The Tenderness in Looking

By Marcela SulakApril 10, 2014

The Tenderness in Looking

Doll Studies by Carol Guess
Exit, Civilian by Idra Novey

WHILE A PRISON hides away those whom we fear, a dollhouse is a stage on which our hidden desires and impulses are rendered visible. We don’t exchange glances with prisoners; we watch them, constantly, until the deprivation of privacy becomes the deprivation of personhood. They become “other” than us; whereas the objects we manipulate in a dollhouse are extensions of ourselves. I am thinking about dollhouses and prisons because, in the last year, two American juries identified with armed, white, adult males who were so afraid of unarmed, black, teenaged boys that they had no choice but to kill them. A dollhouse allows for a play of possibilities — your doll figure is you: is nuanced. Narratives are flexible; you can imagine away the improbabilities. A prison has only one narrative and only one character type; indeed, defense lawyers in both cases insinuated that if Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis had lived, they would have ended up in prison anyway. As individual human beings in American society, they were already dead before they were shot, buried in the prison of American racial stereotypes.

I am also thinking of prisons and dollhouses because of two recent poetry collections that employ miniatures to interrogate our perspective on crime and incarceration. Carol Guess’s Doll Studies: Forensics (Black Lawrence Press, 2012) uses dollhouse dioramas to depict real-life crime scenes and to help us learn and unlearn how to read these scenes. It is based on Corrine May Botz’s photographs of 18 miniature dioramas of crime scenes created by Frances Glessner Lee. Idra Novey’s Exit, Civilian (University of Georgia Press, 2012), which was selected by Patricia Smith for the National Poetry Series, frames the world of the poem with real-life and fabulist prisons.

Have you noticed / It is everywhere

Novey’s book opens with the serial poem, “The Little Prison,” a response to Vashko Popa’s “The Little Box.” Like the jar Wallace Stevens placed in Tennessee, the poems demonstrate that if you place a little box (or little prison) in the world, it will grow until it is impossible to perceive of anything that is not mediated by the prison or little box. The poem asks:

Do you want to hear more
about the little prison
Have you noticed
It is everywhere

The book builds on the Foucauldian idea of a culture of incarceration, in which the physical prison is a central feature of an entire social system. For Novey, interiors of prisons, homes, even the individual’s emotional interior, are performative spaces. That is why the distortion of their boundaries — the split mirror of the poem “Civilian Exiting the Facilities,” for example — ruptures our self-image, calling into question what we thought we knew about ourselves and others:

Each week my body is fist-stamped and triple-scanned before it lands again in the electoral world. My mind takes longer to leave, stays in the elevator considering the kind of crime it might be capable of. Would I have to be hungry. Could it happen over nothing. Could it happen nightly. In the shine of a car outside the prison my reflection gets wider until it splits. In one likeness the face I recognize. In the other my face.

Exit, Civilian is loosely based on the author’s experience of teaching in a women’s prison, and the book benefits greatly from the narrative perspective that allows us to move in and out of the secure prison that so few “on the outside” ever see or experience.

The poem also draws upon the poet’s childhood experience of having a family member incarcerated. In the poem “House Arrest,” the interior space of the prison merges with the interior space of the home, and the incarcerated mother becomes the kitchen’s silent prison guard. The home’s inhabitants are watched by their mother’s picture on the wall:

When punishment became a picture frame, the state gave our mother a glitter one and some picture wire so she could hover properly on the wall. Neighbors asked if this stillness had been in her before, if we poured our milk differently over our cereal with our mother always fixed there and listening.

After weeks of such inquiries, we said enough and climbed in with her — why not be miserable together? For fun, we picked the glitter off her picture frame. Sometimes we ate it for dinner.

Prose poetry is the appropriate genre for the subject. The square prose poem mimics the shape of the prison cell, the picture frame, and the square kitchen. Like early French practitioners Bertrand, Baudelaire, and Rimbaud, Novey uses the genre to disrupt bourgeois sensibilities by drawing attention to unseemly or inappropriate subject matter. Novey’s work uses the surrealists device of de-familiarizing the familiar by eliminating or shifting the markers that usually allow us to establish a perspective, such as the line break, the prison wall, the picture frame. Part of this effect is Novey’s use of the miniature. The “little” prison replicated in a picture frame in which a family room is duplicated, and the mirror in which a viewer is divided, is small enough to be carried and placed anywhere.

The book abounds in miniature prisons, all of which were created by childlike, impulsive people, heartless in their amorality, as in “On Bafflement”:

We drew a prison in the sand and it wouldn’t go away.
Not even beneath the foam of the biggest waves. […]
Somebody asked why did we draw that thing,
And we were growing old watching it this way.
We felt compelled to make love in the sand a few feet off.
Then we drew another one, just to see if we’d make love again.

