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Amodern 10: Disability Poetics
December 2020

TRUE CRIME’S POETIC FORM

Consuming Disability in Jillian Weise's “Elegy for Zahra Baker”

Sarah Nance

In October of 2010, a ten-year-old girl named Zahra Baker was reported missing from Hickory, a town of about 40,000 residents in Catawba County, North Carolina. The case seemed perfectly triangulated for maximum media appeal: not only was Baker a child and her own stepmother one of the earliest suspects, but Baker was also a cancer “survivor” who, as a result of both cancer and treatment, used a prosthetic leg and hearing aids.1 Early reports in the local paper, the Hickory Daily Record, include brief mentions of her prosthesis and hearing aids, but national and international media sources soon acquired the story, and Baker’s medical devices become a major aspect of their portrayal of the missing child. On October 14 – five days after Baker was reported missing – the Seattle Times ran a story that opened in this manner:

Though Zahra Clare Baker was battling cancer that forced her to wear hearing aids and a prosthetic leg, friends who knew her in Australia say she was an outgoing, caring, happy girl. . . .  “She was one of the bravest little girls you’ll ever have the pleasure of meeting,” Kim Wright, 44, a close friend of the family, said in a phone interview from Giru, Australia, where Zahra lived until two years ago. “She was always thinking of others.”2

Baker, an Australian native, moved to the United States with her father after he married a woman he met online.3 As the Seattle Times story demonstrates, Baker’s story became inextricably tied to her cancer diagnosis and the public sympathy elicited from the image of a child “forced” to wear medical devices.

As a news story that spanned two countries and two continents, Baker’s case quickly became sensationalized by mainstream media, an attention that was further compounded by gruesome and complicated new details that emerged as the case developed: a fake ransom note, allegations of long-standing child abuse, and a seemingly unrelated fire the morning Baker was reported missing. By late October, investigators found Baker’s prosthetic leg and, a short time later, bone fragments spread across the countryside. Baker’s father and stepmother were both arrested on unrelated charges including check fraud, and authorities later indicted her stepmother for obstruction of justice. Within the first nascent weeks of the case, its focus had quickly shifted from search-and-rescue attempt to homicide investigation.4

It is the brief time in between Baker’s disappearance and the discovery of the prosthetic leg and the bone fragments that Jillian Weise writes about in her long prose poem, “Elegy for Zahra Baker,” a recounting of the early days of the case and a speaker’s reactions to them. Throughout the poem Weise not only rehearses various details from the investigation, but also considers the public – and media-driven – perception of disabled bodies. In particular, Weise draws attention to the publicity surrounding the case in order to express concern at the various ways in which injured and disabled bodies are violently made visible to others, forcing their private bodies into the public sphere in two principal ways: journalism and the internet-based construction of narratives of “true crime.” Weise brings these private-made-public movements to the forefront, and suggests that poetry itself offers one way of potentially ameliorating the violence by emphasizing embodiment over spectacle. She accomplishes this through the form of the poem itself – not quite a lyric poem, not quite prose – which overlays journalistic narrative description with elliptical lyricism. By borrowing from and reconfiguring the clear narrative discourse of the news media, Weise questions the way we consume disabled bodies, tracking how media depictions of crime generate an overzealous obsession with bodies that brings to the forefront a sensationalized version of disability. Yet Weise’s poem is not simply a critique of such discourses. Through a formal technique of poetic disaggregation, Weise examines how the pieces of Baker’s body – and the disabled body across history – create a scattered assemblage of parts. With a poetic structure that is at once disrupted but also whole, Weise dispenses with the false linear narratives that the media provides, demonstrating how they fail to account for the multifaceted nature of the disabled body.

First published in the Fairy Tale Review in 2012 and later in Weise’s 2013 collection, The Book of Goodbyes, “Elegy for Zahra Baker” spans seven printed pages.5 The Book of Goodbyes itself is arranged in parts to echo a stage performance: “One,” “Intermission,” “Two,” and “Curtain Call.” “Elegy for Zahra Baker” is situated alone in the final “Curtain Call” section, forming a post-script that also stands as one of the longest poems in the collection. In this way, the poem it is at once part of the collection and also situated as an extended, auxiliary piece. The position of the poem within the collection also appeals to the poem’s indicated genre: that of an elegy, a form that has both a long poetic tradition and a burgeoning position in contemporary disability poetics discourse. As Christina Scheuer writes, “The elegy provides a form in which disability poets can write through and of the body, mobilizing negative emotions to critique contemporary social norms without invoking narratives of spiritual or physical healing.”6 Weise structures “Elegy for Zahra Baker” as a series of short blocks of text with large spaces in between, interspersing details about the case with anecdotes, conversations, and vignettes from the speaker’s point of view. Rather than indulge in the elegy as a form of “healing,” Weise’s “Elegy for Zahra Baker” instead takes Scheuer’s approach, engaging with the scattered pieces of the case and using their negative charge to account for the disabled body’s liminality. Through the formal construction of the poem, she reveals the body’s multifaceted nature as one that refuses to accord to conventional conceptions of embodiment.

Baker’s elegy, with its assemblage-like structure, diverges from a collection that is often stylistically regular, such as the poem “The Ugly Law” that spans three pages in The Book of Goodbyes in even, two-lined stanzas. Only two other poems in the collection function like prose poems. Like “Elegy for Zahra Baker,” they also do not control the right margin in determining line breaks, and the text is instead justified.7 When it comes to the spatial arrangement of the poem, the fragmented pieces mirror its topic, that of “the case of Zahra Baker whose remains were found scattered across Caldwell County, North Carolina, in 2010,” as Weise explains in her “Notes” section. The poem’s structure mimics this scattering, providing a text in which readers must collect and assemble various storylines and topics, moving in and out of Baker’s story and that of the speaker. In considering the month or so between Baker’s reported disappearance in October 2010 and the definitive confirmation of Baker’s DNA in a bone found in mid-November 2010, Weise’s poem lingers in a halted temporal moment, one of waiting and uncertainty.8 In this liminal space of unknowing, Weise’s speaker waits for news of Baker while also contemplating her feelings of affinity for the case: “She was ten years old,” Weise writes, “And, if she is still alive, she is still ten years old.” Weise’s speaker likewise uses a prosthetic leg, and she uses this similarity to consider the lived experience of disability, at times addressing Baker directly. “Zahra,” she says at one point, “[h]ere’s the drill. There have been so many laws against us. Laws that say we can’t go out in public and we can’t marry. Laws that mandate the splicing of our wombs and parts of our brains. I was going to lay it out for you in poetry, all the laws against us, but there were just too many.”9 Like the numerous pieces of the poem and Baker’s scattered remains, Weise suggests that the accumulation of laws working against people with disabilities also has a scattering effect. Too numerous to even account for – “there were just too many,” Weise writes – the laws become scattered across history, indicating that the poem is not just about Baker’s body or Weise’s speaker’s body, but rather the disabled body as such, scattered across legislative time. The formal dynamic of the poem is thus both an attempt to address Baker and the details of her case, and a meditation on the status of a person with disabilities in contemporary culture. Weise’s poem argues that the linearity provided by media narratives is oversimplified, insufficient to represent disabled bodies. In her attention to the poem’s form, Weise suggests howpoetry as a genre can offer a way of reading these two issues simultaneously, the scattered pieces of the poem mirroring scattered bodies and lives.

