By KIMBERLY RIEKEN
American executions dating back to the 18th century and a boy named Romey in the South Carolina Low Country were among the subjects of poems written by the 2010 Witter Bynner poetry fellows. Poet Laureate Kay Ryan presented Jill McDonough and Atsuro Riley on Feb. 18 at a reading in the Mumford Room.
Ryan began by strongly distinguishing the poetic identity of the two writers. “These two poets are strikingly different if you look at subject matter. Jill McDonough has written a series of 50 highly researched sonnets chronicling the history of legal execution in America. Atsuro Riley has written a series of linked poems exploring the interior life of a young boy in South Carolina, the evolution of a consciousness and the evocation of a place, very different.
“And again, if you look at style, the two poets are very different. McDonough’s sonnets are scrubbed and stripped, and Riley’s poems are bendy and sensuous. But if you look underneath, Jill McDonough and Atsuro Riley share powerful virtues. They share a bone-deep commitment to economy, extraordinary integrity in their craft, profound intentions, and whatever that extra thing is that leaves your ears ringing after you’ve read the poem,” Ryan continued.
McDonough’s recent work is “Habeas Corpus” (2008), which comprises 50 sonnets about American executions from 1608–2005.
“Jill McDonough’s understated, elegant writing in her first book, ‘Habeas Corpus,’ brings to narrative and description such a clean dignity that a book about executions achieves something nigh unto impossible. Histories of hangings and burnings and injectings wind up not sensational but mysterious. They are quiet like natural history dioramas where we understand what a miracle life is by its having been taken,” Ryan said.
McDonough read several poems from “Habeas Corpus.” The following poem concerns the execution of William Kemmler on Aug. 6, 1890, in Auburn, N.Y.
In Euripedes’ Medea, Medea kills
her rival with a poisoned robe and crown.
She doesn’t get to watch. The play is filled
with hearsay and reporting: Princess, unsound
in every limb. White froth on her lips. The screams,
unnatural devouring fire. The messenger,
unnamed, describes how dripped blood
mixed with flames;
he takes his time, and doubles Medea’s pleasure.
The first electrocution New York botched
was Kemmler’s. Electric execution: new,
humane. A man strapped down. Reporters watched
his new suit burn, called in singed hair,
Blood stood in his pores. Smoke rose above his head.
The smell of burning flesh, and he was dead.
For five years McDonough spent time researching and writing the stories of these 50 sonnets. Since 1999, she has taught for Boston University and its prison education program, which involves teaching poetry, creative writing and essay writing in prisons.
About Riley, Ryan said, “Atsuro Riley warps and double saturates the language of his native South Carolina Low Country, until it has the sinuousness and irresistibility of the river along which his many interlocking poems unspool. I don’t know how writing can be at the same time so visceral and so aesthetic.”
Riley presented a number of poems from his book “Romey’s Order,” set to debut this year. The following is an excerpt read from the poem “O”.
What was if for the longest time but lore, lure;
A heard-tell growing gold in the mind.
Word said and word’d spread it was well on back
Through the underwood by Bowen’s Canal.
Past convoluted trees there’s claydirt, a clear patch.
A rife clearing.
Ryan sums up Riley’s poetic success, saying, “Riley’s fiercely intelligent and ambitious poems play equally over the skin and the mind. The remarkable music of the poems rhyming, echoing and even a kind of visual and aural mirroring make a complex chord that unifies the whole sequence.”
In its 13th year, the Witter Bynner Foundation for Poetry in conjunction with the Library presented McDonough and Riley each with $7,500. The fellowship requires recipients to conduct a poetry reading in their hometown, as well as participate in a reading and recording session at the Library.
Kimberly Rieken is the office operations assistant in the Library’s Public Affairs Office.