A few years ago, I was talking to a poet a few years older than me who was telling me about a conversation she’d had with a poet a full generation older than us. After her highly acclaimed first book, he asked her what she was working on, and she explained the project she was developing for her next book. As she reported it to me, he said, “Oh yeah, that’s what you young poets do, right? You write projects.”
In part, I get what Mr. Older Poet was saying—that people who are facing down tenure committees and grant proposals have to have a neat paragraph long packaging for their work-- and it can feel artificial or contrived. And as poetry is increasingly published by prize, it works well to stand out as having a coherent purpose and drive that carries you through the book. I was recently talking to a friend of mine who is finishing his MFA, and he agreed with me that the moment you end the MFA you’ve been well trained to write a poem in a world where the currency is books. Certainly, in my own training, I’ve talked to many of my mentors about how a book is constructed—but its always quite hard, and frankly, a “project” can be a way to organize things. But there’s a danger in the project feeling like a project. One never wants a poem to feel obligatory or assigned. I’ve always loved Alan Dugan for refusing the book as an arc, which is how I interpret his decisions to simply call each book Poems.
I say this to clear the space to call attention to Jill McDonough’s project book, Habeas Corpus. It’s a sequence of 50 sonnets, each one about a person executed in the United States between 1608 (in Jamestown, VA) and 2005 (in Somers, CT). Two of the sonnets are about the same woman—Mary Dyer, who was expelled from Boston after a mock execution, but came back and underwent a real one. McDonough’s research is remarkable, and 12 pages of notes detail the sources from which she took the quotes and stories of the executed. McDonough has worked with Prisoners since 1999, which may account for why her approach never approaches sentimentality or venom—she seems to know these people intimately. Her facility with language and stunning research are such that there’s an intimacy with every single one of the executed (and often the executors) in this book. The pitfalls of such a project are clear—but every single page of her brilliant book feels like a labor of love, not a labor.
I wanted to reprint her first poem from the book, because it’s a case study in how to incorporate a found text, as well as how to keep the sonnet form rigorous:
Early 1608: George Kendall
The President did beat James Read, the Smyth.
The Smyth not only gave him bad language, but soon
stroake him againe and offred to strike him with
his sledge, or cross peen hammer, some of his tools.
The smith was by a Jury condemned to die:
he became pentitent, and asked to speak
in private. A dangerous conspiracy,
he said, threatened the president—the chief
conspirator being Kendall. So Read got off,
and Kendall was brought to trial, accused of theft,
dissension, atheism, a mutinous plot,
was by a Jury condened & shot to death.
Amid famines, fluxes, Fevers, Kendall, betrayed,
was the first man executed by the state.
McDonough’s ability to switch in and out of the voice of the historical record is both alienating and masterful. She presents us with a voice that could never be her (or our) own, and yet she can move within it, marking the connective tissue she provides. The story is entirely un-interpreted, but she focuses on the details with absolute precision. And it makes us suspicious—this is the story of a man who can stand up to torture, but faced with the death penalty, casts blame in a new direction. The familiar and the foreign mingle across time and space. How can we read “threatened the president” without thinking of Kennedy or Lincoln (or Obama), even when we know that in the historical record, this is a reference to John Smith. Kendall only enters at the moment after the turn—the executed is only introduced at the beginning of the sestet. The movements of the sonnet guide McDonough’s relation of the narrative, and the story is perfectly framed in the unbalanced form. We are left with the dry taste of execution, the “first man” who begins this long lineage.
McDonough also slips out of rhyme in favor of assonance, allowing repeated vowel sounds to provide the Shakespearean skeleton of abab cdcd efef gg. Betrayed/State hover at the end in mutually imbricated terms, each asking the other of its power.
In all of these poems, McDonough is respectful of the space of the unknown and the unknowable. She never panders to mystery, never speculates or reaches. She always stays, I think the phrase is, close to the bone. The poems are brilliant little flashes, stunningly achieved. The danger of the project book is that one leaves exhausted, wishing for less. This book makes one feel that she’s only touched the surface, that this history is necessary, and that while she knows so much more, she’s given us only what she knows (and feels) best. I closed the book with the sense that I had seen the tip of the iceberg, not deluged.
McDonough’s work is not just about the executed. You can find one of my favorite poems of hers here:
I find lately that I’m not so much moved by horror as I am by kindness. I didn’t cry in The Lives of Others until XX/7 opened the book to find it dedicated to him. It’s the moment when someone comes through that destroys me; the moment when someone does the right thing. I don’t know that I can support this statement, but I’m sure it’s true: this book is an act of kindness. I don’t know to whom, I don’t know how. But it’s an act of kindness.