In navigating Baker’s case as well as the larger sociocultural treatment of the disabled body, “Elegy for Zahra Baker” questions conventional boundaries between private and public life, and brings to light the myriad ways in which bodies become a consumable product for public view. Weise’s formulation of Baker’s case makes us confront uncomfortable intimations about media-fueled interests in violence and crime, what Mark Seltzer calls “the spectacle of the torn and open body” that is nearly always at the forefront of journalism and true crime adaptations.10 For Weise, the formal scattering of her poem provides a sharp critique of media frenzy. The clear narrative elements of journalistic prose transform in “Elegy for Zahra Baker” into a layered interlocking of Baker’s case and the speaker’s own day-to-day life navigating public and private spaces. Through the poem, Weise observes the deliberate shifts from private to public in media representations of Baker, and then identifies an all-too-frequent corollary with the bodies of people with disabilities that occurs in such discourses. Yet Weise’s critique is not simply one of revising journalistic media. She also takes on the genre of true crime, one in which the spectator involves themselves in the media consumption of Baker: watching docuseries, reading news reports, and sharing theories on the internet. At the same time that viewers and readers privately consume bodies – in particular, Weise suggests, disabled bodies – the disabled body is still publicly disavowed in legislative terms and most popular culture. Weise thus moves from crime to more general perceptions of disabled bodies, tracing the ways in which cultural apprehensions of disability make the same troubling movement of turning private bodies into a public spectacle. The alternative Weise creates problematizes the dichotomous private/public divide, suggesting ways of building embodied experience into our language and our lives by resisting the kind of narrative linearity that propels coverage of Baker’s case. The scattering of words, lines, body parts, and individuals in Weise’s poem provides a rejoinder that encapsulates an experience of liminality.

I begin by addressing how the media coverage of crime – especially in the subgenre of true crime –takes the private body and makes it public, removing viewers and readers from the embodied realities of crime violence and situating focus elsewhere. Weise’s poem, however, refutes the implications of such true crime narrativizing by re-engaging with the body, critiquing the public fixation on the construction of a coherent and legible body. Next, I turn to the poem more closely to suggest how it formally questions the way in which embodied engagement with disability is principally one of consumption and value judgement. And, finally, I examine how Weise’s use of the poetic and elegiac genres provide a form that takes the private-turned-public body and recontextualizes it in a discourse about the lived experiences of people with disabilities. In this way, “Elegy for Zahra Baker” offers a new kind of scattering, one that seeks to represent the embodied pieces – and even shape them together – rather than cast them apart.

 

On False Linearity:
Media Representation, True Crime, and Consumption

Weise opens her poem with a direct counter to media sensationalism with a first sentence that bluntly articulates the state of the case. “Zahra Baker is missing,” the poem begins, immediately situating Baker as a person first, noting her name rather than details about her case or her body. The poem then continues:

“I don’t know. You all know more than I know,” says her father. The news on five websites tells the story the same clausal way. A girl, who wears hearing aids and a prosthetic leg, went missing.11

Weise acknowledges the central position of Baker’s father and stepmother in the burgeoning case, where “news on five websites” tells the story “the same clausal way.” Her use of “clausal” here disrupts expectations. We, as readers, have prepared ourselves to hear and read “causal” and indeed, that’s the kind of relationship Weise’s next sentence implies: “A girl, who wears hearing aids and a prosthetic leg, went missing.” Instead, Weise rejects this assumption of causality; nothing about Baker’s status as female, a child, or a disabled person should invite what comes next. In suggesting the relationship between the news media and the story as “clausal,” Weise references a grammatical structure in which the syntactical relationship between subject and predicate forms either part of a sentence or an entire sentence on its own. Weise demonstrates the possibilities of this syntactical construction in the opening and closing sentences of this first stanza. The first, “Zahra Baker is missing,” models an entire simple sentence with subject and predicate. By the fourth and final line of this stanza, however, Weise provides a much more complex sentence. After moving through statements that suggest the reframing of the case by the father and the media, she asserts: “A girl, who wears hearing aids and a prosthetic leg, went missing,” most notably shifting the passive sense of “is missing” to an agent-implied version: “went missing.”

As the poem progresses, Weise includes information from the case interspersed with the speaker’s own thoughts and experiences. The structuring of the poem in this fashion ensures that specific facts and details about Baker – some of which are taken from news reports – are scattered by the voice of Weise’s speaker, mimicking the way that viewers and readers slowly receive updates about the case. The interruptive dynamic of the speaker’s own experiences serves to critique the lingering journalistic elements present within the poem. A few stanzas after the opening, Weise asks, “Where is Zahra Baker’s mom?” The next stanza attempts an answer with short, staccato sentences: “Zahra Baker was born in 2000. Her parents divorced in 2001. No one can find her mom. They are both missing.”12 Weise also repeatedly draws attention to the media, the presumable source of all the details she includes. About one-quarter of the way through the poem, Weise includes a list of quotes:

“Zahra was last seen in her bed at 2:30 a.m. on Saturday morning according to her stepmother.” –Fox News

 

“I am gothic and proud.” –Stepmother’s MySpace page.

