At the National Gallery in London, there is a ‘peepshow’ that allows one to peer into a miniature 17th century Dutch household. Made by Samuel van Hoogstraten in the 17th century, and appropriately titled A Peepshow with Views of the Interior of a Dutch House, it is a small box that looks rather plain on the outside, but has been intricately painted inside to reveal a private domestic scene. There are two holes in opposite sides of the box, through which viewers are invited to take a peek. Though nothing out of the ordinary seems to be happening inside, the peepholes create a sense of the illicit; the viewer becomes a voyeur, examining the intimate space of strangers.
The surreal and smart prose poems in Carol Guess’s newest collection function in part as sensational Dutch peepshows, and in part as feminist meditations on the aesthetics of violence. Doll Studies: Forensics takes for its subject eighteen dioramas built by forensic pathologist Frances Glessner Lee. Based on real crime scenes, Lee’s dioramas were used as tools in the study of crime scene investigation during the 1940s and 50s. The majority of Lee’s dioramas depict scenes in which women are victims of domestic violence, so the dioramas are ripe with opportunity for feminist discourse.
Guess takes up this thread in her first three poems, which introduce the major motifs of the collection. These poems are rich with overlapping feminine and domestic imagery: chores, children, flowers, dresses, pink slippers, lacey curtains, red lips and nails—but the scenes are as macabre as they are quaint. “Cottage on the Rocks Estate” (a title indicative of the suggestive word play and dark sense of humor running throughout the collection) offers this haunting description: “Knick-knacks squat atop the mantle, red the color of our lips and nails, red the color of the twisted cord.” The color red here becomes a link between feminine artifice and gore as painted lips are made to mirror bloodstains. The poem then provokes the reader into a reconsideration of the virtues and dangers of the notion of separate spheres: “When outside comes in there may be a disruption.” The irony of this statement builds as the collection progresses, and the tiny crime scenes offer various deconstructions of the traditional conception of home as a safe space for women.
The prose poem form seems like an obvious choice for dealing with dioramas because of the enclosed room-like space it creates visually on the page, but Guess’s prose form offers a deeper level of thematic support to her collection. These blocks are perfect vessels for subversion of domestic ideals in their suggestion of containment, structure, and insularity. Likewise, the diorama conceit implies a literal act of home-making, requiring control and precision—but in fact what is contained within each tidy prose block is a home that’s been unmade by tragedy. In “Cake, With Corpse,” a privileged view of an ideal household reveals the tragic side of domesticity: “The kitchen’s perfection belies its weapon. 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…a story not in words, but things.” Presumably, this poem assumes the perspective of Frances Glessner Lee, re-creating the space. Thus, Lee’s apparent detachment from the crime is underscored by Guess’s economic description: “Housewife sprawls, stiff-limbed in skirt.” Through its construction, the scene becomes a space made only of objects, and the victim referred to here only as “Housewife” is dehumanized, both by her victimhood and her role in life. Thus, she remains disconnected from the home life and identity of the speaker (and by proxy, the reader), who is “only watching.”
A voyeuristic point of view dominates the collection, infusing each poem with an eerie sense of anxiety and a bit of the uncanny. As Guess explains in “Girl on Wheels,” “the idea is to see as at a museum.” “Tenth Seminar in Homicide Investigation” begins with instructions that suggest, paradoxically, that this detachment allows one to enter the experience of the victim: “Touch nothing. There’s tenderness in looking. You become their lips, their eyes.” Guess herself seems to take this advice, choosing words with precision and refusing to leave out or soften disturbing details. This poem is placed toward the end of the collection, and seems to serve as a meta-poetic epilogue as the voice of author and speaker are conflated in the poem’s last line: “Only newbies wallow in sentiment, eyes averted when they meet the bereaved.”
Despite its intellectual inclinations, this collection is far from dry. In an interview with for Seattle Star, Guess explains that these poems “do something very different from factual research…Above all, I was working with sound, with music. I hope readers can engage with the sound of the poems even without knowing the facts of the individual cases.” Indeed, the sense of simultaneous dread and wonder that is created by Guess’s gory and uncanny imagery is supported by the quality of her language. “Headline Red” is one of the many prose poems in this collection that utilize the sort of economic musicality that has become representative of Guess’s prose poetry. The poem starts at a fittingly frantic pitch: “lipstick loses face fast slashed on the sash of one wet wrist,” and continues to waver between playful and frantic up to its chilling conclusion: “the most dangerous knives are dull. No matter; I win what I want one way or another.” Guess’s linguistic tension emphasizes the compression of the form and mimics the piling up of detail in the content. Readers are made to chase syntax just as they chase Guess’s visual details in search of a narrative, a cause of death, a motive. If these poems are read aloud, the mind races to catch up with the tongue, and this is the thrill that drives the collection.
Sometimes the bouncing rhythm of Guess’s internal rhyme undercuts the grim subject matter, which highlights the paradox at the center of the book: the betrayal that takes place when the safe haven of home becomes dangerous. Readers sense this betrayal in each poem—even the section that departs from the dioramas. Three: Departure Lounge is a section in the middle of the book that takes the reader away from Lee’s dioramas, and into a numbered, twenty part meditation on a romantic relationship. The voice in this section softens, the rhythm slows, and a first-person speaker directly addresses an estranged (and sometimes returned) lover. While the exact circumstances of estrangement—physical, emotional, and psychological—are ambiguous, the speaker herself seems lost in a dark dream world, where her lover (or the memory of that lover) drifts in and out: “After you left…I created a face to fill the hole. After you left, the hole was inside me. I felt it widen, rehearsing. Things shifted, sifted through the hole.” While one can assume that the speaker or speakers of the poems in this section are imagined characters drawn from the dioramas, it is just as easy to accept that this may be an entirely different cast of characters—perhaps even more autobiographical. There is a thematic connection between Lee’s reconstruction of domestic tragedy and this speaker’s attempts to reconstruct herself and her lover after a trauma. While this section seems a bit odd in the collection, its softer, more vulnerable quality is a brief and welcome departure from the intensity of the dioramas, which remain the focus of the book. The sympathetic speaker in this section charges the collection with just enough emotion to balance the diorama poems’ precision and intellect.
As her muse for this collection, Guess cites Corinne May Botz, a photographer who documented Lee’s dioramas in detail in her book, The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death. Indeed, Guess’s collection opens with an epigraph taken from Botz’s chapter, “Killing the Angel in the House: The Case of Frances Glessner Lee”: She was close, verging on something, she might even have caught a glimpse of herself in the miniature deaths, but she hesitated, took a step backward, and regained composure. The phrase “killing the angel in the house” is a reference to Virginia Woolf’s “Professions for Women,” in which Woolf discusses the Victorian ideal of the domestic woman, or “the angel in the house.” She asserts that “killing the Angel in the House was part of the occupation of a woman writer.” Botz’s dark play on Woolf’s phrasing sets the tone for Guess’s collection and points readers toward a feminist framework for understanding her subject matter. While readers of Guess will certainly benefit from Botz’s book, which provides meaningful context through its analysis of Francis Glessner Lee’s life, it’s safe to say that Guess’s collection stands on its own. With research, whimsy, and pathos, Guess has created a strange and wonderful world in this book.
You can view Botz’s photographs of Lee’s crime-scene dioramas here on her website.
Rochelle Hurt is the author of a chapbook, Rustblood (forthcoming from Dzanc Books). She has received awards from Crab Orchard Review, Poetry International, Hunger Mountain, and Arts & Letters. Her poetry and prose can be found in recent or upcoming issues of KROnline, the Southeast Review, Cincinnati Review, Passages North, The Collagist, and RHINO.