In 1978, Velma Barfield, of Robeson County, N.C., was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death for murdering Stuart Taylor, a man with whom she had a romantic relationship. She also confessed to the murder of her mother and two elderly people she worked for as a live-in nursing assistant. She did not admit to the murder of her first husband—the father of her two children—or of her second husband, but both bodies, when exhumed, were found to contain traces of arsenic. Velma Barfield was executed on November 2, 1984. She was fifty-three years old and the first female murderer executed in the United States since 1976. Surviving her were a daughter, a son, and three grandchildren.
This is not a sensational story about a discontented loner who goes off the rails and kills people. Nor does its protagonist have the perverse fascination of serial killers like Ted Bundy or Jeffrey Dahmer. Velma Barfield was an ordinary, fiftyish live-in nursing assistant—an ordinary, working-class woman of no discernible distinction, unless you knew her secrets. These secrets included an addiction to prescription drugs, for which she needed money, and the habit of leaving behind dead patients, including her mother, which is how she got the money. Surely, a woman like Velma is not the stuff of which poetry is made—yet that is exactly what Pat Riviere-Seel, a journalist-turned-poet, has done. She takes the common clay of Velma’s life and, using her reporter’s skills and poet’s sensibilities, explores the tragic fate of a daughter who has a serial killer for a mother.
The facts in the poems, Riviere-Seel tells us, are real, but the thoughts and voices expressed arise out of the artistry and, in this case, the bravery of the poet. And it is a brave poet who puts herself into the mind of Velma to find her voice, and into the heart of the daughter to find her anguish.
The story of Velma and her daughter, who is never named, is told in a series of twenty-seven short poems narrated by the poet, the daughter, Velma, and, in one poem, Velma’s fiancé (Stuart Taylor, of whose murder she was convicted) as he is dying of rat poisoning. Riviere-Seel first introduces us to the present life of the daughter as seen through the poet’s eye: “The serial killer’s daughter wears tight curls made of cypress roots/ and washes them in buttermilk from the moon.” In the next poem, the poet switches to her reporter’s eye to describe the rural North Carolina background, with its poverty and despair, that is the setting of the story. From there, she moves easily into the daughter’s voice with its revealing glimpses of her parents’ marriage and the prophetic words of her father: “That woman’s gonna kill me.” The poet then segues into Velma’s voice, dark and ominous: “…my life/ muddy, uncharted—swallows/ everything without warning.” We next hear the daughter after she has put together the pieces of the various deaths that follow her mother and says, despairingly: “…I know, Mama/ someone has to stop you.” The daughter’s voice is poignant when she remembers the mother who baked yeast rolls and sugar cookies and blackberry pies, and who watched her play basketball “fifth row behind the home bench.”
A little more than half of the poems deal with the arrest, confession, conviction, and execution of Velma. Following the conviction, the media spotlight moves in to follow the daughter all the way through the last appeal. For the poem, “In the Hours Before the Execution,” Riviere-Seel quotes Velma as she approaches her death: “When I go into that chamber at 2 a.m., it’s my gateway to heaven” and goes on to place herself in Velma’s cell. There the poet listens to the sounds of the cellblock as and waits with Velma for the final call.
The last poem comes full circle back to the daughter and allows her to conclude her own story. And although she has forged a new life, an anonymous life in an anonymous place, she will never leave the past behind.
The Serial Killer’s Daughter is highly recommended for its masterful story-telling and a powerful poetic achievement.
The book is available from the publisher (www.mainstreetrag.com/store). And be sure to check out Pat’s website: www.patriviereseel.com.
Copyright © 2009 Genève Bacon