Maryann Corbett: ‘The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death’

Crime scene dioramas created as teaching tools by Frances Glessner Lee
Renwick Gallery, Washington, D.C.

Well-behaved voyeurs
bend above these exquisite
dollhouse miniatures

where the small-scale poor
die in ’40s dailiness.
Blood speckles a floor

tiled in one-to-twelve
scale. Ditto bath fixtures, beds,
plates shocked from a shelf—

Here’s a girl’s sliced neck.
Here’s another, legs jutting
from a tub, freaklike.

Is this Dresden head
brush-tipped with the purpling
livor of the dead?

To appreciate
such intently crafted pain,
one must contemplate

finger-cramping care:
quarter-inch-high postcards, penned
with a single hair.

A close eye for sin’s
rigor vitae: tiny socks
hand-knitted with pins.

Strict detail is key.
Look there for the rage of God.
Search for that and see,

sisters. As will I,
taken with the pains by which
quiet women die.


Maryann Corbett writes: “In the autumn of 2018, I visited Washington, D.C. to speak at Catholic University, and while I was there, my sister-in-law took me to visit the Renwick Gallery. Its permanent displays are all lovely, but what stayed with me was a visiting exhibition: the Nutshell Studies. The quaintness of the doll-sized views and the perfection of craft in the recreated period interiors contrasted eerily with the bloody crimes laid out in them. They all stayed with me for a long time, and I did more digging about their creator and her work. The resulting poem—in haiku stanzas, because a small form seemed appropriate—was first published in Pangyrus. It’s included in the book In Code, which centers on my years in the Revisor’s Office but talks about all sorts of social evils.”

Maryann Corbett earned a doctorate in English from the University of Minnesota in 1981 and expected to be teaching Beowulf and Chaucer and the history of the English language. Instead, she spent almost thirty-five years working for the Office of the Revisor of Statutes of the Minnesota Legislature, helping attorneys to write in plain English and coordinating the creating of finding aids for the law. She returned to writing poetry after thirty years away from the craft in 2005 and is now the author of two chapbooks, five full-length collections already published, and a forthcoming book. Her fifth book, In Code, contains the poems about her years with the Revisor’s Office. Her work has won the Willis Barnstone Translation Prize, has appeared in many journals on both sides of the Atlantic, and is included in anthologies like Measure for Measure: An Anthology of Poetic Meters and The Best American Poetry 2018.

Her web page:

Photo: “Murder is Her Hobby Exhibition” by massmatt is licensed under CC BY 2.0.


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