Trauma and Poetry in “Catching Teller Crow”

By Benedikt von Laufenberg

In this blog post, I want to focus on the first chapters of the novel Catching Teller Crow and the way in which the chapters highlight the relation between trauma and detective work. Moreover, I want to take a closer look on the way the novel shifts between prose sections and poetry.

In the first chapter of the novel called “The Town“ it becomes apparent that the protagonist, Beth Teller, has died in a car crash. Her ghost or presence is perceptible to her father Michael and to her father only: “I [the girl] tried speaking to her [the girl’s aunt], even though I’d known by then that only Dad could see and hear me (p.9).“ One reading imposes itself: only the father can hear her because he is traumatized by her death and wishes that his daughter were still alive. This naturalistic reading is somewhat at odds with the broader genre under which “Catching Teller Crow“ is rubricated: Australian speculative fiction. A genre in which it is not impossible for ghosts and other supernatural beings to occur. But these two readings – the naturalistic and the speculative one – are not mutually exclusive. It is possible to investigate the effect the dead girl’s presence has on her father psychologically even though one is ready to accept that her presence is real. So, what is the effect of the dead girl’s presence on her father?

   Her father is a detective and has lost his wife some years ago. He is inclined to see causation everywhere: “But Dad said that [the observation that correlation is not necessarily causation] was scientist-talk not police-talk, and if two things happened together you’d suspect the first thing had caused the second until it could provide you with an alibi (p.13).“ This tendency to see causation everywhere might be directly linked with the experience of loosing his daughter in the car accident. An event which is contingent and cannot be explained. Especially because no one drove too fast (cf. p.8). Thus, the accident is perceived as just an accident with no satisfactory explanation. Thus, the search of causation might be a compensation for not being able to rationally explain the accident. That his daughter is present to him when he tries to solve crimes by uncovering hidden causation might be seen as a testimony of the efficiency of this compensation: he feels close to his daughter and might even be able to bring her back: “There was a note of sadness in his voice, and I knew he was thinking about how Nurse Flint had likely died here. You can’t bring him back, Dad. But you can find out what happened to him [italics in the original] (p.15).“

   It was shown that the necessity to find causation in crime might be directly linked with the experience of loosing one’s daughter in an event which cannot be explained by causality. Thus, the need to find causality is some kind of compensation.

When Beth and her father visit a witness the novel, which has up to this point relied solely on prose, shifts towards a poetry section. Why this change? In order to answer this question, I think it best to enlist the differences between poetry and prose as I see it. Readers will approach a poem differently from a prose texts. The reading is slower as they might recite the words in one’s head and thus also generally pay more attention to them. In poetry every words count. Thus, one approaches the poetry section with more caution, more attention and with an altogether different outlook. It slows the reading down. One expects to read something important. But there are also similarities: the witness, also a girl, also appears to have had a car accident.

   Apart from formalistic and substantive differences, the poetry section might also be read as a kind of indirect characterization. People thinking or communicating in poetry with other people also pay special attention to their words. In a sense this thinking and communication is more artful than mere speech. This artfulness is also interesting when one considers the subject matter of the poem: it appears as if poetry is a coping mechanism for traumatic events. In poetry, once can give this experience shape: there are verses and stanzas. In order to answer the question broadly this change from prose to poetry might indicate a method to deal with trauma. In comparison between the father who tries to establish causality, poetry with its free association and playful metaphors appears to be an altogether different way to deal with trauma.

In this blog post, I have shown how a traumatic experience in fiction can be directly linked with the work of a decretive who tries to establish causality. Moreover, it was shown that the change form poetry to prose might indicate another way to deal with trauma: in poetry.

Kwaymullina, Ambelin and Kwaymullina, Ezekiel. Catching Teller Crow. Penguin Random House UK: 2019