On writing “A Letter to the Coroner in the Voice of Marian Parker” by Jennifer Militello from issue 298.2

February 19, 2014

On writing “A Letter to the Coroner in the Voice of Marian Parker” by Jennifer Militello from issue 298.2

She was murdered. Kidnapped for ransom. Mutilated. Tortured.

It was 1927. She was twelve years old.

I was taking a persona poem workshop with Reginald Shepherd when I read about Marion Parker, and something about her situation triggered a response in me. The girl, daughter of a wealthy banker, was dismembered, disemboweled, and probably still alive when the maiming had begun. She had her throat slit in a bathtub. Then, in order to collect the ransom, her killer attempted to make her appear alive by wiring open her eyelids and stuffing her torso with rags.

She was cast from the back seat of the car after the exchange of money, and her limbs were later found wrapped in newspaper, some distance from the scene.

This story struck me as sickening, sad, of course. But the event had also taken place so far in the past that it seemed removed from its horrific immediacy in some way, and this suggested that it could be activated as a metaphor.

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I ended up writing three poems in the voice of Marion Parker (misspelling her name in the title, as it had been misspelled in so many accounts), and these poems ended up anchoring the central concept behind my newly completed manuscript, A Camouflage of Specimens and Garments. The one I’m writing about today was named a finalist for the James Hearst Poetry Prize and appears in The North American Review. Another was awarded the 49th Parallel Award from Bellingham Review.

In each of these poems, I have sought to take the reality of Marion Parker and smudge her into myth, thinking as I did of the ways Sylvia Plath so often constructed a mythology, a persona, of herself. Marion Parker ended up being the perfect voice, as I could create a folklore around the real story. Her story could allow me to talk about ways that damage to the actual body can be used to represent and investigate damage to the internal self.

So I decided to write about physical damage in order to write about emotional wounds.

I wanted to remove the real Marion Parker, the actual girl, and preserve the allegory of her and of her murder in order to speak of lacerations and disembodiment, of destruction and loss and a shedding of self. I wanted to examine what it means to be a female damaged by men, what it means to be materially small but spiritually immense, what it means to grow powerful in the face of injury, to reclaim the self even as the self is usurped. It felt as though she might serve as a specimen of a type of situation where control over the self is taken, harmfully and forcefully taken, from that loss—and of the speaker’s complex response.

I also hoped to talk about death as a redemption. This idea was in tune with the voice of a series of “Dear B” letters I’d written for the manuscript, plaintive moments of authentic voice threading through, letting persona rest as the actual “character” of the book surfaced. I wanted to go deep into the now-fictional experience. To explore it for all it could tell us about ourselves. I wanted the reader to be inside Marion as she felt herself marred and ruined and also empowered—I wanted to give that experience to the reader.

I felt this murdered girl could become a symbol for the woman taken from her body, turned into something non-human, muted, crushed. I wanted to say something about the rawness of all of us, how animal we become at the hands of death, especially a violent death, say something about all the ways in which we are transformed, all the transformations we can encounter and survive, burn through and gain power from. I wanted to take the breaking of the person and expand it to represent the breakings of our selves. I hoped to write about being appropriated, seized.

I also sought to describe the reconfiguring of the corpse, the treating of the female as a doll or false entity and how that would affect the voice of the speaker. I wanted to explore the gruesome, the body as puppet or figurine, as object, and as separate from the self, the self as stronger than the body—the identity as diffuse.

At its end, the poem turns by beckoning, by offering death as the place that will reveal to us a truth: We are tortured by the world. Few of us feel whole.

This story—so far in the past, though also alarmingly real—seemed to speak about that. About each of us struggling to be held together, healed, about feeling death coming on, how we are nothing but animal in that realm, how death robs us of ourselves but also frees us, and gives us a strength that is supernatural, ideal.

Jennifer Militello is the author of Body Thesaurus (Tupelo Press, 2013), named a finalist for the Alice Fay di Castagnola Award by Marilyn Hacker, Flinch of Song (Tupelo Press, 2009), winner of the Tupelo Press First Book Award, and the chapbook Anchor Chain, Open Sail. Her poems have been published widely in such journals as American Poetry Review, The Kenyon Review, The New Republic, The North American Review, The Paris Review, and Ploughshares, and anthologized in Best New Poets 2008. Her poem, "A Letter to the Coroner in the Voice of Marian Parker," appeared in issue 298.2, "A Gospel of the Human Condition" in issue 295.2, and "The Skins We Slit Seeking the Vertebrae of Snakes" in issue 290.3-4.

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