Early morning, February 11, 2013
I recline upon the bed in my hotel room. Indolent woman. Noise of traffic in the street beneath. Noise from the television.
The world outside is bustling, moving like a market square, importing, exporting. I carry what happens next inside me like a balance sheet.
A man hides beneath a woman’s skirts while she prepares to eat. Her skirts are wide, wide. She seats a country or an idea.
Policemen scurry by searching for him but her face is still. The fabric of her skirt lies close to the fire but doesn’t catch.
I put on a pinstriped suit. The patterns on a fabric or a particular cut of clothing evolved to telegraph the wearer’s status or their occupation.
Chaucer’s Sergeant at the Law, for example, wore “a silken belt of pin-stripe stuff.”
The women of the Enlightenment often wore the verdugado. Not a bustle, which is something different though it also carries space beside the body for the body to inhabit.
The name derives from the word “verdugo,” meaning green wood. “Verdugado” now means “executioner” or “assassin.”
A bullet fired into water transforms into a stone and sunlight follows from the entry point, becomes a path or tunnel. At the exit there is silt and sand, a mouth that swallows. A word that stills.
The verdugado is also called a farthingale. In the Ditchley portrait, Elizabethan skirts swell voraciously above all of Europe at her dainty feet.
“She can but does not take revenge” written on the canvas beside her. Also: “In giving back she increases.”
Language is one way of doing business across time and into spaces. Image is another.
One sinks its roots far down and waits. The other sends out shoots and colonizes.
I don’t know which one I prefer since both are dangerous. I focus on my voice instead, even if my speech is alien.
Joan of Portugal popularized the verdugado when she wore one to hide her pregnant belly. Scandalous, as she did not bear her husband’s child.
Imagine the air around her, walking: a space she courted for its service to an idea of female purity.
A woman needs a space, a woman wears a dress.
Need and wear reduce to tin. Coins or stamps or market squares, compact enough to carry.
Walter Raleigh was a favorite of the Queen. While he awaited execution he kept tobacco with him in his cell.
As Philomela might have said of the nightingale, perhaps, or of her loom. A wife or a daughter. A coin. A child.
“We cannot go to the country/for the country will bring us/no peace[.]” And in response men draw their countries in with fences, or with skirts.
The law is such a mess of fictions.
Is reality filtered through a multitude of private lenses.
Sights, as in the means for aiming: an alchemy of facts hemmed into place, pinned down, or buried deep. Caught, as if in amber. Sworn in, as by an oath.
There are things I need or want to tell you. I am trying. Please bear with me.
The resort to a particular sort of voice, one’s stock-in-trade, is sometimes desperate, sometimes automatic.
It may indicate the body’s systems of defense springing into action, or the mind’s effort to escape, a detour around an occupier.
It may signify the modulation of a scream or cry, especially one that does not recognize itself. A tool employed cheaply, for attention perhaps. Or a test, like an air raid siren.
This has been a test of the emergency broadcast system: there, you see. It has only been a test. And then the voice collects itself and the narrative-as-itself continues.
The hotel room in Wilmington. The sunny winter morning.
My colleague calls to say he’s in the parking lot. Let’s call him H.
H. will drive me to the courthouse, where we will try our case before a judge who’s famous for his corporate expertise.
Don’t turn away or let the abstract frighten you. The story will embodify, but only when the space beneath the skirt is ready.
A famous poet told me why I could no longer speak as I had spoken before the shooting.
“You’re still there,” she said to me, “in the stairwell. You can stay there, or you can leave.
You only have to write it one way or another. Choose your words, and they’ll propel you.”
Like an octopus we reach for what we want even when it reaches back into our mouths.
Travels lengths of nerve and bone. Explodes into blossom moving at the speed of pain.
I think of Charles Bovary. How Emma spends him into bankruptcy chasing things beyond her station. The village bailiff arrives one morning and then he carts it all away.
Everything, gone. The tablecloths, the mattresses, the hairbrushes, books, the doctor’s own straight razor. Can you blame Emma for eating her own death then, after?
Would not any man have fed her poison were he in the doctor’s place? There is precedent, of course.
“If you saw a bullet/hit a Bird — ”
Metaphor is a kind of fiction. It propels a narrative by projecting it in or on another body. And the body carries on the business. It’s a simple calculation.
But I digress. I tend to do this. To delay.
Once I took my children to a park. It was autumn, time for stories and for casting stones into moving water.
In the park there was a railway bridge, not old but built to seem that way, and beneath it flowed a shallow stream.