 

“Mr. Coffey, you like being in control now who is in control we have your daughter no cops.” –Ransom Note13

This list of quotations suggests the wide range of media and internet sources being mined for data by the public and investigators alike, and Weise thrusts them side-by-side. She quotes not only from mainstream news sources like Fox News, but also user-generated sources that often spread virally as reposted content on discussion boards and forums. Here, Weise points toward the way the internet provides a form of user-enabled “true crime,” by which participants engage in their own variety of detective work. As Seltzer explains, “[T]rue crime points to the media priori in modern society. This is because the technical infrastructure of modern reflexivity is the mass media. It points to the fact that the real world is known through its doubling by machines, the doubling of the world in the mass media that makes up our situation.”14 The mechanized doubling vis-à-vis the media presents a wide range of often-conflicting information; the “doubling of the world,” in Seltzer’s formulation, only makes that “real world” more unstable in its representations, an instability that Weise encapsulates in the formal dynamics of her poetry. With this in mind, we can see that the media representations of true crime function only as a distanced doubling, a false intimacy. The formal scattering of Weise’s poem indicates the impossibility of assembling a cohesive whole from the narratives the media creates. Instead, she suggests that a viable representation of the body can only be achieved when it is not put on display, not made a spectacle.

Thus true crime, as “one of the popular genres of the pathological public sphere,” is a mode that simultaneously involves consumption and creation of information by its participants.15 As Seltzer argues, true crime exists at the tumultuous crossroads of a number of competing tensions: “[True crime] posits stranger-intimacy and vicarious violation as models of sociality. This might be described as a social tie on the model of referred pain. And in that true crime is crime fact that looks like crime fiction, it marks or irritates the distinction between real and fictional reality.”16 Seltzer draws from the medical notion of “referred pain” – pain that’s perceived at a different location than where the painful origin stimulus occurs – to consider how true crime allows us to offset our curiosities about violence, death, and violation to an outside point. If it is true that true crime mimics fictional crime novels and the like, then this blurring of “real and fictional reality” encourages this displacement all the more; that is, we come to expect true crime to read for us like a crime novel. Furthermore, our expectations about where we go to encounter death have shifted over time. As cinema and media theorist Vivian Sobchack points out, many contemporary protocols surrounding death move it from a public, community event to a private, individual experience. Sobchack asserts: “Removing natural death from the public space and discourse leaves only accidental and violent death in public sites and conversation.”17 This public interest in violent death becomes one aspect of a “mass-observed world,” whereby bodies and people are offered up for public consumption.18 This public consumption also implies a commercial aspect as well; after all, “the majority of media enterprises operate as businesses and respond to the needs of their audience to maintain revenue, and this may affect the coverage and analysis given one to particular events.”19 In our internet age, however, there is often no clear distinction between those who consume the media and those that produce it.20 To that end, public interest in true crime has spawned notable commercial offshoots, including “Serial Killers Ink,” a website dedicated to “murderabilia” that made the news during the Baker case for an unexpected reason.21

mage depicts the landing page header of the “Serial Killers Ink” site, with backlit black text on a black background. Under the main masthead, the text provides a list of options: “main / online store / serial killer addresses / murderchicks / news / about us / contact us.” A subheader notes that the site has been operating since 2008.

Fig. 1: Image depicts the landing page header of the “Serial Killers Ink” site, with backlit black text on a black background. Under the main masthead, the text provides a list of options: “main / online store / serial killer addresses / murderchicks / news / about us / contact us.” A subheader notes that the site has been operating since 2008.22

The website, which serves “true crime enthusiasts” and those interested in “serial killer culture,” offers a wide variety of physical items associated with both infamous and little-known murderers. In so doing, Serial Killers Ink contributes to the fetishization of crime, and the blurred boundaries between what Seltzer calls “crime fact” and “crime fiction.”23 The site and its owner, Eric Holler – known as Eric Gein, “an homage to Ed Gein,” a ’50s-era murderer – actually participated in the Baker case in late 2010. Holler wrote to Baker’s stepmother, then in prison, and in total received two responses, both of which he listed for sale on Serial Killers Ink, and both of which attracted a great deal of media attention.24

With the case’s popularity, a wealth of informal media discussions arose, including in a subReddit called “r/UnresolvedMysteries” where a user initiated a thread about “[murder] cases that have gotten under your skin.”25 In a list of replies that numbered almost 400, users responded with a number of cases, including Baker’s, with an astounding grasp of intimate details.26 Indeed, the meticulous account of the moves of the Baker case on Reddit suggest a careful, attentive audience, which we can likewise confirm in the “Zahra Baker” forum of Websleuths, a “true crime discussion” site with over 180,000 registered members as of November 2020.27 Baker’s page has 40 discussion threads and over 24,000 posts, a selection of which are included below. Even though the vast quantity of messages is overwhelming in itself, the number of views is significantly higher, suggesting an even larger audience of observers.

Image portrays a list of discussion threads, along with information about the number of replies and views, and the username of the last person who commented, along with the date. The discussion threads bear names such as “Zahra Baker MEDIA links only **NO DISCUSSION**” and “Official Documents (Arrests, Charges, Warrants, Court Dates, etc) NO DISCUSSION.”

Fig. 2: Image portrays a list of discussion threads, along with information about the number of replies and views, and the username of the last person who commented, along with the date. The discussion threads bear names such as “Zahra Baker MEDIA links only **NO DISCUSSION**” and “Official Documents (Arrests, Charges, Warrants, Court Dates, etc) NO DISCUSSION.”28

It is this vast contingency of viewers and observers that contribute not just to the doubling effect that the media produces but also to an immense multiplicity wherein the details of the case are perpetuated, changed and complicated, all while neglecting embodied reality to instead hyper-focus on disability. With this consumer fixation on the body that paradoxically neglects the body comes a kind of overwrought emotional investment, like that of the user who describes that she’s “been in bits . . . tears and emotional.” Another Reddit user comments, “I always mix up Zahra Baker and [Erica Parsons] . . . another hearing-impaired girl in North Carolina whose parents homeschooled her to conceal abuse and medical neglect. . . . Strange and sad to me how many things those little girls had in common.”29 In this doubling and redoubling, the version of Baker presented as a consumable good blurs, shifting her identity to merge with another child based on their shared form of embodiment.

