Sacco and Vanzetti, the Rosenbergs, and Aileen Wuors. A witch, a pirate, a slave who poisoned her master. A serial killer, a Quaker, a case of mistaken identity. The earliest to be electrocuted, gassed, and lethally injected; the last to be publicly hanged. In her first book, Habeas Corpus, acclaimed poet Jill McDough gives us fifty sonnets, each about a legal execution in American history. From four hundred years of documentation she conjures - and hors - a chorus of the dead. The sonnets, headed meticulously by name, date, and place, are poignant with the factual, with words and actions reported by eyewitnesses and spoken by the condemned - so limpidly framed that at moments one forgets the skill that tautens and crystallizes all this into authentic poetry: The warehouse was dingy, cluttered with lumber: thirteen steps, ose, black mask. No hymn, psalm. He spat out his gum in the chaplain's outstretched palm. Habeas Corpus: you have the body. With a rare control of indignation by sorrow, of subjectivity by the subject's own truth, McDough's unsparing sonnets reveal the ermity that is the death penalty in America: a ladder, a hanging tree for Mary Dyer, an odor he'd/described in print as peach blossoms, sickening-sweet for Caryl Chessman, a hood, their/target, then bang, bang, bang, three ises, quick for Gary Gilmore, Two needles in his arm,/blood splatters on the sheet for Charles Brooks. Taking the words of fifty out of the nearly 20,000 men and women executed since 1608, she reflects them back to us in works of self-effacing artistry. Resurrected from their obscurity these individuals speak our secret history.
Pushcart prize winner Jill McDonough's first book of poems, Habeas Corpus, was published by Salt in 2008. The recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Fine Arts Work Center, the New York Public Library, the Library of Congress, and Stanford's Stegner program, she taught incarcerated college students through Boston University's Prison Education Program for thirteen years. Her work appears in Slate, The Nation, The Threepenny Review, and Best American Poetry 2011. She teaches poetry at the University of Massachusetts Boston and directs 24PearlStreet, the online writing program at the Fine Arts Work Center.