The subject of capital punishment has been featured in many films, some of the most recent including “Dead Man Walking,” “The Green Mile,” and “The Life of David Gale.” Steve Earle, Bruce Springsteen, Tupac, and many other musicians have found the death penalty rich fodder for songs critiquing the ultimate punishment. In fiction, Albert Camus’ The Stranger immediately comes to mind, Meursault grasping the universe's indifference towards humankind as he comes to terms with his execution. One can also find numerous poems on capital punishment, Walt Whitman, Allen Ginsberg, Sherman Alexie, and Maxine Kumin among the many poets investigating the immeasurable cost to humanity as a result of the death penalty. Jill McDonough’s Habeas Corpus, however, must be the only book of poetry entirely devoted to the subject, to the climactic stories of the condemned. McDonough does not explicitly argue against the death penalty–at no point does the poet enter these poems in her own voice (my position will be readily apparent)–but through the weight of example she exposes its brutality.
Habeas Corpus is a compelling collection. For one, the research evident in these poems was prodigious. These are not Wordsworth’s poems, “the spontaneous overflow of emotion…recollected in tranquility." They are wrought from the gravels of history, the galling streambed (and in Texas during George W. Bush’s governorship, the gushing river) of capital punishment in this country. For another, the meticulous construction of these sonnets is an extraordinary feat, McDonough shaping first hand reports of each execution into tight–but not constricting–Shakespearian sonnets. Initially, the facts were more fascinating than the poems, and I couldn’t put the book down because of that (this is a rare set of poems conveying such a large body of knowledge). Re-reading, I attended to the poetics, impressed by the poet indefatigably chiseling behind the scenes.
The history of capital punishment is intertwined with religious persecution, racism, and the rush to judgment that plagues our species. Alas, we have often resorted to the death penalty: 19,752 legal executions between 1608 and 2005 according to Watt Espy’s database (www.deathpenaltyinfo.org). Incorporating eye-witness reports into the poems, McDonough documents fifty executions since our country’s beginnings, but each execution in turn rears its ugly head in our present.
In these sonnets, the reader will witness Mary Dyer’s martyrdom for Quakerism; gasp at the mockery of justice in Susanna Martin’s trial, Salem 1692; grimace as 38 Indians are hung in a single day in 1862; see Juan Sanchez come back to life only to be hung again; spend time with Willie Francis who had to be led to the chair twice, surviving on May 1946 to be executed in May 1947; view multiple executions in the aftermath of slave revolts; attend John Brown’s hanging; accompany deserters and war criminals to their executions during and after the Civil War; observe the high-profile executions of President William McKinley’s assassin, Leon Czolgosz, Sacco & Vanzetti, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, Perry Smith of In Cold Blood infamy, and Gary Gilmore, made famous by Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song; and follow the evolution of killing technique from hanging, firing squad, gas chamber, electrocution, to lethal injection. The reader will learn that the bodies of the executed used to be routinely displayed in public, while we now hide our capital punishment behind closed doors–Rainey Bethen, 1936, the last public hanging (though Timothy McVeigh’s execution in 2001 was shown to family members of the victims and others on closed-circuit TV). These poems aren’t cold hard facts, many putting a sympathetic face on the condemned, showing how many met their death with dignity–Mary Dyer with the certainty of faith, William Fly who “tied the knot himself,” Samuel Green’s last words, a gut-wrenchingly honest letter to his mother, George Cooke who “died game,” and Gary Gilmore who requested his execution and refused to make the usual appeals. I thought at first she captured too little of these executions. Then, death by death, layer by layer, the accumulation of fifty executions overwhelmed.
I also initially puzzled over why McDonough chose the sonnet form. I believe now the form befits the content. The first dozen sonnets suit the era depicted, then later poems have a purposeful clash of reportage and iambic pentameter, an archaic device made new by context. All in all, it is quite an achievement to mold narrative and quotes from a variety of primary documents (letters, newspapers, autobiographies, poems, journal articles) into the strictures of a sonnet.
There are some striking lines in iambic pentameter:
The opening line to “Early 1609: George Kendall”:
The President did beat James Read, the Smyth
[italics denote a quote from a primary source]
The first line to “December 12, 1884: George Cooke”:
He drank all night and then all day, and fought
The last line of “January 31, 1945: Private Eddie D. Slovik”:
a firing squad too stunned to hit his heart.
But McDonough didn’t yoke herself to the beat, breaking the pattern when content demanded, giving a line an extra beat or two, a stutter, a slip:
To be sent in a cart to State Prison, to climb the stairs
to the attic, where the women are kept, and left
there, left in that close heat with strangers, their
children, their sweaty bodies. Charged with theft,
“July 9, 1819: Rose Butler,” lines 1-4
A boatswain on an English slaver, he threw
his masters overboard, was caught within
the week. In prison, he refused all food
and drink, except for rum. Refused to forgive
“July 12, 1726: William Fly,” lines 1-4
Bad servant. Caliban alone with two
Mirandas. Savage and deformed, he lit
the fire, fetched the water, wood. He used
“January 31, 1850: Reuben Dunbar,” lines 1-3
When Charles Dickens came to Boston ten
years later, he asked to visit not the State
House, new or old; not the libraries, fens
but the little basement with a furnace, great
“August 30, 1850: Professor John W. Webster,” lines 1-4
The sonnets follow Shakespearian form, three quartets with rhyming patterns of abab cdcd efef and a couplet rhyming gg, the volta, or turn, occurring in line 9 or in line 13. However, these sonnets were not glibly programmatic; the form was unobtrusive, a binding with room to breathe. McDonough most commonly employed loose off rhyme: soon/tools, speak/chief, betrayed/state, Saint/lain, state/made, but there were many instances of full rhyme: bound/found, stripped/Ripped, tear/near, pray/way, a subtle, almost invisible use of rhyme, a firm bass line ever-present below the melody.
Habeas Corpus is a two-headed political act: a series of punches to undercut capital punishment and a subversive jab at the notion of closed poetic form. It rakes the living history of the death penalty across our brows, our eyes, our consciences. Look into the mirror it hisses. When these people were executed they did not disappear. Albeit fragmented–the shards of our killing history, they are staring back at us. And look into your poetic tool box. Tools thought to have few if any contemporary applications–or wielded by nostalgic poets who blather about a golden age of pristine form that never was–are revived, and not like Juan Sanchez or Willie Francis, alive to be executed again. In Habeas Corpus, McDonough explores a subject that in this country may never go away through the deft use of techniques that, too, she amply demonstrates, should never be forgotten.