streamed over four million times, and the ‘Death in Ice Valley’ Facebook group still has 41.4K members. If poetry could only attract readers on this scale, Isdal would sell like hot cakes. But the podcast is easy to understand, and Isdal is not – and not just because of the poet’s irrefutably “copious vocabulary”. When the analysis comes (as in the first section, ‘*Outtake 3’) it’s subtle, ironic, tricky:
If a thing’s very purpose is suffering it isn’t radical
to enjoy inflicting violence upon it.
But wait – the study of canonical violence
isn’t the same as the infliction of violence.
But looking at an act isn’t the same as studying it.
And witnessing an act isn’t the same as committing it.
I find this writing stimulating: I want to respond. But I have two problems. First that my trust in the poet has been weakened by her previous manipulation of detail. Second, I’m not sure I understand it. The phrase “a thing’s very purpose is suffering” sounds as though it should make sense, but does it? And what is “canonical violence”? I believe the poet is challenging the ethical stance of a person attracted to the Isdal story. Raising that issue has to be valid. And yet … I’m not sure about her own ethical stance to the podcast itself, which she discredits without crediting.
Part II of Isdal is titled ‘Narrative’. It advances an argument, or at least a series of ideas, formatted in prose. The main poetic feature is the large areas of white space. Each section (stanza?) is preceded by square brackets and a three-dot ellipsis (like Sappho fragments). Occasionally there’s a phrase that indicates something like a lyric ‘I’ (“I start wondering”, “I’m trying to think”). Mostly the style is discursive and impersonal, albeit intense. In places I found the argument hard to follow. Georges Bataille is a key reference. According to his theory of “fundamental discontinuity”, Dickey tells us, each being “is born alone. He dies alone.” Later she raises a problem with his thinking:
“There is another consideration in all of this, and it stems from possibly the greatest flaw in Bataille’s thinking – the question of individuation, of the integrous concept of the ‘individual’. Bataille’s theory of continuity holds implicitly within it the idea that, following the moment of our conception, we are free-standing individuals, resected and opaque. To some extent, this is true, but the ways in which it is untrue should lead us towards thinking about how True Crime packages death, how it ignores our responsibilities towards each other, and how it frames grieving and victimhood: we need to think about True Crime within the context of the ‘grievable’ life, versus the ‘ungrievable’ one.”
The idea of the grievable / ungrievable life is Judith Butler’s, and Dickey will go on to discuss this further. However, she has referred to “the greatest flaw in Bataille’s thinking” and if she has explained what the flaw is, I missed it. In fact, she talks about “the ways in which it is untrue” which suggests flaws (plural). When she asserts that this (or these) flaws in Bataille’s theory “should lead us towards thinking about how True Crime packages death”, the leap in logic, for me, is baffling. Statements like “should lead us” and “we need to think” have to be earned, don’t they? Otherwise, they look like unsupported assertions. But wait a minute, should I even be responding like this? Should I put my poetry hat back on and focus on sound, rhythm and syntax?
Is it acceptable to advance arguments as ‘poetry’ that might not hold up if more fully and conventionally expressed elsewhere?
The fact is, I’m now less concerned about how true crime packages death than about how poetry packages philosophical argument. Is it acceptable to advance arguments as ‘poetry’ that might not hold up if more fully and conventionally expressed elsewhere? Is poetry valid as art, whether or not it’s possible to follow its line of thought? Does poetic licence sanction writing that only sounds philosophical?
When Susannah Dickey argues that “[explorations] into the Isdal Woman’s death are notable for their fixation with her sexiness”, I find myself wondering why her readers should roll over and agree. I have only looked closely at one true crime investigation (the NRK / BBC podcast) but I can’t see that it is preoccupied with the victim’s sexual attraction. It’s surely not inappropriate to conjecture that the victim might have been a sex worker (she might). In one of the early episodes, a witness (a Norwegian taxi driver, I think), remarks that “she had a sexy body”. I can’t recall any other reference to her ‘sexiness’ in all ten episodes.But I suggest the main reason the taxi driver uses this expression is because he isn’t English. Were he a native speaker, he’d probably have said something like “she was physically attractive”. From Isdal, one would assume the tone of the NRK / BBC broadcast was salacious, prurient, inappropriate. That’s not how it struck me.
