Parsonage Parlor

Deceased: Dorothy Dennison, a high school student. Questioned: Dorothy’s mother, Mrs. James Dennison. Reported: Friday, August 23, 1946.

Found 4 days after she went missing. 
Her mother had sent her to buy hamburger 
meat from the market 
and she never returned home. 

Four days of high heat and humidity 
in August will cause the meat to rot 
in the rector’s parsonage. 
The brown package leaking rancid blood
into the chair it rested on. 

No signs of struggle except the violence 
done to the body. Her body displayed 
on the floor with a knife protruding 
from her abdomen. A hammer lay 
on the floor near her ruined head. 

As the police entered the parsonage, 
the smell would’ve hit them. Rotting 
hamburger, rotting body. Her mother 
had sent her. She had little money 
in her purse. Her legs and torso had bite marks. 

The rector was away for the summer. 
The furniture was covered with sheets. 
It seems there are two of everything—
two easy chairs, two windows, two lamps, 
two vases. Did she trust the person 
who lured her there? Did she play 
piano for him? What did that sound 
like resonating through the empty house? 

One body. Female. Frilly dress ripped 
open at the chest. The smell must have 
been overwhelming. In a diorama like this, 
you can’t replicate the smell. Or the flies. 
Weren’t there flies? Nowadays 
they would test for DNA. Nowadays 
there are plenty of female corpses. 
That statistic hasn’t slowed. The smell 
won’t ever go away. We know it as sure 
as we know our own bodies. Would 
the house be haunted then? The reek 
seeped into the very floorboards. 

Oh, stench of these fathers. Daughters 
who never make it. The burden of it. 
The bread of air soaked with such a load. 
The kind of smell that sears your nostrils 
and won’t leave even with bleach. 
What did she smell before she died? 
Was the air wrung of moisture 
or dusty with vacancy? 

Jessica Purdy

3 Questions for Jessica

What was your process for creating this work?

Ever since I became aware of them, I knew I wanted to write a chapbook of ekphrastic poems based on “The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death” by Frances Glessner Lee. Created in the 1940s, there are eighteen meticulously crafted crime scene dioramas meant to help police officers hone their observation skills. Someone posted an article about them on Facebook and I became obsessed. I’ve read every article and biography of her I could find. “The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death,” the great essay and photography book created by Corinne May Botz has been an essential research tool for me. When I heard the Nutshells would be exhibited at the Renwick Gallery in Washington, DC, I booked a flight with some poet friends and we went. The exhibit was incredible. Crowds lined up outside to get in. I took a million photos of the Nutshells so I had my own access to them for writing the poems. The two poems appearing here in Harpy Hybrid were written in workshops lead by Tresha Faye Haefner in The Poetry Salon. Over zoom during the pandemic, her manuscript class was an essential part of my process. 

What is the significance of the form/genre you chose for this work?

When writing ekphrastic poems, there can be so many different approaches. It was my intention to honor Frances Glessner Lee’s own attention to detail in crafting these, as well as to imagine possible “solutions” by giving voice to the stories told in the crime scenes. In some of the poems, the speaker is the victim, and in some, the speaker could be the perpetrator. In still others, it is the poet’s voice speaking. 

What is the significance of this work to you?

The idea of the dollhouse, typically known as a girlhood plaything being used for forensic study took on a great resonance for me as my own mother had made a dollhouse for us kids and I’ve always been fascinated by mysteries. There’s even a photo of us in the local newspaper playing with it. Frances Glessner Lee created these miniatures in her home in New Hampshire. Since I also live in New Hampshire, I felt even more of a connection. These poems explore the consequences of crime within relationships, and how women continue to be in danger of being victimized by male violence.

Jessica Purdy holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Emerson College. Her poems have appeared in many journals and anthologies, including Gargoyle, Poemeleon’s The Plague Papers: an ekphrastic anthology, the museum of americana, The Plath Poetry Project, The Ekphrastic Review, The Light Ekphrastic, and SurVision. Her books STARLAND and Sleep in a Strange House were both released by Nixes Mate Books in 2017 and 2018. 

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