 

Consumption, as it turns out, is not relegated to traditional forms of media. Through the proliferation of online forums, forensics becomes the purview of a host of consumer-participants. With this expanded audience, the erasure of embodied experience likewise compounds. Weise counteracts the sensationalist interest generated by the media with an intense attention to embodiment, providing her own form of scattering that does not distance us from the bodies in question. Once again in her straightforward, matter-of-fact style, Weise describes the latest development in the case: “Her leg was found in the woods. They matched the serial number from leg to medical records.” As suggested earlier, essentially every media report on the case included details about Baker’s prosthetic leg; Weise takes this information and builds on it, immediately following these lines with an emphatic change of focus: “This is how it begins,” she writes. “Serial numbers on our parts. Only our doctors can tell you who we are.”30 Weise creates a collective experience in which her speaker and Baker partake: the numerical branding on a medical device becomes a problematic way of knowing and identifying human bodies. Unlike media representations, these numbers do suggest specific embodiment, yet they consider Baker in terms of a singular body part. Weise resists such a singularity by referring to these parts as “our”: “our parts.” Much like dental records, serial numbers create a level of remove in the process of identification, whereby “only our doctors” can make the appropriate match between data and part. This effort, Weise asserts, can “tell you who we are,” a statement that refers to the act of identification but also hints at the trouble of essentializing, of reducing an embodied experience to a specific part rather than an aggregated individual: “This is how it begins,” Weise writes. The “you” here is unspecified, suggesting not just Baker’s case but a larger history of essentializing parts over people.

Weise troubles the boundaries of bodily identification, especially those routed through journalistic and medical discourses, which often strive to clearly assign a particular kind of identity through a linear narrative or through numbers which “tell you who we are.” With that in mind, Weise problematizes the notion of easy association as she describes the speaker’s early interest in the case, which comes up in a creative writing class:

Wednesday. Poetry Workshop. Here I am again talking without thinking. “I have a fake leg and I saw this clip on the news about Zahra Baker who may be dead with a fake leg and it didn’t make me cry. It’s very hard to make someone cry in poems or on the news.”

 

After I said the words fake leg, everyone in the class looked at my feet.31

While Weise’s speaker is interested in the affective disconnect she feels from the case, her classmates instead are quick to circumscribe her experience. Like the media outlets who cover the case, the speaker’s classmates move toward a sensationalist interest in the details, which we see in the repetition of the phrase “fake leg” as well as in the gap between her description of the moment and the class’s reaction. In this space, the focus momentarily remains on Baker and questions of embodiment before becoming hyper-focused on one piece of the commentary: the leg itself. Weise also hints here at the way the accounts of true crime cases struggle to accumulate into anything approaching true emotion: “[i]t’s very hard to make someone cry in poems or on the news,” the speaker points out. In her alignment of these two disparate forms – poetry and news reporting – Weise suggests a way for us to read her poem as a response to the media frenzy surrounding the case.

Yet Weise’s speaker returns again later to her own story, evading the details that the reader – or the media – may desire, instead replacing them with conversations about embodied realities of day-to-day life. This strategy provides a means of rearticulating conventional scripts surrounding the journalistic and medicalized views of the disabled body, refusing the linear version of the body those entities create. At one point, the speaker muses,

It is weird that I have all these legs in the attic but they would not let me keep the real leg. The real leg they cut off and I guess it went somewhere like to a shelf or an incinerator. Sometimes I wish it had a proper burial.

 

“Probably has to do with medical waste,” Josh says. “There must be laws.”32

Weise complicates the notion of ownership here, calling into question the assumption we often carry that we have control over our own bodies. If the body as whole belongs to us, why not the part? Weise even suggests a possible transfer of ownership; although she imagines that the leg may have been destroyed, sent to an incinerator, she also imagines another possibility where it sits on a “shelf,” a spectacle of medical science. Josh’s assertion that “[t]here must be laws” suggests the violent relationship between governance and bodies, as well as a widely held uncertainty about why things happen to our own bodies or their parts. In noting the proliferation of legs – the missing “real” leg, the legs in the attic – Weise suggests the way her own body has been scattered like Baker’s. Rather than over-focus on the nature of disability as the media does, she instead provides a scene that presents ownership over the numerous legs existing in various places. The spacing between stanzas in her prose poem also creates a kind of scattered reading where, as with the poetry workshop scene, readers pause on a situation before encountering a follow-up. Through this scattered formal dynamic, Weise suggests that the medicalized linear story of identification – that is, a number equals a part equals a person – falls short of representing the multitude of pieces that make up an encapsulating representation.

In addition to supplementing the scattering of pieces with a sense of ownership and identity, Weise’s poem also suggests the ways in which bodies becomes consumable. Josh’s references to medical waste and medical laws emphasize cultural reliance on biomedicine, a commercialized field where “health” goes to the highest bidder and medical providers are often seen as the final word on someone else’s body. Weise picks up these threads as she describes other people’s interest – including our own, as readers – in the medicalized story of her speaker’s body: “How much would you pay me to say the name of the condition I have?” the speaker asks earlier in the poem. “Would I just need to say the name or would you require an examination? How much for the box of legs in the attic?”33 In her anaphoric list of questions to an unknown recipient, Weise situates the commercial aspects of medical diagnosis and treatment in a larger schema. There, her speaker suggests that another person’s misplaced nosiness about her body could have monetary exchange value, a new economic relationship that upsets the variety of consumption that media create. Weise also suggests the ways in which doctors carry aggrandized authority, implying that the speaker’s representation of her “condition” might not be enough; rather, an “examination” might be required for confirmation, as if guaranteeing authenticity of an item before a sale. Her comments also point to the ways in which medical intervention, treatment, or devices have a commercial cost, as well as possible resale value, asking, “How much for the box of legs in the attic?”

For Weise, this slippage between monetary cost and larger considerations of value becomes a springboard for more complicated understandings of crime, representation, and embodiment. Earlier in the poem, she bluntly states: “I am watching Pawn Stars. It is about how much something is worth.”34 This show, of course, troubles the boundaries between objective cost and potential value, as part of the premise relies on how much something is worth to a particular buyer – in this case, the members of the family-run pawnshop on the show. The other simultaneous premise is one of authenticity, as noted in the paragraph above; is an artifact or object real? The designation of “authentic” or “real” dramatically changes value and, subsequently, material worth. While Weise actively uses the notion of a scattered body as a formal device, she also recognizes the way that disabled bodies are open for consumption by others, particularly in the genre of true crime. Here, in her own scattered retelling, Weise offers alternatives to the typical mode of media consumption, a flipped economy where people reclaim their various “parts” from the media’s gaze, giving value to something publicly deemed as valueless.

