The man around 60 whose hat was gray, whose tattoo was unreadable, was found along the railroad tracks east of downtown. An infant girl, three months or more premature, was left at the city sewage treatment plant. Another man, maybe 40, rested in the river near Nine Mile, wearing a yellow-metal cross pendant on a necklace held together with a paper clip.
Each still unnamed, they’re entries in the unidentified-bodies list maintained by Spokane County Medical Examiner’s Office.
To Nance Van Winckel, their stories – scant on detail but ripe for imagining – suggested lives very different from her own. The Spokane-area poet’s new book “Pacific Walkers” gives imagined voice to the dead and unclaimed.
To write about them – imagining the view from underwater, a mother’s one kiss for a four-pound girl – was a way to empathize with people whose anonymous deaths left them nameless, bereft of history and sometimes their fingerprints.
“That’s one of the things I go to literature for, is to make that bridge between people whose lives are really different from my own,” Van Winckel said. “And that felt to me like the ultimate kind of empathy, to step that far into a life that was just nonidentifiable anymore.”
Van Winckel, 61 and a professor emerita in the master’s-level creative writing program at Eastern Washington University, has received two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and a Pushcart Prize, among other honors. Published in March, “Pacific Walkers” is Van Winckel’s sixth book of poems. It shows her “at the peak of her powers,” poet Laura Kasischke wrote.
“I like poetry, too,” said Dr. John Howard, who shares the job of Spokane County medical examiner with Dr. Sally Aiken. “It’s nice that someone remembers the dead.”
‘Who were these people?’
Van Winckel’s home in Liberty Lake, shared with her husband, artist Rik Nelson, is bright with light and color. Sun sparks off the lake below and illuminates the tall rooms and the art pieces within them. Nelson has been a working visual artist for 20 years. Van Winckel began creating visual art seven years ago, moving from translucent papier-mâché forms to bold images she calls “pho-toems,” crafted digital photographs that draw on graffiti art and collage and incorporate bits of text.
Van Winckel wasn’t necessarily expecting an artist’s life. But an early career move in another direction provided the germ of her book.
At 23, Van Winckel started an internship at a daily newspaper in Milwaukee, on the shores of Lake Michigan. She wanted to write and get paid for it.
Assigned to write an article about the number of bodies yielded by Lake Michigan as the ice thawed, Van Winckel rode around with workers from the coroner’s office as they collected the remains of homeless people.
The idea of rootlessness was familiar in a deep-down way, she said. Her family had moved 14 times by the time she finished high school as her salesman father changed territories all over the country.
But her world, her “little comfort zone,” was shattered.
“I understand there were homeless people, but I didn’t really see the fate of them,” Van Winckel said. “And then suddenly there it was. And I was just supposed to write some story, like a summary.”
She filed the story, she said, but quit journalism after that internship. After a short stint in public relations, she entered a master’s program in creative writing, and she has been publishing and teaching since.
Three decades after that internship, though, she read an article about the unidentified bodies listed on the medical examiner’s website.
“It brought the whole thing back to me,” Van Winckel said. “I just remembered, ‘Oh, my God, I wrote this story. I did the same story.’ It brought back all the emotional feeling, too, that had happened for me – the sadness of it. Who were these people?”
She would write about them again, this time as an accomplished poet.
Long gone from Milwaukee, she couldn’t easily recall the images from her experience with the coroner. She studied Spokane’s John and Jane Doe database, available online.
“I put myself back in that 23-year-old girl self, going out there with the coroner’s office in the van, the white van, to pick up bodies, and just remembering what that felt like,” Van Winckel said. “Those were some givens. I had those kinds of memories, and I put those together with information from the John Doe network that has to do with our Spokane lost people.”
“Pacific Walkers” quotes directly from the short files in Spokane’s unidentified-bodies list, just-the-facts prose that provides a counterpoint to her poetic language.
Many of Spokane’s unidentified were found in the Spokane River. It’s not uncommon in communities with bodies of water to find human remains there that can’t be identified, said Howard, the medical examiner.
“Bodies get in water, they disappear,” Howard said. “They surface or are found on a snag of an old tree often weeks or even months later. Unfortunately they’re badly decomposed, and therefore, the normal ways, typical, easy ways of finding out who they are are often missing. Clothing can be removed just under the pressure of the force of water. So many of the clues to who they are are often lost.”
The unidentified-bodies files include photos and descriptions of the deceased and their clothing. While the descriptions of the people are vague – one man’s age is estimated to be 40 to 60; the phrase “fingerprints unobtainable” appears in many – descriptions of the clothing they wore, when it’s still there, are detailed.
After investigators have exhausted other avenues toward identifying a body – scene investigations, X-rays, DNA testing, cross-checks with local law enforcement records, searches on a national registry of unidentified and missing people – a tiny detail might be the one that jogs the memory of someone who could identify the deceased, Howard said.
The book’s title comes from a brand of rubber-soled shoes, dark blue with two Velcro closures, worn by a man found at the Upper Falls dam intake at the Howard Street Bridge at Riverfront Park. The man also wore dark blue, twill-style, long-legged trousers.
“All the stuff they find with the body is really interesting to me,” Van Winckel said. “That they have all of these things that have names, like the names of the shoes and the underwear and the tattoos that are on people’s bodies – that all of these things are so precise, but the actual person is not. I was just fascinated by that dichotomy.
“And really, I guess what I finally kept thinking about, too, is that’s what happens to most all of us – 99.9 percent of us have that fate waiting for us, that kind of anonymity that we’re going to have. Right?”
‘Imagine giving voice’
The “emotional heft” in “Pacific Walkers” comes partly from the voices Van Winckel imagined for the anonymous dead alongside others. One belongs to a newspaper reporter. Some seem autobiographical.
The voice in the poem “Annunciation” belongs to the imagined woman who left the real baby, who thinks of herself as a kind of Mary figure.
“I tried to imagine myself as that person, or just imagine giving voice to what’s going on in her mind as she leaves this baby out there,” Van Winckel said. “It felt to me like there was something really mentally off there.”
In the second half of “Pacific Walkers,” Van Winckel turns to another group of real people whose lives and deaths she imagines – those populating an old photo album she bought in a junk store in Butte.
They offered more to work with. Writing about them felt like adopting, she said.
“They had (first) names, they had dates,” she said. “They had hats! Faces! There was so much personality in the photographs.”
She imagined more story from that album and a few others than would fit into her poems. She’s working on a “novel in the form of a scrapbook” – sort of a graphic-novel e-book – told from the perspective of a 99-year-old woman in Butte who’s making the scrapbook for her great-granddaughter. “She’s just writing these little notes, and that’s what you read in the novel,” Van Winckel said.
Retired from EWU, she teaches writing to graduate students in the low-residence Vermont College of Fine Arts. “Boneland,” her fourth short-story collection, will come out in September. She’ll travel into the fall to promote “Pacific Walkers.” Starting at 14 and through college, Van Winckel worked in a hospital, first as a candy striper and later as a nurse’s aide. She was not squeamish.
When it was time to write a book inspired by lost and damaged bodies, however, she was aware of the “morbidity factor” and how it might affect her readership.
It was a risk she wanted to take, she said, especially as she sensed the implications for the rest of us: “In some ways we all disappear into namelessness; we all erode.”
She continued: “It did take me almost 40 years, though, of keeping this material far within, where the subconscious and imagination could reconfigure it into something I hope is finally not morbid, but, well, more human and humane, more eternal.”