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Jill McDonough's poems have appeared in The Threepenny Review, The New Republic, and Slate. The recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Fine Arts Work Center, and the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers, she is currently a Stegner Fellow at Stanford University.

National Endowment for the Arts: Jill McDonough
"December 12, 1884: George Cooke" on Slate.com



June 4, 1715:  Margaret Gaulacher
Boston, Massachusetts

The news that week includes a lyonefs
displayed, attacking Fowls and Catts.  They watched
her feeding time, remarked on her mercilefs
cruelty.  Meanwhile, Cotton Mather preached
against Hard-hearted Sinners, and Hardnefs of Heart.
He helped with her confession, which reflects
on attempts to destroy her unborn child, a part
of her Wicked crime, completed through Neglect.
Now hers is a Stony Heart, of Flint.  Ah!  Poor
Margaret, behold: the congregation calls
on your wondrous Industry, Agony, your death four
days off. Pray for a Clean, and a Soft Heart; don’t fall
from this fresh gallows to the Mouths of Dragons,
unconcerned,  adamant, so little broken.

[first appeared in Memorious, Issue 5, December 2005]


May 3, 1946:  Willie Francis
Saint Martinsville, Louisiana

They brought Louisiana’s only chair
in a pick-up from Angola into Saint
Martinsville Parish, to the Court House, where
a fifteen-year-old colored boy had lain
on straw for months.  Jailhouse on the second floor: 
Death kindly took the elevator.  Wires
were tossed from dynamo to window.  Four
men setting up the chair passed flasks, dead tired
and innocent of amps.  They called the priest,
and pulled the switch, and thought he’d die.  He shook
and lurched and gasped—You’re not supposed to breathe!
They shut it down, freed him from straps and hood.
Then Willie Francis stood up without help
and—miracle, miracle—walked back to his cell.

[first appeared in The Threepenny Review, Summer 2004]


May 9, 1947:  Willie Francis
Saint Martinsville, Louisiana

The TIMES reporters asked him to describe
the taste of death.  Cold peanut butter.  Fair
stars, little speckles:  pink and green, like shines
in a rooster’s tail.  He said God fool’d with the chair.
His father smashed his gravestone into slivers
of granite.  Hundreds wrote divine intervention,
how gold electrodes would corrode and silver
wires short if they tried to kill that boy again.
Like Daniel in the lion’s den; those men
in Nebuchadnezzar’s furnace; unusual; cruel;
double jeopardy:  none of that could save him. 
At noon the chair was ready, voltage full.
He said everything is all right and died
without pink stars, green, anything divine.

[first appeared in The Threepenny Review, Summer 2004]


June 19, 1953:  Julius and Ethel Rosenberg
Ossining, New York

Electrocution set for eight p.m.
Two hours before they took him to be prepped
the matrons asked her if she’d like to see him;
the warden said that they could take some steps
to let them talk.  A screen of metal mesh
between two wooden chairs outside her cell.
Romantic.  Pyramus and Thisbe, rushed
in writing letters to their kids, to tell
them Remember:  we were innocent, and could
not wrong our conscience.  Now we press you close
and kiss you with all our strength.  Before they stood
to go he kissed two fingers, pressed them both
against the screen, to hers:  first white, then red.
Their final touch, through screen. So hard they bled.

[first appeared in Oxford Magazine, Second Week, Hilary Term, 2007]


December 7, 1982:  Charles Brooks

Huntsville, Texas

Before the first lethal injection, doctors decided
it violates the Hippocratic Oath, 
so technicians got the job.  A doctor confided
that it can take hours and be a real bloodbath. 
It’s not like a tetanus shot; if you miss the vein,
it’s excruciating. Witnesses watched as Brooks,
in gold pants, brown shirt open to the waist,
lay on a gurney, restrained by six straps.  He took
a long deep yawn.  Two needles in his arm,
blood splatters on the sheet.  He wheezed, gasped: death
did not appear to be painless. 

First, do no harm
the papers would read the next day.  In Brooks’ last breaths
he prayed I bear witness there is no God
but Allah.  Unto Allah do we belong.