First we walked down to the water’s edge. The children gathered stones and threw them, listening for the sound.
The sound told us when the stone had met the surface and then bored its way down.
Opening a long long hole into the water, to the silt and to the sand beneath.
We are creatures of our doings even when the doings sink us.
Then we walked up the embankment and stood upon the bridge. Jersey walls along each side, not high but made of concrete.
Meant to halt a wayward vehicle’s momentum but not a person’s because a trajectory is chosen.
I explained this to my oldest because he asked me why the Jersey walls weren’t taller so that someone couldn’t fall right off the bridge into the water (and here he made the pebble smacking water sound).
I told him people come up onto the bridge because they want the view and to be viewed. To see both down below and all around.
Why does the view matter, he asked, so much that you would risk falling for it? That’s the day I told them I was leaving.
The first poem I wrote about the shooting was vague, almost ecstatic. I submitted it for a workshop with the famous writer sponsored by a literary journal.
I could have tried to write a memoir. But all that I could manage then (and now) was poetry.
Verse lets me throw my voice in a way that prose does not, and I cannot stand to stand too near my voice or it will begin to scream at me.
The poem concluded with a line by Wordsworth: “All which we behold/is full of blessings.”
An allusion is a reference to a known idea, in which the idea comes to stand for what the speaker cannot quantify.
One of the other writers in the workshop did not behold the promised blessings. “What about these people, the ones who died?” she said. “You haven’t written them.”
I think she thought that I was writing secondhand, that I had based the poem on news reports or hearsay. I don’t think she realized I was there.
Which is of course my fault, since I wrote it. You cannot craft yourself a guise and then protest when you are not recognized.
I think that I am writing my own absentia, by means of a trial or a distraction.
On the morning of the shooting I meet H. in the hotel lobby. I have a bell boy’s cart all loaded up with bankers boxes. My exhibits.
Pages and pages of paper, hundreds of pages. Detailing all the facts I plan to prove.
Exhibits are a proxy for the truth. You look through them to what really happens.
Above the throat of bitterness a mouth erects its language like a bridge.
There are some things I can explain to you and some that I cannot. Some things are found within the public record.
Context, too, is a space available for occupying.
My trial involves a company that makes all kinds of sex toys. Dildos. Vibrators. Pelvises made of flesh-toned rubber. A lurid mouth glowing in the dark, tinted green.
My client, my co-counsel, the other lawyers, the other parties, my bosses, and the judge. All of them are men. How’d you land this case? they ask me, and guffaw.
Will you be using any (dramatic pause . . . . .) demonstrative exhibits?
This is when I am still married to my first husband. He does not stand for anything not profitable. A woman is an investment and should be made to pay.
The judge was born in Baltimore, where I was also born and where I have always lived. He went to a more prestigious law school and he worked for a more prestigious firm before he took the bench.
We both named our children Ben, though this is not the sort of thing we ever discuss, he and I, at all because he never speaks to me directly.
He only ever speaks to H. I am certain he has forgotten my name completely if he ever even knew it. H. is my proxy, the body that stands in for mine.
One year before the shooting, the judge said controversial things in a trial involving clothes designers. He called the whole proceeding drunken.
“What’s a duck shoe?” he asked in open court. Then he wondered if a Jewish person can be a WASP. Perhaps these statements, divorced from context, do not represent the judge’s mind.
Or perhaps they do.
He retired several years ago. Now he consults with a Manhattan law firm. I imagine him wearing shoes with laces and sipping bourbon at the Harvard Club.
Like I said, he won’t remember me, I’m sure.
After the shooting, he asks H. about the tweeting lawyer, which is me. A synecdoche is a figure of speech in which one part stands for the hole.
One early morning after the shooting and after I have left my husband my friend knocks on the door. She brings inside a twelve-pack of Guinness stout and she drinks all morning, taking breaks to smoke outside and confide in me about the man she fucked the night before.
When I left my husband she decided to start dating. Anyway we call it dating.
We are both going insane in our respective ways, my friend because she is bipolar and has stopped taking her medication, and I because I am, though I don’t yet know it, still hiding in a stairwell in a parking garage in Delaware.
H. and I drive through Wilmington in heavy traffic. The courthouse is on King Street. History and all its contexts woven into the seams of what we experience.
Corporate lawyers like the word “acquired;” it sounds more neutral than the truth, which is more like taken. “Purchased” is sometimes like that. So is “fact” or “evidence” or “property” or “sex.”
Words smoothly figure an exchange even when the trade is made at gunpoint or by the small print no one reads.
