Restless Messengers: Poetry In Review

Zefyr Lisowski, Blood Box

Black Lawrence Press, 2019, $9.95

Review by Kristen Renzi

As a child, my interest in mysteries led me to read a nonfiction collection that featured the 1892 murder cases of Andrew and Abby Borden, for which their daughter Lizzie Borden was tried and acquitted. On August 4, 1892, Andrew and Abby Borden were each killed violently by multiple blows from a sharp object in their family home in Fall River, Massachusetts. Their unmarried 32-year-old daughter Lizzie was one of only two other people living in the house who were home during these murders (the other was the family’s maid, Bridget Sullivan). Lizzie’s odd, contradictory testimony as to her whereabouts during the crimes, mostly admitting to being at home but hearing/seeing nothing, led to her arrest. A cursory google will probably give you many more details than I gleaned at the time, but even then, my reading of the case prompted in me a very clear desire for someone other than Lizzie to have committed the murders. To my kid’s eye, it seemed obvious—and thus too easy—that she had done it. I was reading for a mystery, after all, and the Borden case did not suffice.

Digging into Zefyr Lisowski’s debut full-length collection Blood Box, then, was a treat, in that it satisfied my younger self’s desire to see mystery at the heart of the Borden murders, albeit not in the way I had expected to find it all those years ago. Indeed, Lisowski’s collection, winner of the Black River Editor’s Choice Award from Black Lawrence Press, draws upon the historical record of the Borden case not so much to solve or relitigate the murders but rather to explore and embody the individual psyches and intimate relationships of the various people who lived in and/or stayed at the Borden household before August 4, 1892. The collection is written largely in free verse, with a bent toward the experimental (numbered interview questions organize one piece, while another concrete poem is shaped like the pear Lizzie Borden was purportedly eating while her parents were killed). While some of the poems are voiced by an unnamed creator-cum-speaker—the collection opens with a poem titled “Ingredients for an Axe Girl,” a recipe-style list of commands to create the dramatis personae: “Insert girl./ Insert wet./ Insert family hurt axe hand.” (1-3)—and some are composed from trial transcripts and news reports, most of the others are persona poems that bring to life Lisowski’s versions of the Borden household. “Lizzie” is listed as speaker of ten of the collection’s poems, and Emma Borden, her older sister, is given six. Abby Borden, their stepmother, voices four, and Bridget Sullivan, their maid, voices two. Even John V. Morse (Andrew’s first wife’s brother, who was staying with the Bordens at the time of the murders) is a speaker of one of the poems. As such, the collection circles around the personalities and relationships of those intimately involved in the crime both before and after the date of the murders, but it does not depict the crimes themselves. Two poems late in the collection are dated and timestamped in the minutes surrounding the murder of Abby Borden, for instance, but Lisowski does not give us any imagined execution of the crimes; instead, Lisowski plays with uncertainty, perspective, and the secrets one keeps from one’s family (and oneself) to bring the Borden story to (a kind of) life.

This is clearly Lisowski’s story of the Fall River house, but it is an empathetically imagined one, sensitive to the strange details of the case and the persons involved; Lisowski uses these to wonderful effect in depicting a collection of voices that simultaneously deepens and further muddies our understanding of the Borden case. For instance: Andrew Borden is the only one of the household who does not voice any of the poems within the collection. This choice on Lisowski’s part to exclude the Borden patriarch is both telling and compelling; aside from the one Morse poem (interestingly, a sonnet hinting at Morse’s queer desires), Blood Box is a female-driven narrative, despite the contextualizing presence and pressures of men throughout. The result is a collection that haunts one long after putting it down, not due to the terrifying violence of a double patricide/step-matricide, but due to something far more ordinary, and stranger: the unrealized patriarchal and personal violences that move beneath the surface of respectable family life.

