Proclaimed a “gifted and courageous poet” by Eavan Boland, Jill McDonough is a brilliant and lively presence on the poetry scene. Her first book, Habeas Corpus, offers a sequence of fifty sonnets, each one about a person executed in the United States between 1605 and 2005. She brilliantly illuminates what is known, while leaving room for all that is unknowable about these stories and characters, building what Boland calls “a powerful, relentless music,” the true subject of which “is not death but human survival—in memory, language and suffering.”
In Habeus Corpus, McDonough rises to the double challenge of mastering the sonnet form and breathing life into these many disparate voices, exposing secret landscapes of America’s past with confidence, clear-minded precision, and deep empathy. Poetry London called the book “part death count, part historical panorama, part impassioned plea, but for the most part a collection of striking, absorbing poetry,” and The Threepenny Review claimed that its power, “as a work of literature and as a political act, is both cumulative and chastening.”
In 2012, a mere four years later, McDonough released both the chapbook “Oh, James,” a series of poems based on the James Bond films, and the full-length collection Where You Live, which features the Fung Wah bus, “Breasts like Martinis,” and Hildegard Von Bïngen. Of Where You Live, the poet Major Jackson writes that “beneath the poker-faced humor and cosmopolitan wit. . . is a profligate mind, urgently intoning her inexhaustible humanity and our not-too-perfect existence.”
Born in Hartford, Connecticut, McDonough has lived in North Carolina, Maine, and Japan, as well as San Francisco, Boston, and New York. She is 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, the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers, and Stanford’s Stegner program. For thirteen years, she taught incarcerated college students through Boston University’s Prison Education Program. Currently, she teaches poetry at UMass-Boston and directs 24PearlStreet, the online writing program at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown.
Poetry Center Reading:
July 12, 1726: William Fly
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
his enemies, or say he had: No. I
won’t dy with a lye in my mouth. He swore all the way
to the scaffold, wished the Goddamned ship would fly
away with devils, cursed himself, and the day
he was born, and her that bare him, and heaven, the God
who judged him, the man who turned him in. They prayed
for his repentance. He offered scorn, then awed
the crowd with advice to the hangman on his trade:
he tied the knot himself. They let him sway,
then tarred his body, and gibbeted him in the bay.
Josey pitied the fools: who buys a perfectly good pack of wieners
and drives around San Francisco chucking them at gays?
the scarf Josey sewed from antique silk kimonos: so gay. You
missed laughing at us, us confused, your raw hot dog on the ground.
about insurance, interest rates. Not hot dogs thrown from F-150s,
homophobic freaks. After the bashing, we used the ATM
How Happiness Works
Everybody writes poems
about the Fung Wah. All my students. Mine’s
about the line outside the ticket kiosk in Chinatown, and how
the little Chinese lady
who yells SIX O’CLOCK! and runs
around the corner with a straggly crowd of would-be riders
had already run.
I walked around trying to remember where
was Travel Pack, where the Lucky Star. I found
a shop that sold Lucky Star
tickets, also lottery tickets
and bubble tea. This little Chinese lady started pointing
toward various crowds on the sidewalk
that might be the line for my bus.
I shook my head. She grumbled and took off
her apron and came out from behind the counter,
came outside with me. I thanked her, and she said
No English. So I smiled and gave her a big
thumbs up, which made her laugh and say thank you.
Thank you, I said. Then she tried to leave me
in the Fung Wah line, but I got some Fung Wah
riders to show her their tickets. Not Lucky Star,
Fung Wah. She winced and said Fung Wah!
as if it were a curse. She cursed Fung Wah
and headed off across the street toward another
potential Lucky Star line. It was a busy street, and a car
swerved to miss her, honked. So I took her hand.
She was wearing a coat that was too long for her, so I only felt half
of her hand. My mother’s age, the size I was
when I was nine. I took her hand
and she looked up at me and smiled again, and said Thank you!
Thank YOU! I said, and we laughed and
walked across the street holding hands.
Across the street we could see a line of people holding
the pink tickets that meant
we were in the right place, the line of Lucky
Star riders, but we liked walking and holding hands, liked
the winter twilight, the relative silence. I think I loved
her. She took me to the head of the line. No one
complained: perhaps the other riders thought
if we were holding hands, then I must be
retarded. At last she turned me
toward her, and we held each other’s hands and said
good-bye: Thank you!
Thank you! On the bus, I sit
in the best seat, up front, and read Little Dorrit
and fall asleep while the driver
whistles, sometimes singing in Chinese.