Saturday, January 25, 2020

Poem366: “Body Falling, Sunday Morning” by Susana H. Case

Body Falling, Sunday Morning by Susana H. Case

Body Falling, Sunday Morning by Susana H. Case, Cincinnati, Ohio: Milk & Cake, 2019

Frances Glessner Lee was an artist who didn’t consider herself one. She specialized in forensic miniatures, her intricately detailed “Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death,” which helped train crime scene investigators in the 1940s and ‘50s.

Glessner Lee’s dioramas are incredibly detailed, and a chapbook by Susana H. Case, Body Falling, Sunday Morning, describes Glessner Lee’s work in terms that begin to give her the credit she deserves as someone often referred to as the mother of forensic science.

Case starts with an intriguing premise, and photos of Lee’s dioramas are placed throughout the book to heighten the interest. Glessner Lee was known for her keen attention to detail, right down to functioning mousetraps.

The book includes titled poems, but in between some of them are prose sections that have poetic economy of language. These are not titled on the page (the table of contents labels them “Frances 1,” “Frances 2,” etc.), but the crafted language had me convinced that they were prose poems instead of mere background information. Here’s part of one:

Frequenting autopsies to verify the accuracy of her models, Glessner Lee notes the correct amount of bloating among those in her down-at-heels homes and rooms, victims led astray by desire and vice. The inherent vice of materials: degradation over time. Nail polish depicting blood turns purple.

The numbered “Frances” entries are very informative, but there’s something more than information at work here.

One poem, “End of the Affair,” does a nice job of showing how these miniatures functioned as crime-fighting tools. A man, dead by gunshot wound, is found at a hideaway cabin. A bullet is found in the rafters, Case reports:

He bent over and shot himself,
his mistress insists.
Knocked his hat clear off.
How the affair ends.
No matter that the gun’s not under him,
and her fingerprints are on the pistol.

I realized as I read the book that I had heard of Frances Glessner Lee and seen her work in the distant past—years and years ago. They came back to me right away when I saw the images Case had chosen for her book. In my opinion, Case does important work here, reminding readers of a woman of importance in her field and allowing us to appreciate the odd lyricism of her meticulous death scenes. It’s easy to forget our progenitors, especially our woman progenitors. I appreciate Case’s work to keep one of them front and center with this compelling collection.

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