Elsewhere, miniature prisons are arbitrarily created and dismantled to suit the fancies of their creators, such as the infamous Brazilian Caldeirão do Diabo, which is turned into an amusement park in the poem. (In real life, it was transformed into a marine biology center.) The book’s anthropomorphizing of prisons induces a suspect tenderness. Prison is a cute little thing that can’t help but devastate its inhabitants. When it burps its little beeps and rattles its little riots, we almost want to pat it on the back.

Novey’s little prison has been made by human beings in their own image, but originally it was a field: “Herds of deer moved across it / And flocks of herons / Their calls rose and echoed.” When it was made to have walls, it lost itself, and went from something “great” to something small: “The little prison that was once a field / Will admit it once likened itself / To the great amphitheater at Delphi.” This suggests that everything is degraded by prison systems — the land upon which prisons are built, the guards whose humanity is consumed in the sole activity of watching, and the prisoners, who are now invisible and silent. If the prison is the former great amphitheater at Delphi, it has been reduced from the stage on which society performed its poetry, plays, and music — self-defining and culture-creating activities — to a form of self-denial.

In Novey’s poems, the greatest punishment to the incarcerated is the loss of a sense of self. The poem “Aspect” demonstrates how ignoring prisoners removes them from our social narrative, just as the label “felon” removes them from civic society.

For the aunt who only ate sugar packets from Applebee’s
we say poor Fay,
who didn’t age well.

For the uncle who overdosed on stolen pills, we talk
of good Jerome,
who had too much sorrow.

Of the speeding tickets my father doesn’t pay, he says honey,
out of state
may as well be a fable.

About the night my mother spent in jail, we say nothing; once
my grandmother said imagine,
your pantyhose stripped in a hallway.

Of the fumbling years, all the waiting for her to look up again,
I say the rub
of my childhood, the thistle.

Speaking as a visitor, Novey acknowledges that we on the outside are complicit in this dehumanizing process. It is tempting to “look away” from the prison and the American prison culture all around us: “I tell myself prisons are inevitable and inevitably awful. / Tell myself this thought is just another way of looking away.”

there is a tenderness in looking

Carol Guess’s Doll Studies initially seduces the eye with a lot of exposed thigh. The poems are often inhabited by vulnerable, half-dressed female victims, many of whom are engaged in morally suspect acts, such as in “Late White”:

Tuesday detains her among beautiful dresses. She lives in the closet now, sprawl study in beaded slippers and bangles. We don’t know what she charged for sex. It’s easier to describe a flowered dress. You would like for there to be a rose and there is, in the papered room. Above her headboard hangs a moose

The abundant rhymes gratify our desires: “Tuesday/detains,” “now/sprawl,” “sex/dress,” and “rose/there is.” The unrhymed “moose” lets us know the scene is a man’s room; it also suggests — because our minds get used to the rhyming — “noose” and “loose,” the character’s predicament and what she is. The poem’s end only heightens our sadistic pleasure in the vulnerability of the woman, who exists solely to satiate desire:

A woman found this woman dead. Each might take the other’s place, bonbons in a ruffled box. Merlot coats the glass as it dries, diminishing, as one who leaves a party leaves the conversation stained.

The inexorable plot and its inevitable end are driven by the relentless iambic meter, tensed so tightly into short declarative sentences one feels as if each sentence were on the verge of springing out of the borders of the poem box. Indeed, each sentence contains more than it says — we simply need to figure out how to access the clues.

But the gaze is quickly confounded when we realize that the victims have multiple lives and deaths because they exist on multiple planes. First, they are actual victims of actual crimes that took place in the 1940s and 1950s. Sometimes each character is a composite. They were selected from among forgotten victims, or created from composites of crimes, by Frances Glessner Lee.

Glessner Lee was a millionaire heiress whose Victorian domestic hobbies — interior design, metalwork, sewing, knitting, crocheting, embroidery, and painting — served as an outlet for her unrealized ambitions to study medicine or law. She put her skills to use in creating 20 dioramas of unsolved crime scenes — 18 of which remain and are still used to train police officers in Boston and Maryland. Most of the dioramas created by this grandmotherly matron depict lower-middle-class interiors, and 11 of the 18 victims are women. Home is both an isolated, dangerous place in which a woman is at her husband’s mercy, but it is also a protective fortress from which women stray only to fall prey to drugs, alcohol, and the unchecked desires of men.

The unbelievably intricate dioramas are built on a 1:12 scale, complete with working doors, windows, and lights. Glessner Lee spared no effort to recreate the details of a scene, down to the last drop of blood in a splatter pattern. She even attended autopsies of the victims. She knitted the dolls’ clothing and painted their faces, choosing colors that corresponded to the extent of their decay. In the 1940s and 1950s, Glessner Lee would invite leading specialists and police officers for week-long conferences called The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death. Participants would be given 90 minutes to examine each crime scene.