Despite his lack of voice, Andrew Borden is a crucial character in Blood Box. In “Inquest Testimony, August 12, 1892,” a poem voiced by Lizzie, we read about “Father’s/ hatchet face and shadow,” for instance (10-11), while a mid-collection sonnet in Emma’s voice implies, with negative connotation, that he functioned as a god. And in “Preparing for the Wedding Anniversary, June 5, 1890,” an epigraph-style poem in which each of its eight lines/sentences are separated by white space that is imagined in the voice of Abby Borden, Andrew’s severity is confirmed. She declares “Of course I realized I was wed to an undertaker—anyone could see his face, stretched taut as a morgue sheet./ Tenderness wasn’t what I was looking for.” (3-4). Yet Andrew comforts Abby despite his grim appearance and character. The poem closes with this: “We sleep in a narrow bed, and I dream of him in embrace, spread out like a lover or thin patty of flesh” (8). It would be hard to consider this characterization of their nuptial bed romantic; indeed, it resonates more, to this reader, with T.S. Eliot’s “patient etherized upon a table” from “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” than a love sonnet, and yet the image is undeniably intimate (3). The “we,” the bed’s narrowness, the “embrace” (albeit within a dream) all depict a kind of physical proximity that perhaps is enough for Abby. But it certainly doesn’t melt any of Andrew’s coldness.

In an interesting pairing of poems that follows this one, both voiced by Lizzie, we get further glimpses into the Bordens’ strange domesticity. In the free verse “Sketches for a Family Portrait, August 1, 1892,” for instance, “violence dances with us like ghosts” (9). Yet this violence is more banal than spectacular, more about distances than confrontations. The final four lines of the poem spell this out well:

This is our intimacy, the bond we keep:
I always pass by before he climbs the back stairs.
I am careful to avoid eye contact.
He is careful to keep the door locked afterward.

This mention of locked doors refers to a crucial detail of the Borden case: due to a robbery some time before the murders (and for which Lizzie Borden was also a suspect), the Bordens kept the private rooms of the family locked at all times, whether the Bordens were home or not; the keys, fascinatingly, were kept on the living room mantle—a public display of privacy or of omnipresent suspicion, but certainly a ripe metaphor for a family who kept apart, even in their close quarters. Because so much of the collection functions in this sense of violence—threat, suspicion, suggestion, claustrophobia, but no overt action—the free-verse poem that follows, “Finding the Pigeons, July 29, 1892,” strikes a particularly brutal chord in its description of the “bundle of broken wings,” “blood staining the stoop,” and “wretched necks” that are the remains of the barn birds killed by Andrew for supposedly “making too much noise” (1,2,4,3). In the poem’s imagistic shorthand of the killed bird as stand-in for stifled woman, patriarchal oppression at home is linked to other realist-domestic fiction-cum-crime-drama of the turn-of-the-century (Susan Glaspell’s “A Jury of Her Peers” or its sister play Trifles comes most readily to mind). Putting these real details from the Borden case (Andrew actually did kill some pigeons in the months before he died) to work in these suggestive and resonate ways, Lisowki’s collection brings to life, in parallel to the spectacular crime, a deeply compelling story of banal violence within women’s lives.

