Habeas Corpus by Jill McDonough
(c) 2008, Salt Publishing
$11.96 at Amazon.com
(Review follows post intro).
I’ve accomplished scandalously little in the way of schoolwork today. I blame part of it on the infernal deluge of snow that keeps pouring out of the sky. All this snow makes me cranky. And fidgety. The rest of it – is simply my (very stubborn) short attention span at work.
Yesterday was quite productive, all in all. Did a lot of reading for my 20-25 pager, ventured out to the post office, went grocery shopping and just about froze solid while waiting for the (very late) bus, helped my roommate cook her yummy Spaghetti Bolognaise for dinner. Attended a performance of Handel’s Messiah (which was fabulous – beautiful venue, great seats, great performance, great acoustics – and only $3 a person). Worked on my Botanical Variations long poem (BVLP), blogged, did reading for my 10 pager until 4 am in the morning.
Today, by contrast I have accomplished very little. Woke up late, and grumpy. Slogged through the 6th section of the BVLP, ate lunch, procrastinated, took a nap, had tea and baked apples courtesy of N, wrote 1 paragraph of my 10 pager, procrastinated. Cooked homemade tortilla soup for dinner (even roasted my own vegetables and made fresh tortilla chips!) Procrastinated (aka watched craft video podcasts). Organized the kitchen cabinets. Am procrastinating yet further by blogging.
I might as well, while I’m at it, share with you the awesome book that I’m writing about for my workshop class (the 10 pager assignment). Habeas Corpus is Jill McDonough’s first collection of poems, and it’s an absolutely formidable project. The work consists of 50 sonnets, each of which tells the story of a different legal execution that occurred in United States history. It is intended to be a subtle examination of the death penalty and its disturbing national legacy. One might think that such a project would be didactic, heavy-handed, and gratuitously graphic. But actually, McDonough’s verse is masterfully controlled — unflinching in its honesty, but beautifully crafted, and meticulously researched. McDonough has spent years dedicating herself to teaching college courses to incarcerated women, and she has a compassion for the prisoners that she writes about that comes through in every sensitively-written line. She has no illusions about the crimes that some of her subjects committed, and yet she is able to render them as vunerably human — no more monstrous, and for the most part, no less, than the average Joe Reader.
I have much admiration for Jill McDonough’s work. I actually first met her last year, when she TA’d my section for a Renaissance Lit class that I took. Jill is a tough cookie. She is smart, sharp-tongued, and very humorous. She actually really cares about her students’ academic and psychological well-being, but has heard pretty much every excuse in the book and will accept almost none. One time she noticed me dozing off at the back of the room during lecture (I had just pulled an all nighter in order to finish a paper), and, hawk-eyed, she walked over and tapped me on the shoulder. I was utterly embarrassed at the time, but I definitely never fell asleep in that class again! When I had Jill as a TA, I knew she was a Stegner Fellow, but I wasn’t familiar with her poetry. It wasn’t until later on in the year, when my Levinthal Tutor (Andy Grace), recommended her work as something I might want to look at to help me figure out how to develop my own historical series projects (Cannery Row, Women Scientists), that I began to look out for it. I quickly ran into a couple of her Habeas poems in lit magazines (the book itself was not yet out), and was utterly fascinated. Later in the year, one of my professors asked her to come in and speak to my Geography, Time and Trauma lit seminar, and we had the very special opportunity to read through some excerpts of the galley. Jill told us that she had spent many years working on the book, in between teaching stints, and often in the car — and that a lot of her research had been done at the NY Public Library, when she was able to take time off to work on the manuscript thanks to an NEA grant. She apparently wrote hundreds of sonnets, but ended up choosing only 50 to include. (0.o!) Now, after having read the final, published collection, I remain extremely in awe of it — this project was an enormous undertaking. Every individual incident and historical figure was meticulously researched, and the poetic language of the sonnets themselves is seamlessly interwoven with quotations from eyewitnesses, newspaper articles, and confessions written by the accused, themselves. And no two sonnets are alike in approach. Truly, this is an accomplishment of astounding scale.
I’m actually really glad I chose (at the last minute) to report on this for my paper (in which we have to respond to a recent collection of poetry and reflect upon how it might shape our own work). The successes and failures of craft that result from various decisions that McDonough has made (e.g. how much information to give the reader – how much is too much, how much not enough? How much to deviate from form?) have given me some insight into what might / might not work for me. For example, I’m definitely of the school that one should not explain TOO much to the reader, or risk explaining away the poem (and having an epigraph half the length of the poem, to boot) — but I kind of like her use of end notes to provide additional historical background on each person profiled, though I might use them a little differently for a series like Women Scientists — for which the contexts of my poems are more varied, and sometimes difficult for someone who’s not familiar with science history to place. One scary thought, however: If Jill McDonough, a seasoned poet, took 5 years to produce this collection, imagine how many more years it will take me, a complete greenhorn, to complete my Cannery Row project! (Which is fictionalized, but still very much relies on authenticity of mood and detail). Yikes! I think we’ll stick to Women Scientists (which seems more doable) for now . . . Cannery Row can wait till the summer (when I have more time to trawl the archives in the Monterey Public Library).