 

On Scattering: Disability, Genre, and Poetic Possibility

“Zahra Baker is still missing. I better write some more notes to her before she’s dead.” 35

If news media, medical institutions, and our everyday experiences all too often present disability as a fragmented, piecemeal object meant for our consumption, I want to think in closing of Weise’s use of poetry as a form where the scattered pieces of Baker’s case can be collated alongside other images, experiences, and stories, creating full representation in place of media-crafted rifts. As Jim Ferris writes of a disabled playwright who described himself as less-than-whole, “This body, which enlivens whatever there is of him, which in some fundamental way is him, is whole as it is – just a different whole than he expected as a boy. . . . But it’s still whole, for all its rich uniqueness.”36 Disability poetics offers us a way of examining that “different whole” in ways that challenge social scripts and media reports. Poetry can also offer us insight into embodiment itself, for the way that it calls attention to form resonates with how we inhabit our own bodies. As Ally Day argues, “Poetry draws attention to its form self-consciously, inviting readers to investigate the contours and experience of the poetic body that protects the poet body.”37 The text, then, can become a place of repose and protection for a body that the outside social world disavows.

Weise’s “Elegy for Zahra Baker” is not just a place of safety, however, but also one of action. The poem begins by purporting to provide a traditional poetic homage to Baker: an elegy. Even at first reading, the designation seems both fitting – a memorial to Baker – and reinvented: Weise’s poem considers the various body parts and scattered pieces of the case, elegizing not only them but the social frameworks that have produced their scattering. Thus, as the poem unfolds, we realize that Weise’s approach is more closely aligned with what R. Clifton Spargo calls an “anti-elegy,” an elegy that ultimately fails to find comfort or closure in cultural memorialization. Instead of simplistic memorial, the anti-elegy is an “ethical complaint,” one which “turn[s] against the history of consolation the poet-mourner inherits as normative in her society.”38 Rather than offering closure or even direct forms of mourning, Weise instead uses her poem to shift from the details of the case to a close examination of the ways in which the private life of her speaker has been laid out for public consumption and critique because of misinformed, dehumanizing, and violent social views on disability.

In pushing the boundaries of the elegy, Weise also pushes the boundaries of poetic form with the prose poem, reframing line breaks against the edge of the margin, focusing on descriptions, vignettes, and anecdotes strung together via association on the page. In the epigraph above, Weise refers to some parts of the poem as “notes,” suggesting both the brevity of her style and the interspersion of scattered pieces, situating this poem as a collection of notes that we must return to and continue to fill in. Far from simply mimicking prose, the prose poem “has functioned throughout its history as a self-reflexively inclusive but highly charged, intensely concentrated yet hybrid form for the mingling and confrontation of various literary and extraliterary speech types,” according to Jonathan Monroe.39 As such, the prose poem becomes an ideal space for assembling the scattered pieces, serving as a hybrid form that layers quotations, memories, stories, and descriptions.40 Because the prose poem form largely utilizes free verse, it becomes – as suggested earlier – a counterintuitive pairing for an elegy, which in classical literature “refer[red] to a particular meter, the alternation of hexameter and pentameter lines.” Even after this style changed, an elegy was still marked by “versions of repetition” such as “a refrain, a word, an action.”41 Free verse, then, as often found in a prose poem, offers the elegy an alternative model of being, something that disability scholars have previously noted. As Ferris describes, one possible characterizing feature of disability poetry is “alternative techniques and poetics,” while Katerina Tsiokou argues that “[t]he use of alternative poetic forms, such as free verse, is a most appropriate literary medium for the artistic representation and legitimization of alternative forms of embodied experience.”42 Even with this critical agreement about the value of poetic forms such as free verse, we must, as Day warns, avoid the ableist assumptions that free verse is inherently unregulated and thus “represents” disabled bodies. “This calls for readers to resist the ableism in understanding stylistic coherence as an able-bodied metaphor,” Day writes, “and conversely, that free-form, as a disabled verse, somehow lacks control.”43 Rather, the sparse stanzas and the large amount of white space on the page of “Elegy for Zahra Baker” suggests a tightly controlled poem, using a form that not only helps to represent the embodied realities of disability, but also has historically been used as a means of resistance in layering multiple speakers, voices, and experiences on top of one another.

Weise addresses this layering in an extended conversation that bisects the middle of “Elegy for Zahra Baker.” There, Weise’s speaker ponders the private appetite for bodies that are often publicly disavowed:

I find a website called Gimps Gone Wild. “I could make a lot of money selling photo sets,” I tell Josh. “Probably a hundred dollars for a set.”

 

“Don’t do that,” he says. “I would never do that,” I say, even though I’m not sure if I would do it or not.

 

“Have you seen the Suicide Girls?” I ask Josh. He says, “No. What’s that?” It seems impossible that he has not seen the Suicide Girls. “It’s porn but the girls are really different with tattoos, librarian glasses, emo, indie, that kind of thing. If the girls on Gimps Gone Wild were pretty like the Suicide Girls then maybe.”

 

What is pretty?44

Weise troubles the distinctions that these two websites draw upon: “‘If the girls on Gimps Gone Wild were pretty like the Suicide Girls, then maybe,’” suggesting that the dichotomy in appearance drawn between the two sites is a false one. This tension is echoed by her own speaker’s question: “What is pretty?” That is, in what way are these cultural scripts reinforced so that even the speaker has to re-think what she means when she implies the Suicide Girls are “pretty” but the Gimps Gone Wild girls are not? As much as this passage is a conversation about disability, spectacle, and consumerism, it is also a commentary on poetic form, drawing attention to how privileging a certain form or style is subjective, in much the same way that the Suicide Girls are implied to be prettier than the women on Gimps Gone Wild. Weise makes this connection more overt when she later asserts, “If I enrolled on Gimps Gone Wild, I would wear a wig. I would dress up in a ball gown. Employ various speakers. Is it any different than poetry?”45 Just as poetry involves the changing of identity and the movement from one voice to another – which “Elegy for Zahra Baker” telegraphs so clearly – Weise reminds us to resist the quick association between herself and her speaker, even when such a connection seems both compelling and intriguing. In moving through her selection of scenes and vignettes, Weise shows us the possibility of the same problem – the cultural relationship with disability as antagonism (at worst) and indifference (at best) – put in a series of different wigs and outfits, first as a recapitulation of a true-crime case, next as a seemingly personal story of day-to-day experience, third as a mediation on what poetry and language can bring to the table.

