Sarah Nichols’ Dreamland for Keeps plunged me headfirst into the world of Elizabeth Short, and not only under her more well-known title “The Black Dahlia”, but also as a symbol of dead women around the world and throughout history.
I actually knew very little about the iconic Black Dahlia before reading Nichols’ chapbook, which is why I decided to research her life and death before getting too far ahead into Dreamland for Keeps. The details of the crime scene surrounding Elizabeth Short’s murder and discovery are considerably slim compared to the clues that seemingly “save the day” in TV shows like Forensic Files, and her death was frighteningly brutal, as she was dismembered, severed at the waist, and had had her mouth slit from ear to ear. However, this is not the Elizabeth that Nichols wants us to see; she seems to be urging us to turn away from the gory details of this woman’s death and instead recognize the value which she held throughout her lifetime, and the impact that her discovery had on women of the present and future.
The first poem of this chapbook, “What They Called Me”, introduces us to Elizabeth, and the further along I read, the more I became sucked into a world of the glitz and glam of Hollywood life, with its stardom and fame and bright lights, which for me also seemed to contrast the dark, mysterious unknown of itself. Poems like “The Patron Saint of Dead Women” and “A Letter to My Investigators” begin to show a more regal and confident side of Elizabeth, one who claims a sort of leadership role among dead women and names herself as “a ghost who will eat your heart.”
As I arrived at “Just Another Girl” and “The Prettiest Star”, I realized that I was rooting for Elizabeth with futile cheers. I began connecting to her, as a female reader - I felt the fear of abduction by a man and consequential murder, and I wanted so badly for her to make the comeback that she rightfully deserves, even though I know that her death is an unsolved enigma still to this day.
The most impactful poems and verses come from Nichols’ (perhaps intentional, perhaps unintentional) portrayal of the image of dead girls who “sell”. In “The Woman Herself”, Nichols (as Elizabeth) writes, “I’m a story this city writes over and over”; to me, this might refer to all female victims across the world and over time, and how we read a headline about the rape or murder of a young woman and simply say, “Oh, how sad,” seconds before we move on and do nothing about it. Perhaps the late Elizabeth is aware of this horrifying cycle and takes it upon herself to become the symbol for all of these victims. Nichols writes, “They want the gory details - the body, cut in half, the blood, drained,” (within “The Details”); and with her style of writing in which verses within her poems whittle down into three words, and then two, and then one, we get the punch - don’t let Elizabeth’s story become unimportant, as dead girls sell.
You can purchase Dreamland for Keeps here.