Missing & Unidentified Women: From Marissa Jones’ “Vanished” Podcast to Aimee Baker’s “Doe”
In the podcast series “The Vanished,” produced by Marissa Jones, a recent episode focused on Madeline Babcock, who went missing in 1968. Generally, “The Vanished” episodes present lengthy phone interviews with people connected to the cases, framed in an overall narrative. When I listen, I’m searching for small details that offer meaning about the missing person: something redemptive in that person’s life, of the lives of the left-behind, who are often children or parents of the missing.
In a lengthy interview within the episode, the daughter of a now-deceased man suspected in Babcock’s disappearance speaks of an early, traumatic memory: her father and another man, when the speaker was four years old, brought her to a motel room where they partied with Madeline Babcock.
In the interview, the now -grown woman recalls an act of violence that centers the memory. She speaks of her own desire to find the truth about the missing woman, though she has no other connection to Madeline Babcock beyond that fragment of childhood memory.
What strikes me in the woman’s account is a particular gesture that gives such vivid life to the missing person: during the party in the motel room, Babcock played with the toddler, letting her explore the contents of Babcock’s purse on the floor of the room, to keep the child entertained. That gesture seems the lyric center of the memory, and of the young child’s experience of trauma – of the part of the experience that offered a way through the trauma as she grew up.
A brother of Babcock’s, when he heard the anecdote, recognized his sister’s personality – as if it were proof of identity, a bit of life where no life was otherwise to be found. That gesture of kindness, playfulness, intimacy, motherliness – whatever we might call it – is one example of the lyricism I seek in such stories.
I want to connect that case to my thoughts on a poetry collection I recently came across – something that would have nicely folded into Disequilibria, had I known about it before the manuscript was complete.
In 2018 Aimee Baker published Doe, a sequence in diptych form of poems about missing and unidentified women. Recently, Baker collaborated with two filmmakers on a documentary based on the book, and on the stories of many women whose stories are represented in the poems.
The first section of Doe focuses on several American women who went missing over the span of a century, in all corners of the country. They are identified in headnotes by name, date of disappearance, and location. The poems themselves are in varied forms, but generally explore the interesting tensions between long-lined, prose-like entries and short-lined works. A few are more experimental, including a sideways, columnar piece called “Scorpirus” that fruitfully tests the boundary between victim and victimizer.
Overall, the long-lined pieces project the openness of the country and its highway-lined spaces, while the shorter ones use their intensity and attenuation to draw the eye into emblematic details – though the sense of bewildering vastness and the careful, almost microscopic attention to signs, sounds, objects, clues, and other details crosses between the modes throughout the book.
The second part of the diptych is a shorter series of poems about unidentified women; thus only dates of discovery and locations are given. There’s a ghostly correspondence between the two sides: though slightly asymmetrical in length, the parts echo each other in the ways they reimagine the women, named or not, and also in the ways they reconstruct the continent of the missing that this book carefully brings into view.
The evocation of missingness in Doe depends on its sense of space and place. Varied landscapes recur in the series – urban, rural, confined, expansive, East, West – and it is in part the variety, the plurality of spaces that creates the larger sense of missingness as a social, political, gender-responsive, emotional, and poetic dimension in which the overall work exists. The places we inhabit, within the more-raw sense of space, are where we go missing. So, though it might seem space itself swallows the missing, it is the disquieting possibilities of menace and neglect that are afflictions born from our human construction of place more than the inscrutable vastness of geographical space.
The poetry in Doe – the approach to lines, and the evocation of spaces through the physiognomy of lines – also evokes the variety of spaces: expansive, flat, confined, deep, exposed, or hidden. Also, it balances the slight, occasional journalistic or documentary or even clinical, procedural perspective with more intimate and poetic perspectives. The lyricism is in the testing of the poet’s keen senses against the cold, clinical facts.
The poems of Doe, in the overall series, form themselves across varied tropes, often in binary form: real and mythic details, victim and assailant, illumined and dark, heavy and light, sky and ground, story and image. Refrains, anaphoric frames, and the shifting of long lines with shorter, broken lines in clipped stanzas also help create the overall texture and landscape of the world of missingness in Doe, enlivening the dead.
Ultimately, a sequence of short poems has to find its reverberative level, its arc. It will be more than theme, as a stone arch uses more than stone to stay aloft. It has its physics, and the poetic sequence has its poetics: the patterning of sounds, tropes, images, and rhetorical devices that give us unity and completion.
At the heart of these patterns is witness. Patterns of witness ultimately take the form of illumination, or more broadly of lightness: the intimations of grace or beauty and of coldness and distance that the trope, in eternal contradiction, has the capacity to sustain.
Through the repeating patterns of environment and relationship – flowers, trees, insects, small mammals, friends, companions, mythic beings – vision and redemption become a sustained performance. Cicadas, cats, stars, headlights, sunlight, moonlight, streetlamps, neon signs, gloaming, glistening eyes, radiating shades, and incandescent bits of glass enliven the space, making it resonant with the literal, documentary rawness of the world, but also the mythic, lyric possibilities of what we hope for in the world: that women will not be brutalized in the ways the poems record and harmonize as lament and witness.
In One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez included a fictional version of the 1928 Ciénaga, Colombia Banana Massacre perpetrated by the Colombian Army in support of the US-based United Fruit Company. Since only one victim is known to have survived, no accurate and unbiased accounting of the massacre took hold; the number of dead, and interpretations of the causes and outcomes, varied according to political points of view. In his novel, Garcia Marquez went with a number of dead somewhat higher than most estimates. Later, in an interview, he argued for the moral ascendance of fiction, or imagination, over the spare facts, which tend to be fragmented and isolated, no matter who manipulates them. His massacre is woven into the complex, distant, yet richly-textured world of Macondo, parallel to and yet ultimately detached from the historical world it sprang from.
Reading Baker’s Doe, I wonder if it’s not merely the superiority of imagination and its products that allows us possibilities of redemption. I think, rather, it is in the tropes, patterns, arcs, rhythms, textures, and essential lyricism that hold the power to save. So, it’s not merely that we have the power to re-imagine reality, but that the artist tends carefully to the forms of imagination. The redemption, or its possibility, is in the details. It’s the work itself, the impure products, made as best we can.