—Deceased: Unknown woman. Questioned: landlord of rooming house, Mrs. Bessie Collins.
Reported Monday, June 4, 1949
When you’re a Jane Doe
you don’t have to be married.
You can leave your kids
and go to a rooming house.
You can be just like the room
where you’re found dead.
When you’re anonymous
you can wear high heels, take them off.
Drink gin with
a fatal dose of pills.
You can look so peaceful. Mistaken for asleep.
Snug under a blanket neatly folded.
When you are an unpapered room,
the floor is scuffed from too many entries,
the calendar hasn’t been changed in 5 years.
Stark lighting. White bedframe.
Grimy fingerprints. Red trunk. Press
your lips, a kind of kiss, against the pillowcase
under the hands of a married man
who told them you were his wife.
When you’re a married man
you can take away life.
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.