According to articles in major American newspapers and findings in psychological studies, women, more than men, love murder mysteries. The gathered wisdom is that, like the attraction to fairy tales, reading murder mysteries provides a way for women to work out their fears about death and violence, often at the hands of men. As the Steiny Road Poet has said before, Gertrude Stein loved reading murder mysteries and wrote Blood on the Dining Room floor in 1933 when she was confronting her fears about writer’s block. For writers, writing is what keeps them alive.
From Broadstone Books, Susana H. Case in her newly launched collection of poetry Dead Shark on the N Train confronts death, dying, and violence particularly against women. The heart of this book examines the “dollhouse” murder mystery dioramas made by Frances Glessner Lee (1878-1962), known as the “mother of forensic science.”
Steiny pauses here to draw attention that Glessner Lee was a contemporary of Stein and from a similar well-to-do background that enabled Glessner Lee’s brother to go to Harvard if not the diorama-maker herself. Both Gertrude Stein and her brother Leo studied at Harvard, where Gertrude was trained to be a scientist. The difficulty for women to excel in the United States was huge.
Susana H. Case “discovered” Glessner Lee because she was featured as an artist craft-maker not as a forensic scientist.
Glessner Lee made 20 crime scene dioramas and Case offers 14 poems addressing 14 different dioramas. Some of the poems present with photographs of the matching dioramas. Besides the images, Case tucks into these poems an occasional short portrait or tribute to Glessner Lee that is consecutively numbered and identified as Frances in the table of contents. Diorama “Scene 3. Red Bedroom” pairs with “Body in the Closet” and is followed by Frances 3. From Frances 3, one learns that Glessner Lee was considered a hobbyist and constrained from police work by her gender. However, “Glessner Lee breaks down that gender division with depictions of domestic violence in feminized spaces, training detectives how to analyze scenes of violent crimes.” For this accomplishment, she becomes an honorary police captain.
Body in the Closet
Her neck is slashed.
She’s sprawled on the closet floor,
knife at hand. Is this what she worked
so hard for, on her back and knees?
begets violence; the hooker
always gets it in the end.
The landlord finds her body,
calls the police, they call on her last client,
a man who went to her red-wallpapered room.
Cigarettes smoked, whiskies poured,
she was dolled up in red lipstick
and nail polish, all her gold bangles.
Her hot date claims she grabbed
a jackknife he used to open a package
and dashed into the closet.
It’s all he knows.
The john scurried off after he opened
the closet door. He’s got nothing
to add about an argument, nothing
about the hurry hurry hurry at the scene—
the suitcase, clothes (red coat),
all the frantically opened dresser drawers.
While the dead woman, as the language of the poem suggests, was a hooker adorned with red lipstick and nails as well as gold bangles, what she gets in the end, mind the double entendre, is a violent death. In her modest dress with long sleeves or was it a dressing gown, she doesn’t appear to have been waiting for a hot date. If anything, the smoked cigarettes and empty whiskey bottle indicated that someone—hot date or client—had been there already with her and then left. Given the mention of an argument, the “opened drawers” were part of the closet’s furniture (and not her attire—Steiny can’t resist seeing this pun and finds Case’s accumulated “evidence” inviting reader interaction), so it looks like the hurry hurry hurry at the scene was more likely a woman
afraid for her life who was trying to pack up and leave the red bedroom.
“JHS 190” opens Dead Shark with junior high school girls who are in varying degrees of trouble—like the blond girl, the envy of every “white girl deep into doo wop or rock” because Gilda “gets to dance with the black guys at Friday school parties” which everyone says is because “she’s had ballet.” Should we believe that? The next vignette reveals that the French girl is up on the roof ready to jump because she is pregnant. The police come and stop the jumper who is now red eyed as a match to the red flashing lights of the police cruiser and the red brick of the school building which with its barred windows looks like “a house of detention.” Red is the operative color symbolizing a woman’s blood, lips, and maybe even a house of pleasure. The final statement from
these girls indicates they think they need to trade their bodies to get the best boys, the royal treatment, and a life in gold.
Our bodies are bribes, the need, carried
in our book bags, to get the best boys.
What we know is we want to be royalty.
We want everything we touch turning to gold.
Dead Shark on the N Train is a quirky book often about escaping one’s less than desirable circumstances—IF one is lucky enough to stay alive. The title poem “Dead Shark on the N Train” provides a glimpse into the poet’s strategy for the poems selected for this collection. The trajectory of the poem details a beached shark that is picked up on Coney Island, given a ride on the roller coaster and then taken into New York’s subway where eventually it is bagged at the end of the line in Queens. The poet writing of herself says:
I fled Queens when I grew up.
Like sharks that migrate freely, I traveled
to survive, didn’t want to reach
the end of my line in the same place I
started out from, though I ended up
just on the other side of the river.
Stepping back, the poet fears the humiliation of getting caught in an endless loop—even in death:
When someone on the #1 had a heart
attack and died, his corpse rode the loop
from South Ferry to the Bronx and
back to South Ferry twice. Like a man
in his habitat, he seemed to be napping.
Unlike the shark, no one put a Metro Card
under his fin, cigarette in his jaws, can
of Red Bull by his side for the journey.
Ergo, the poet has traveled to survive and many of the poems in the third and final section of the book are set in exotic places.
Dead Shark ends exotically and surprisingly. In “Sign,” Case takes us inside the cage and mind of Nim Chimpsky, the red-knit sweater-wearing chimpanzee who learned to sign and thereby communicate his needs—everything from stone (meaning I want to smoke a joint—yes, Virginia, Nim was taught to be stoner) to orange. What the poet does is go from Nim’s stoner language to her eye doctor’s pronouncement that she is showing “yellow deposits of drusen in the eye.” Drusen indicates potential macular degeneration, or central vision loss. For the poet, this loss of sight spells death (the writing life would surely end). Here are excerpts from “Sign”:
orange give me eat orange give me you.
You may be going blind,
my doctor’s words bite me:
yellow deposits of drusen in the eye
…my only hope,
capsules too big to swallow.
If I were a pine, my rough-barked arms
would stretch toward the sun.
I wouldn’t worry about eyes or words.
Give capsule me give swallow
capsule me swallow capsule give me
swallow capsule give me you.
If you, Dear Reader, love murder mysteries, and think poetry is too big a challenge, Dead Shark on the N Train has a Metro Card for you. If you think this work will be too facile for your sophisticated literary, cultural, or historical taste, jump the turnstile and find references to Marianne Moore, Maria Callas, Benkos Biohó. If you need a vacation from yourself, here is your ticket to fly. This book surprises and delights while dealing with what is deadly and final.