But what about section III of Isdal, the suite of poems titled ‘Composite’? Despite my reservations, I am convinced that Susannah Dickey is emotionally invested in the Isdal Woman, and that she finds her death intensely grievable, even though it happened before she was born. I sense her anger about the way the unsolved mystery of a death can become a kind of board game in which anybody can develop a theory. I have no difficulty relating to this sentiment: there’s no doubt that human suffering can be obscured in a true crime enquiry, not least because such an enquiry is not about human suffering; it’s about solving a mystery. But the poet also creates her own mysteries. Why are the poems in Section III of Isdal numbered 10, 13, 19, 23, 24, 26, 27, 29, 30, 32, 36, 43 and 56? Is there some significance to this sequence?
At least, there are poems here I can relate to. I find ‘10: Your ghosts were cowboys’ particularly affecting. The format is two-line, unrhymed stanzas. The lines are long. Several contain sentences ending mid-line. There’s a strong emotive undercurrent, I think, but it’s tautly restrained. The speaker starts with an assertion, from which everything else develops. Here are the first four sentences:
There’s no such smell as burnt flesh. To get so named it would need to exist
independent of its visual. Some words have two protruberances, they’re
antennae, half a weathercane. One frond extends to smell, one frond
A little background is needed for this to work fully. In episode 1 of the NRK / BBC podcast, a former police officer says he smelled “burnt flesh” as they approached the body. The poet, however, has a point: the smell of “burnt flesh” is only securely known with hindsight, (assuming he means human flesh). Until he saw the body, he might smell something like “an off-season / office barbecue”, but not charred human being. The concept of “protruberances” strikes me as a curiously affecting way of describing connotations. But this is a writer who is hyper-sensitive to language, and also to the young girl who discovered the body: “In the moments before finding a body you’re young (about 10) / and you hope.” After that event, the words “burnt flesh” acquire new meaning for the young person, namely “a woman’s former face”. In the final stanza, the poet maintains a careful and respectful distance from both the young girl and the dead woman. The effect is something like tenderness:
[…] There wasn’t a scream upon finding her, just lithic skin among
scree, tissue never seen preshrunk. This undisputed wind-beaten caryatid.
The last four words offer a beautiful summation of the only surviving photograph of the unidentified woman (you can find it on the ‘Death in Ice Valley’ website). This is elegaic, dignified and haunting. It meets my expectations of poetry.
I feel certain that the fate of the Isdal Woman isn’t just another narrative to Susannah Dickey. It matters personally. For her, the tragic element is bigger than the unsolved mystery. She has had an angry reaction to the NRK / BBC podcast, in which she senses an approach that feeds on violent death and magnifies elements of eroticism. It’s almost as though she’s defending a dead relative. The jacket blurb claims that she’s interrogating the whole “true crime genre” but so far as I can see, the first part of this collection is an intense personal response to a single podcast series. I’m not convinced she mocks it fairly. But why does she not acknowledge her main source? Why is it not included in her list of references? Why did her publisher not consider this an issue?
Perhaps it’s inappropriate of me to ask such questions. Perhaps I should be reading Isdal only as poetry. That might account for everything.
Helena Nelson is a poet, critic, and publisher, founding editor of HappenStance Press and Sphinx Review, and Consulting Editor at The Friday Poem. Her first collection, Starlight on Water (Rialto, 2003), was a Jerwood / Aldeburgh First Collection winner. Her second was Plot and Counterplot (Shoestring, 2010). She also writes and publishes light verse, including Down With Poetry! (HappenStance, 2016) and Branded (Red Squirrel, 2019). Her most recent collection is PEARLS: The Complete Mr & Mrs Philpott Poems (HappenStance, 2022).