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Ross Gibson, The Criminal Re-Register
The University of Western Australia Publishing, 2017, 152 pp., ISBN: 9781742589558, p/bk, AUS$22.99Ross Gibson’s new work, The Criminal Re-Register (2017) from University of Western Australia Publishing, is a fabulous re-imagining of a mid-twentieth century copy of a Criminal Register. In a pre-database age, the Register was a volume that was produced every year by Sydney Police containing details on a vast array of criminals. Collated over a twelve-month period, the Register was an almanac that was distributed to police stations far and wide. The profiles of criminals, their methods, their madness all laid bare to facilitate apprehension (or the occasional interaction). It was, in short, the ultimate Crook Book. Gibson found his 1957 issue of the Register “ten years ago, along with a brown envelope full of unlabeled and undated photographic portraits in a Kogarah junkshop”. The content has been wonderfully re-written as a suite of poems that, as Gibson writes, has “messed” with the original which he “ransacked” for details to re-work to merge and play with. Brutality and creativity blend to produce a text that is compelling reading. This slim volume, only 152 pages, also presents as a beautiful object. The cover is elegant. The rich, cream pages are highly textured: challenging the idea that the world of crime is a world of black and white. Each word has been carefully chosen as well as thoughtfully situated on the page: the arrangements are both disruptive and striking. The blurred photographs appear, and linger, as memories just out of reach: Gibson calls these people ghosts. One of the more poignant inclusions in Gibson’s Re-Register is a set of descriptions of malefactors which offer perfunctory details of not-so-legitimate careers supplemented by some distinguishable traits. There is a “safebreaker and thief”, a “house-breaker and ladies man”, a “pretender and forger” and a “house breaker and cat burglar”. One felon “seldom wears a hat”, one is “careless with fingerprints” while yet another is “in the habit of sucking his left thumb”. Several are “addicted to drink”. This text reminds us that the criminal world, and the way it intersects with the non-criminal, is extraordinarily complex. The human cost of crime is sometimes borne by villains as well as victims. Sure, there are bad people that do bad things (the “razor slashers” and “sexual perverts”) but there are, too, those who have been crushed by their circumstances. Gibson’s work – of poetry and photography – is a soft lens with which to view a harsh world. The 1950s in Sydney was a decade of remarkable change: cars, commercial computers and televisions. There was mass immigration. There was the shadow of the Cold War. Perhaps the only constant was crime. Some criminal acts were perpetrated by the worst that society has to offer while some offenders were those who had honest jobs one day but found themselves drunkards and scoundrels the next. Crime and the issues that surround crime, including prevention and punishment, are difficult – emotionally and intellectually – to resolve. Here, poetry is a useful, if unlikely, tool to help us look at crime in a different way. Reviewed by Dr Rachel Franks, September 2017 This book is available to preorder at the University of Western Australia Publishing website here.