[first appeared in The New Republic, July 10 & 17 2006]


1728 Advertisement for the Recovery of an Indian Servant

I'll miss her smoky cooking, beans
in molasses, coffee with cream. Warm
mornings, her clean kitchen. Soapy streams
of fresh-pumped water on her arms.
Her Narrow Stript pink Cherredary
Goun turn'd up with a little flour'd
red & white Callico. Contrary,
very pretty. And vain. Spent hours
at her sewing. Everything in a birch
bark basket. Clean. She had a pretty
body, worked hard in the kitchen, stitched
quick, tidy stitches. Used too little
nutmeg, too much mace. In A stript
Homespun Quilted Petticoat, plain
muslin Apron. She loved the ripe
pears from the pear tree, glazed with rain.
Her hair in tidy plaits: plain Pinners
& a red & white flower'd knot.

Come back, beloved. Oils, paper,
whatever you lack. An apricot
tree, blue ribbons. A necklace to match
your green Stone Earrings. A dozen pairs
of White Cotton Stockings, a latch
for your door, lace, linen aprons to wear
if you'd come back to Pinckney Street,
this narrow brick house with its new
porch. Over the cobbled pavers. Neat
in your Leather heel'd Wooden Shoes.

[first appeared in Slate, November 2002: “Runaway”]


Great Day at the Athenaeum

A meter maid was hiding in the ladies' room, sitting on the little chair where I usually put my stack of books.  I smiled at her, and she said "I'm just being lazy." I said, "I'm just going to pee."  She said, "I already did that," and I said, "Soon we'll be even."  Then she listened to me pee. 

When I emerged we had a short conversation about how her husband swears, in which she would speak in a normal tone of voice and then just mouth the swears, like, "It feels so ---------- good to be home" and "Hon, you make this house so --------- nice."  She said she tells him, "God, hon, you have to swear about it?"  "Yeah," I added, and here I was pretending to be her talking to her husband: "You have to be so fucking expressive?" 

The meter maid was not ready to meet someone who says "fucking" in the ladies' room at the Boston Atheneaeum.  But there I was. I made her day.  She cracked up.  She was having a great time in the ladies' room at the Boston Athenaeum.

I always wash my hands, even when there is not a uniformed member of the Boston police force hiding in the ladies' room.

When I went to get my coat and bag from Doug, the man who takes my coat and bag, I said, "There's a meter maid hiding in the ladies' room."  "Yes," he said.  "She comes in to use the bathroom and sometimes she lets us get away with double parking.  Sort of a 'you scratch my back, I'll let you hide in my bathroom' kind of thing." 

The meter maid came out and said, "How long has this place been a library?" Doug and I thought it was a historic question, and tried coming up with a year: 1789? 1850?   The reference librarians would know, and probably there's a plaque around here someplace. But she was asking a different kind of question: "Because the sign outside doesn't say 'Library,' it says something else."  "Right!" I said. I used an exclamation point because now I understood her question and it was exactly the kind of question I can answer.  "The sign says 'Boston Athenaeum.' 'Athenaeum' is just a fancy word for library."   "Also Turkish bath," said Doug, who is the best kind of coat-and-bag-taking-guy because he is also a smart-aleck, and that's useful in constructing the here's-my-coat-and-bag kind of banter that he must have to do fifty times a day.  "Yes," I said, "the Turkish baths are in the basement.  On the weekends, 'Athenaeum' means 'Bordello'." Doug said, "Speaking of which, are you coming in on Saturday?"

Then Doug was suddenly apologetic, horribly stricken that he had gone too far, in that he had just suggested I am a part-time prostitute. I, too, am a smart-aleck, but I am also a member of the Boston Atheneum, and probably he's not supposed to suggest that members fuck people for money. But I was too happy about this instance of Doug being a smart-aleck to be able to reassure him.  Also, it turned out the meter maid didn't know the word "bordello" either, so then I was horribly stricken, worried that we'd been inadvertently making fun of the meter maid's lack of book-learning.  I tried to smooth that over by saying, "'Bordello' is just an old fashioned word for 'whorehouse,' like 'brothel'."  "That one I know," said the meter maid, and she pushed my shoulder playfully and walked away from the Athenaeum, laughing out loud.

[first appeared in Unpleasant Event Schedule, 2006]





Jill McDonough
San Francisco, CA




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