Guess’s opening poem, “Aerial Rifle,” instructs us to read these poems, these rooms, these crime scenes, as if we were forensics specialists:

Here’s the dollhouse wife asleep, night’s chores finished in miniature. What hangs above the infant’s head is red. I mean the way graffiti moves through trains, signaling who’s been and when. Her husband sleeps beside her on the floor. This dollhouse lesson has to do with time. I mean the way sound travels through a house asleep. Detectives learn to sweep a story clockwise for detail. Anyone might own a gun. Pink slippers run in place atop a popcorn rug.

Our eyes scan the crime scene of the poem, snagging objects and tagging them with assumptions, until we get to a clue — the spatter pattern above the infant’s head. We pause to free associate — the shape of the blood splatter, graffiti, trains. Then we move to the next object in the spiral — the husband. And so forth.

Besides the shape of the prose poems, which mimic the shape of the dollhouse dioramas, the most obvious feature to these poems is the rhyme that links otherwise disparate objects: head/red, been/when, sweep/asleep, gun/run. There are too many rhymes to be coincidence; but does the pattern add up? Or are the rhymes intentionally misleading clues left out in plain sight?

Corinne May Botz’s photographs of the Nutshell Cases (Monacelli Press, 2004), which took Botz seven years to create, amplify the field of play in this collection. These photos are intensely disturbing and gripping. “Cottage on the Rocks Estate” induces claustrophobia when accompanied by Guess’s poem of the same title.

                   Sometimes we take too long to leave the house. When outside comes in there may be a disruption. Knick-knacks squat atop the mantle, red the color of our lips and nails, red the color of the twisted cord. This painting scares us. Take it down.

In the foreground of the Botz photograph to which this poem refers — and which hangs on the wall of one of Glessner Lee’s dioramas — is a big gravel road. Its painted textures make it seem as if the road were about to cascade into the room. Only the picture frame is holding it back. We feel somehow that the picture is a mirror, that it depicts the house in which the viewer/reader is standing, reflecting our vulnerability. We note how large the road is compared to the house. The windows of the house are blocked by shrubs so that we can’t see what’s coming, so no one on the road can see us if we are in trouble. The large, powerful road makes us certain that something is coming. Tall birch trees line the side of the road opposite the cottage, so we cannot see what is coming in from the fields. The poem’s switch to first-person plural insinuates that perhaps you, dear reader, will take too long to leave the house. Unless you are the outside which has come in. In fact, as a reader, you are — as well.

The collection is full of reminders that the dolls and the houses are just props — even though what they are depicting really happened. And the reader is everywhere and everything at once: “You’re going to kill her. At least give her legs” and “the dishpan doesn’t belong by the bed” and “Lee rehearsed with a human, recording his sprawl to determine the placement of the victimized doll” and “Gas jets open as wrists in a tub, filling me with peace because I’m only watching. I stand above the diorama, magnifying glass to scene.” What this collection teaches us, if we read the poems as Glessner Lee meant her dioramas to be read, is how to look at a scene until we distinguish the important details, the potential facts, from the overwhelming material evidence around us. As an investigator notes in the poem “Tenth Seminar In Homicide Investigation,” “There is a tenderness in looking.”

These are wonderful books. Keep in mind, though, that (like Glessner Lee’s Victorian-style crime scene dioramas) they feature almost exclusively white criminals and victims (and a few Latin-American political prisoners who are victims of a state everyone recognizes as corrupt). If we were to rely on popular television series such as Orange Is the New Black or Breaking Bad to familiarize ourselves with incarceration and crime in America, we may well come away with the impression that prisoners receive adequate representation before convictions, and that they are guilty of the crime for which they have been incarcerated.

In America today, one percent of the population is incarcerated. We are five percent of the world’s population and incarcerate 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. One could say that we lost sight of the human scale in prisons when Reagan launched the war on drugs. Studies like Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow refine the statistics for us: 1 in 14 black men are incarcerated compared to 1 in 106 white men. About 25 percent of the incarcerated are nonviolent drug offenses — the kind we don’t see on top-rated television crime series. And though, statistically, white men are several times more likely to engage in illegal drug use than black men, black men are prosecuted more often because of targeted neighborhood raids by police. Exit, Civilian and Doll Studies: Forensics are imperative and timely. Hopefully they will help inspire us to reconsider our culture of incarceration.

LARB Contributor

Marcela Sulak is the author of the poetry collection, Immigrant and a chapbook. She has translated 3 collections of poetry from the Czech Republic and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (such as it is still called, though the Rebel forces are still conquering cities and headed to Kinshasha....)  She directs the Shaindy Rudoff Graduate Program in Creative Writing at Bar-Ilan where she also teaches American literature. 


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