In considering the various costumes or disguises the poem puts on, Weise’s poem suggests not a removal of embodiment – indeed, the entire poem is about embodiment – but a rethinking of what a non-sensationalizing, non-essentializing engagement with embodiment might look and feel like on the page. The issue at stake here is not the move to embodiment, but the troubling assumption that embodiment represented via a speaker in a poem always references the author and their experiences, what Weise calls a “swindle”: “I was told there are speakers of poems and I believed it. When I invented disabled speakers I was told, ‘Those aren’t speakers. That’s you.’ With minority writing, then, you don’t get the privilege of yourself. Self is constructed elsewhere. You are expected to be the speaker and represent the minority.”46 That is to say, to read “Elegy for Zahra Baker” as though Weise herself is clearly the speaker is to fall into the same true-crime trap that this essay has already discussed: this view has the potential to diminish a person to their component parts, creating a spectacle out of disability rather than understanding a more cohesive, embodied way of interacting in the world. Weise’s poem, on the contrary, presents a world that throws the hyper-fixation on bodies – including disabled bodies, female bodies, minority bodies – into question, demonstrating how those practices fail to adequately represent bodies that are scattered across the page, the screen, and the landscape. In a similar manner, Hillary Gravendyk describes the need for a poetic theory of embodiment that emphasizes “the necessity not of articulating a theory of poetics that relies on knowing the physical conditions of poets but of articulating a theory of the body that acknowledges disability, and particularity, as generalizable features of embodied experience.”47 Poetry, as a form, creates an opening for these particularities. By explicitly drawing the link between Baker’s use of a prosthetic and that of the speaker, Weise throws that association in our collective faces. Once that initial connection is out of the way, we – as readers – are forced to grapple with other kinds of associations, forced to confront the ways in which we simplify and essentialize readings of the body, particularly in the field of disability poetics.48 Weise’s poem, then, serves as both primer – an introduction for what it means to compartmentalize bodily experience – and a critique. Rather than only focus on a “particular body,” Weise suggests ways in which readers and writers may “[open] the field for disabled poets to enter the conversation on their own terms.”49

Weise emphasizes this challenge at the end of her poem, in an imagined description of an award she receives: “I am writing my acceptance speech for the Best Disabled Writer Award. The speech begins: I need some new words.”50 As much as “Elegy for Zahra Baker” is a condemnatory look at the media cycles that ingest and dispose of people like Baker and the poem’s speaker, the poem is also a call to action: How can we exit the locked box that is “Best Disabled Writer”? Weise returns to Baker at the poem’s close, after suggesting the myriad ways in which the speaker is forced to publicly account for her disability, including a series of emails she receives from a man claiming he was “turned-on seeing you [the speaker] walk to the stage.” The speaker describes how the “emails got so bad I had to forward them to my professor,” who would then “let me know if I needed a restraining order. Or a gun.”51 The gun reminds us of the continued, lingering threat against people with disabilities, in a culture where the rate of “violent victimization” against people with disabilities is “at least twice the age-adjusted rate for persons without disabilities.”52 In the closing two stanzas, Weise returns to these threats – an elegiac repetition not of mourning but of violence – and engages with the poetic force of direct address, one of only two times in the poem she refers to Baker as the personal “Zahra,” rather than by her full name:

Tell us. How is it getting around? It’s awful. You have to negotiate with so many people on the sidewalks and you can hear their thoughts, like “Hurry up” and “Why are you walking so slow?” and “Move out of my way.”

 

Zahra: You’ll get better at passing. It’s a pain in the ass, I know. You’ll learn, I promise. Just make it out of the woods.53

With these final lines, Weise brings several of the poem’s threads together: Her speaker’s personal stories merge with a moment of shared advice-giving with Baker, and the white space in between showcases a moment where the speaker states her own experiences and then softens toward Baker, expressing hope rather than desperation. It is also a moment that acknowledges the hazy liminality that poem deals in – is Baker alive or not? The last stanza, with its initial direct address, implies yes, while the final sentence suggests the insurmountable nature of the challenges Baker faces. If Baker can make it out of the woods – that is, somehow survive in a life where public opinion is largely stacked against her and her own family turns against her and she cannot trust the ones she loves or those that take care of her – she is then reinscribed in a life where passing as able-bodied is culturally necessitated, where she still must attend to the everyday challenges created by other people’s discomfort with her body. Ultimately, the poem ends with a sense of loss: the loss of a young life, the loss of possibility, marking both the ending and a moment where the poem’s affective tenor matches the traditional sense of “elegy.” However, there is no healing, no “cure” or recuperation, no successful remedy for the scattered parts, because the poem ultimately leaves us uncertain, paused, waiting to learn Baker’s ultimate fate even as its closing lines suggest the worst. Weise’s final lines are not so much a challenge to the public or an endorsement of the private, but a call to community. Here, she envisions the speaker and Baker together, the comic bluntness of Weise’s comment that “[i]t’s a pain in the ass, I know” lifting the dramatic register momentarily. “You’ll learn,” the speaker says, addressing Baker; “I promise,” the speaker says, invoking herself. Their imagined future together, fleeting though that image is, is centralized on the informing power not of spectacle, but relationship; not of a part, but of many pieces gathered together.


  1. Although “survivor” is how Baker was often portrayed in the media, this term is problematic for many reasons: it does not provide boundaries (that is, who “qualifies” as a survivor?) and it suggests a problematic dichotomy between “patient” and “survivor” that is not clearly delineated. For more on this discussion, see S. Lochlann Jain, Malignant: How Cancer Becomes Us (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013), particularly Chapter 1: Living in Prognosis, as well as Emily C. Bartels, “Outside the Box: Surviving Survival,” Literature and Medicine 28, no. 2 (Fall 2009): 237-252. 