In the opening poem of the collection, Lizzie is described as “lonely, and covered with blood./ Her flesh her body taut with thirties./ She is older.” (9-11). Certainly age, isolation, and spinsterhood are themes throughout this collection, and violence is never far from jealousies insinuated or ushered in by sex. “I am not trying to build sympathy/ but empty beds terrify me” claims the unnamed speaker of this first poem, and this fear of a life lived alone is palpable in many places (13-14). In “Poem in Which Nothing Happens, August 3, 1892,” Lizzie explicitly links the “maze, I mean house, I mean spite” in which she lives to being “thirty-two, which also is a type of box” (3, 9). This experimental poem itself is positioned on its side, bisected by a blueprint-style drawing of the Borden home interior with a small silhouette of a woman’s figure near a bed. Juxtaposed with the free-verse “A Corrective, July 12, 1891,” in which Abby, speaker, appeals to “the safety in men against the curl of sin in my breast,” it’s clear that these women’s reliance upon men—or one man—is both necessary and fatal to their flourishing in a house that Abby, too, describes as no home but rather a “grave” (2,13). In the painful relationship between stepmother and stepdaughter, there is enmity and competition, but also surprising empathy. In a long free-verse poem titled “10:05 a.m., August 4, 1892,” (dated/timestamped around the moments Abby Borden was killed), Lizzie voices her awareness of her own precarious position within their home, in which Andrew’s “favoring of me” is only “a mutability,” and in which her stepmother is thinking of either regrets, change, or nothing (21,16-20). Toward the end of the piece, Lizzie asks, “What are you expecting? A reward? A triumph? There’s nothing in this story/ but pain—" (45-46). This line is particularly compelling as an indictment, of course, to continued parsing of the Borden mystery, but it also works to sum the experiences of the women in this house—and perhaps, by extension, many other such women.

While Lisowski’s collection remains coy as to the whodunnit aspect of the crime, the heft of the collection focuses around a gendered, classed pain at the turn-of-the-century that is palpable on all pages in the text. While the brief snippets from Bridget are also painful—testifying to her lack of safety, a mention of how the girls refused to use her name, calling her instead “Maggie” (name of a previous servant)—this is not, ultimately, a story about the abuses of the monied upon the working class. It is a story about the wealthy, white, privileged women who nonetheless find their lives circumscribed by men and gender. Here, the series of poems written in the voice of Emma Borden, Lizzie’s older and also unmarried sister, are particularly revelatory. Despite being absent from home at the time of the murders (Emma was staying several miles away with friends), her persona in Lisowski’s collection is just as tortured as Lizzie’s with secrets. “Look at me: I wear/ my suffering on my skin,” reads the close of the first poem in the collection that is voiced by Emma, a performative statement made even more disturbing by the lines’ conclusion: “I wear my skin/ on top of my other skin” (“There’s been a death.” 15-17).

This idea of hiding the real behind masks, of Matryoshka doll selves waiting beneath exterior polish, proliferates in Emma’s pieces. Three of her six poems have the same title: “Body Wrench.” Though they vary in length (one is merely four words, one over a page) each gives voice to the sensation of these nesting selves unable to break free of their sisters (often versions of Emma, but also Lizzie and Mrs. Borden, too). The expectation, for Emma, is loss of her autonomy. “When I am burgled, I know what happens—” begins the first of the “Body Wrench” poems, which leads into a stanza that explicitly likens the home to the self: “Our walls are so thin. Our skins are also walls” (1-2). Later in the poem, this sentiment is recast: “When I am burgled, I wait/ for it to happen again:” (10-11). Thus, this picture of impending doom is also, curiously, one of stasis. In “Talking to the Priest, August 6, 1892,” Emma voices, in succinct tercets, the unchanging misery of her life both before and after her parents’ deaths, saying “my parents’ absence, just as their presence,/ remains the same dull ache” (17-18). While Lizzie Borden may haunt our imaginaries as the unlikely murderess, the misunderstood victim, or—in Lisowski’s hands—a combination of the two, it is Blood Box’s imagining of Emma that haunts me: the sister who is completely other to, while also much the same as, Lizzie. The innocent sister held fast in the same uncanny purgatory as the maybe-murderous Lizzie and their dead.

Post by Kristen Renzi on 4/11/2021 at 9:00 AM

Kristen Renzi is an Associate Professor of English and the chair of the Gender and Diversity Studies program at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio, where she teaches poetry, critical theory, and Transatlantic 19th/20th century literature. Her first book of poetry, The God Games and Other Voices, appeared in 2017 from Main Street Rag Press, and her first book of scholarship, An Ethic of Innocence: Pragmatism, Modernity, and Women’s Choice Not to Know, was published in 2019 by SUNY Press. She lives with her husband, daughter, two cats, and a dog.