Some language is, in fact, a verbal act. Like the pronouncement that declares two people spouses.
As with a skirt that drapes in such a way as to hide the prize inside. The structure underneath it blocks the wearer’s easy passage or escape.
The New Sweden Company men built at what the Lenape people called Paxahakink, and they named the outpost Fort Christina for the Swedish Queen. Now we call it Wilmington.
A nation projects itself across an ocean into space, which is another country, like the past. A vacuum is a necessary fiction.
As are names. As is history. As is every route to trade or fame.
To put it bluntly: every so-called empty space needs filling.
Many Delaware places now are named for Queen Christina: a shopping mall, a hospital, a school district. She was twelve when the ships set sail. A child.
One of the women who will die inside the courthouse lobby is named Christine Belford.
Queen Christina refused to marry. She renounced the throne and retired to the Vatican, where the Pope called her a woman without shame.
My friend is drunk. I would prefer that she go home. It is a little more than one year after the shooting at the courthouse in Wilmington.
I am alone and also not alone because I have made a second body for myself. A way of holding my experience within a fictive space.
An incorporation is a body or a shield, sometimes for profit and sometimes not.
After the shooting I attempt to incorporate, to draw myself together into a new person, someone present to the world. This is a means of avoiding pain, or of doubling it.
A lawyer’s job is to draw connections between one fact and another proposition. A lawyer looks to precedent.
A poet’s job is to speak connections between things not recognizable as facts but which are true.
As I walk into the courthouse lobby I see, from the periphery, a man turn and run away. He has a large umbrella with him, the old-fashioned kind with a crook in the handle.
This makes me think of the Zapruder film and the Umbrella Man. I don’t think of the film at the time. I only think of it now, as I’m writing, because I can infer that the man on the sidewalk saw the gun and ran.
Some people think the Umbrella Man fired a shot at Kennedy. That Oswald did not work alone, that there was a gun concealed inside the umbrella shaft. Thinking of the Zapruder film puts me in mind of Matthew Zapruder, who is a poet.
I read somewhere, once, I think, that he is related to the Zapruder who shot the famous film.
But he is not the famous poet who diagnosed my shock from what I’d written in the poem with the Wordsworth line. I’ve never met him, he would not know me.
I reach out a tentacle for the name, you see, and pull it in, make it a part of me, move a little farther on.
He has nothing to do with what happened or is happening, but my mind makes these connections
so that it doesn’t fall down into the shaft above which it is constantly, precariously, fighting to maintain its balance.
“Zapruder” sounds like the sound of three shots fired in rapid succession.
It is cruel for me to expose a stranger to my violent logic, but cruelty sometimes keeps the drowning mouth afloat.
“Zapruder” is an anapest.
“Zapruder” is a dactyl.
To be honest I am not sure how it is pronounced, where the stress or stresses fall. I pronounce the word in three [REDACTED] stressed [REDACTED] syllables.
Like gunshots, if that wasn’t clear.
I’m a lawyer as well as a poet. In the winter of 2013 I traveled to Wilmington, Delaware to try a case before the court that is responsible for much of the United States’ corporate law. A corporation is, first and foremost, a fictional body; we pretend that this thing that exists only on paper is a real entity and then, if something goes wrong, we dissolve it and start over again. It’s a neat little trick for protecting family wealth and avoiding the legal consequences of nefarious or merely foolish decisions, for people who are disposed to such things, and the development of these principles facilitated colonial enterprise by reducing investment risks. On the morning of the first day of my trial, as I was walking into the lobby with a box of my exhibits, a man shot and killed two women and then himself. I turned and ran into the adjacent parking garage and hid there until a police officer escorted me to safety. A few days later the court reopened, I tried my case, and I went home not really understanding how deeply I’d been affected by the experience. I tried to write about it. I left the law for a couple of years while I took an MFA, and even then, when I was writing all the time, I couldn’t find the right container for what I needed to say. Then the pandemic happened and like everyone else suddenly I was isolated at home. Maybe it was the phenomenon of Zoom, maybe it was the attention to bodies that COVID required, but I recognized finally that I’d left a body there in the stairwell that February morning. Almost exactly eight years after Christine Belford and Laura Mulford died at the instruction, if not the hand, of Christine’s ex-husband, I opened a notebook and started writing Bullet Points. This is an excerpt taken from the beginning.
Jennifer Sutherland’s work has appeared in Best New Poets, the Denver Quarterly, the I-70 Review, and elsewhere. She lives and works in Baltimore.