  2. Mitch Weiss, “Friends: Missing Zahra Baker was happy in Australia,” Seattle Times (Seattle, WA), Oct. 14, 2010. https://www.seattletimes.com/nation-world/friends-missing-zahra-baker-was-happy-in-australia/. 

  3. Friends described Baker as brave and selfless, crafting a narrative that emphasizes overcoming hardship with an adult-like poise. Cancer, as sociologist Clive Seale explains, signifies a threat against childhood itself, and as such children with cancer are frequently portrayed in contemporary media as heroic, good natured, and energetic. These representations, which Seale condemns for exhibiting a “lack of careful regard for [a child’s] subjectivity,” gravitate toward representing “highly successful, active children in media stories. This may particularly be the case where illness and disability are concerned, where inspirational stories of children heroically overcoming obstacles are often told.” Clive Seale, “Threatened Children: Media Representations of Childhood Cancer,” in Representing Health: Discourses of Health and Illness in the Media, eds. Martin King and Katherine Watson (New York: Palgrave, 2005), 97. 

  4. Zahra Baker is reported missing on 9 October 2010; by 12 October, police have cancelled the Amber Alert and the case’s focus turns to a homicide investigation after Baker’s stepmother admits that she wrote the ransom note and requests a lawyer. Richard Gould, “Police treating Zahra’s disappearance as a homicide,” Hickory Daily Record (Hickory, NC), Oct. 12, 2010. https://www.hickoryrecord.com/news/police-treating-zahra-s-disappearance-as-a-homicide/article_8d8d0d2d-16bb-58f2-b154-53af6db5313c.html. 

  5. The only significant change between the journal version and the book version is the spacing between the sections. In Fairy Tale Review, each piece of the poem (usually a sentence or two) is spaced with one empty line between pieces. In The Book of Goodbyes, Weise spaces each section about four lines apart, giving the entire poem much more space on the page. In this essay, I work with the version from The Book of Goodbyes. Jillian Weise, The Book of Goodbyes (Rochester: BOA Editions, 2013). 

  6. Christina Scheuer, “Bodily Compositions: The Disability Poetics of Karen Fiser and Laurie Clements Lambeth,” Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies 5, no. 2 (2011): 158. 

  7. Thematically, “Elegy for Zahra Baker” builds on several of the other poems in the collection, particularly the one just noted (“The Ugly Law”) in its references to and contemplation of real-world events. As Weise writes in the collection’s “Notes,” “Italicized text [in ‘The Ugly Law’] comes from an 1881 municipal ordinance, as cited in Susan M. Schweik’s The Ugly Law: Disability in Public (NYU Press). Chicago was the last city to repeal its Ugly Law in 1974.” Weise, The Book of Goodbyes, 67. 

  8. Weise, The Book of Goodbyes, 67. 

  9. Weise, The Book of Goodbyes, 64. 

  10. Mark Seltzer, True Crime: Observations on Violence and Modernity (New York: Routledge, 2007), 37. 

  11. Weise, The Book of Goodbyes, 59. 

  12. Weise, The Book of Goodbyes, 59. 

  13. Weise, The Book of Goodbyes, 60. The spacing here imitates the spacing between stanzas or phrases in the poem itself, which is the equivalent of about four lines of text. “Mr. Coffey” is Baker’s father’s boss and landlord. The faked ransom note was premised on a case of mistaken identity, suggesting that Coffey was the intended target for the required ransom money and that Baker was “kidnapped” – instead of Coffey’s child – by mistake. This story was, of course, fabricated. 

  14. Seltzer, True Crime, 17. 

  15. Seltzer, True Crime, 2. 

  16. Emphasis in original. Seltzer, True Crime, 2. Elsewhere in the book, Seltzer writes at length about how true crime (as “fact”) has to be distinguished from the genre of “crime” (which we assume is fiction). He also notes the ways in which true crime’s modes of storytelling are modeled on fictional modes. 

  17. Emphasis in original. Vivan Sobchack, “Inscribing Ethical Space: Ten Propositions on Death, Representation, and Documentary,” in Carnal Thoughts: Embodiment and Moving Image Culture (Berkeley, University of California Press, 2004), 230. 

  18. Seltzer, True Crime, 12. 

  19. Shani D’Cruze, Sandra Walklate, and Samantha Pegg, Murder: Social and Historical Approaches to Understanding Murder and Murderers (Oxfordshire: Willan Publishing, 2013): 11. 

  20. For more on this idea, see Michael Hardey, “Writing Digital Selves: Narratives of Health and Illness on the Internet,” in Representing Health: Discourses of Health and Illness in the Media, eds. Martin King and Katherine Watson (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), 133-150. 

  21. In 2001, online retailer eBay banned “murderabilia” from its site. Its current policy prohibits “[i]tems related to violent felons” out of “respect for the families and friends of victims,” although limiting the scope of the ban to the “items closely associated with violent felons within the past 100 years.” “Offensive materials policy,” eBay, accessed August 16, 2019, https://www.ebay.com/help/policies/prohibited-restricted-items/offensive-material-policy?id=4324. For more on murderabilia, see Thomas Vinciguerra, “The ‘Murderabilia’ Market,” New York Times, June 4, 2011. https://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/05/weekinreview/05murderabilia.html. 

  22. Serial Killers Ink, accessed August 16, 2019. http://serialkillersink.net/. 

  23. Even the website’s header and its supposition that it “cater[s] to serial killer culture” seems to suggest – perhaps inadvertently – that ours is a culture defined by crime and killers, and that this site serves that larger movement. 

  24. In an AOL News exclusive, Senior Crime Reporter David Lohr reviewed the letters and conducted interviews, demonstrating the letters’ impact on the case: “Hickory Deputy Chief of Police Clyde Deal acknowledged that the letters likely were written by Elisa Baker. . . . ‘I am not a handwriting analyst, but I mean I wouldn’t suspect that it didn’t [come from her].’” David Lohr, “Exclusive: Notes Say Zahra’s Dad Did ‘Horrifying’ Act,” AOL News, Nov. 2, 2010, https://web.archive.org/web/20110729053410/http://www.aolnews.com/2010/11/02/exclusive-letters-say-zahras-dad-did-something-horrifying/. 

