“A Staffordshire Murderer,” James Fenton’s dense, often enigmatic narrative poem, explores the aberrant mind of a nameless serial killer as he prepares to kill yet again. Despite expectations that a man who at poem’s end brutally knifes a helpless victim would be quite emotional, Fenton’s killer—and the poem itself—is intricately cerebral, even calm. Even as he strolls about the gardens near Lichfield’s magnificent three-spired cathedral to select his victim (his “accomplice”), the killer pauses to observe ducks and flowers. Erudite, he ponders historical references that reveal his familiarity with the blood-soaked history of the Staffordshire countryside—he acknowledges the shadow-company of these other “Staffordshire murderers” who wait metaphorically alongside him.
The poem deliberately frustrates any clear narrative line. Fenton only indirectly indicates the action: the wait for the victim; the abduction and removal of the victim by van to the killer’s house; and then the killing itself, accomplished in the ninety-ninth line of a one-hundred-line poem. In deploying a series of intricately related digressions that cohere only loosely, like a cubist collage, Fenton reveals an interest in the mind of the murderer rather than in the bloody act itself—that is, after all, redundant to the point of cliché as attested not only by the killer’s allusions to the bloody history of the Staffordshire region but also by his acknowledgment of his own previous killings.
Thus, the real horror of the poem is not the murder but rather the mind that creates the context that makes such an act inevitable, acceptable, even logical. Fenton never intrudes to suggest any wider moral frame that might temper the ghastly event by suggesting that such evil will be punished—the poem closes only with the killer’s flush of triumph and the disquieting expression of his creepy logic: that he is liberating the victim into a “new life.”