  25. Although typically more formal than Reddit, Wikipedia’s page on Baker’s case also telegraphs a similar tension between the mass availability of information and the emotional investment of outside observers. Blazoned across the top of the entry is a template message listed since March of 2013 that signals the page’s potential downfalls. Among others issues, the template notes that the page “may contain an excessive amount of intricate detail that may interest only a particular audience.” “Murder of Zahra Baker,” Wikipedia, accessed November 5, 2020. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Murder_of_Zahra_Baker

  26. The rhetoric of the subReddit is mired in emotion; one user notes that Baker’s story is a “tragedy,” while another calls it “heartbreaking.” Others appear to have varying levels of knowledge of the details, including someone who has “only known about this sweet girl for less than a week” but finds herself in “tears” as the story has “got under my skin.” “What are two cases that have gotten under your skin?” Reddit, accessed August 10, 2019. 

  27. “Zahra Clare Baker,” Websleuths, accessed August 16, 2019. https://www.websleuths.com/forums/forums/zahra-clare-baker.420/. 

  28. “Zahra Clare Baker,” Websleuths. 

  29. “What are two cases?” Reddit. 

  30. Weise, The Book of Goodbyes, 61. 

  31. Emphasis in original. Weise, The Book of Goodbyes, 60. 

  32. Weise, The Book of Goodbyes, 64. 

  33. Weise, The Book of Goodbyes, 62. 

  34. Weise, The Book of Goodbyes, 62. 

  35. Weise, The Book of Goodbyes, 64. 

  36. Emphasis in original. Jim Ferris “The Enjambed Body: A Step Toward a Crippled Poetics,” The Georgia Review 58, no. 2 (Summer 2004): 229. Similarly, Petra Kuppers writes of the pain of assumed incompleteness: “Disability exists at the meeting space of the individual body and social interaction. But pain akin to disability’s social positioning exists everywhere: exclusion, taunts, the pain of growth, of disjuncture, separation, denial, forced transformation, being told that you are not whole.” “Performing Determinism: Disability Culture Poetry,” Text and Performance Quarterly 27, no. 2 (2007): 93. 

  37. Ally Day, “Chronic Poetics, Chronic Illness: Reading Tory Dent’s HIV Poetry Through Disability Poetics and Feminist Bioethics,” Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies 11, no. 1 (2017): 93. 

  38. R. Clifton Spargo, “The Contemporary Anti-Elegy,” in The Oxford Handbook of the Elegy, ed. Karen Weisman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 417. It is also worth noting, as David Kennedy points out, that “the elegy’s conventions no longer seem as settled as they once did,” and accordingly, elegy has perhaps become anti-elegy in that elegies no longer require certain meter, refrains, or repetitions as they traditionally did. David Kennedy, Elegy (New York: Routledge, 2007), 11. For more on elegy and its relationship to lyric, see Heather Dubrow’s “Lyric Forms” in The Lyric Theory Reader, eds. Virginia Jackson and Yopie Prins (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014), 114-127. 

  39. Jonathan Monroe, A Poverty of Objects: The Prose Poem and the Politics of Genre (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1987), 11. 

  40. Holly Iglesias has also demonstrated that feminist and women writers have turned to the prose poem to make statements about the confines of gendered social expectations: “Many women prose poets have investigated the constraints of gender construction in their work, addressing the strictures of confinement . . . inside a form that is clearly a box.” Iglesias’s observation is also apt for other forms of “boxed”-in confinement, such as Weise examines in her poem. Boxing Inside the Box: Women’s Prose Poetry (Niantic, CT: Quale Press, 2004), 14. 

  41. Dubrow, “Lyric Forms,” 121. We can see thematic repetition in “Elegy for Zahra Baker,” but nothing as formalized as a refrain. 

  42. Katerina Tsiokou, “Body Politics and Disability: Negotiating Subjectivity and Embodiment in Disability Poetry,” Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies 11, no. 2 (2017): 206. 

  43. Day, “Chronic Poetics,” 94. As Weise says in a roundtable in Poetry magazine, “To the question, ‘Does your disability affect how you write?’ – I know it is not as simple as ‘I write in tercets because I have three legs’ or ‘I write in hexameter to mimic hopping.’” Jennifer Bartlett, John Lee Clark, Jim Ferris, and Jillian Weise, “Disability and Poetry,” Poetry Magazine 205, no. 3 (December 2014): 281–82. 

  44. Weise, The Book of Goodbyes, 62-3. 

  45. Weise, The Book of Goodbyes, 64. 

  46. Bartlett, Clark, Ferris, and Weise, “Disability Poetry,” 276. 

  47. Hillary Gravendyk, “Chronic Poetics,” Journal of Modern Literature 38, no. 1 (Fall 2014): 8. I read Gravendyk’s argument here not as one that advocates for the representation of a singular, shared disability experience, but rather a theoretical framework that engages with bodies and their particularities as one might engage with any other embodied experience. 

  48. In her essay “The Disability Rights Movement and The Legacy of Poets with Disabilities,” Jillian Weise shares her reservations about the term “crip poetics,” asking, “What does any of it mean?” She expands on these concerns as follows: “While it’s encouraging to begin to have acknowledgement of poets with disabilities, I find it also discouraging that these first efforts are essentializing, seeking to brand a common disabled experience, and define the work according to a grid, rather than simply opening the field for disabled poets to enter the conversation on their own terms.” Jillian Weise, “The Disability Rights Movement and the Legacy of Poets with Disabilities,” in Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability, eds. Jennifer Bartlett, Sheila Black, and Michael Northern (El Paso: Cinco Puntos Press, 2011): 139. 

  49. Weise, “The Disability Rights Movement,” 139. 

  50. Weise, The Book of Goodbyes, 65. 

  51. Weise, The Book of Goodbyes, 63. 

  52. This data concerns studies that cover the timespan from 2009-2015, where every year researchers found that the rate of violent victimization was at least twice the rate – if not higher – among people with disabilities compared to those without. Erika Harrell, “Crime Against Persons with Disabilities, 2009-2015,” U.S. Department of Justice (2017): 1. https://www.bjs.gov/index.cfm?ty=pbdetail&iid=5986. 

  53. Weise, The Book of Goodbyes, 65. 


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