by John Kendall Hawkins
A Juror Must Fold in on Herself
by Kathleen McClung
Rattle Foundation (2020)
Chapbooks are making a big comeback since their heyday in the '60s when they were the bread and butter of small literary presses, and bread and butter was often all they had to eat. And government-issued cheese. I briefly lived at a William Blake-inspired poetry commune -- the Four Zoas Press in western Mass. -- in the mid-'70s, freezing my ass off in winter, having an affair with a cute, freckled social worker, living off cheap spaghetti and the aforementioned cheese. It was good.
There was a small letterpress machine there. I raided my journal and composed my poems, letter by lead letter, found scraps of quality paper on the floor, and pressed together my first chapbook, bound by string. Out from the Darkness. The love poems of groundhog Spring. Dig this:
On an overcast day
a sunflower droops his head to snooze
and dreams nervously of his idol.
When I wake up
and drowsily lift my face
will I see your flashing eyes?
I was reading a lot of German Romanticism at the time. Young Werther soon followed. So much for Spring. And love.
It took me a long time to get comfortable with free verse; I'd been 'trained' by educators to imbibe the rhythms and introject the values and forms of the blessed Canon. In my honors English, we had to stand up and recite a classic once per week, and I loved it. All I knew how to do was to rhyme sublime in iambic time. Milton, Keats, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Shakespeare. I still love classic sonnets to this day. But now I'm free. And freedom is harder than it looks. Or, just another word for nothing left to lose, as Janis sang it.
In Kathleen McClung's new prize-winning chapbook, A Juror Must Fold in on Herself, from Rattle Books, all the elements of form and function, freedom and sentences come together in a distillation of the poetic elements -- a bliss of plainspeak that listens and sees. And there's humor, the banality of common ironies and evils too small to fail us, or inspire us to move forward. McClung has been an adjunct professor at Skyline College, in California, for 20 years. As she puts it at her website, "I may not have adequate health insurance, but my iambs feel good." This sentiment is in keeping with spirit of the chapbook: a smart, working-class professor struggling to survive in a gig-economy culture.
McClung's Juror is a 15-poem collection of 'a day in the life of' set pieces drawn out over the span of a trial for which the poet has been called up for jury duty -- from the first day driving in to the Hall of Justice parking lot, opening statements, noting judge and fellow jurors, observing benign omerta rules, deciding a peer's fate, driving away from Justice on the last day, epilogic nods to jurors now mere passersby in the community, out, like her, back to shopping.
McClung's Sequestered Juror is empathetic, observant, commonsense wise, and sometimes funny. We learn about the monotony of duty, the conceits of logic systems in which we are mere switches for the whole, that we can vote, and declare Guilty or Not Guilty in a courtroom of our peers. We find we can set free the eye of our mind's purchasing power on a mall of our choosing and time, while deliberating on the fate of our fellow man, multitasking, as it were. And with the Juror's luck, her duty is called upon during summer vacation.
McClung accomplishes all of this while offering up poetic forms -- rondeaus, pantoums, sestinas, centos, and sonnets -- in a celebration of voice and rhythm, that surprises -- like finding on the rack of a Goodwill store an old cotton shirt, plaid and button-down, instant retro, still fits, to your delight, in the mirrored fitting room, then back to the rack, buried among the many shirts, in the many river Nostalgia. There is grace, and simplicity. I had fun looking up the quaint but useful forms, now explained on YouTube (theoretically, you could write a pantoum while driving in your car, "with one hand whipping free", as The Bard from Duluth would say), and had more fun staging the texts in my mind, reader response-style.
In her rich opening poem, "Field Notes, Hall of Justice Parking Lot", our Juror, not yet sequestered "for the summer", is parking her car, "nearly full with Early / Birds"; she sees, not far away, the suited Accused, getting off his bike and "locking / it with a gigantic U to the Hall of / Justice rack". She just sits there listening to Mozart, observing without notes, thinking, "He may / know I watch him." But she's not going to risk contempt of court by saying, G'day, how's it going, as one might feel inclined to do, with a defendant in your community, innocent until proven guilty. She's not gonna be a renegade that browbeats the jury into Innocence. It's enough, she tells herself, that "I was already spending my / vacation in a crummy swivel chair."
The free-verse poem is stranger than it seems at first (and, even on the surface, it's sufficient for its purpose). The Early Birds tell of a consciousness of tight budgets, the suit and bike and U lock of the defendant already suggests so much; and the projected intuition that he is being watched, community eye-bees bobbing, wherever he goes, ready to sting, is not mere paranoia, but the raw energy of community watches, surveillance states, and the suspended disbelief of the intensely observing courtroom, which betoken a subject under powerful, but subtle siege, a life in the balance of the Forewoman's pronouncement, Guilty or Not, him to be fed in the end to the lion of Justice or to the Christian, who hasn't eaten in weeks. "Field Notes" is the Juror's awareness of all this, but she wants (and probably needs) a vacation; even her empathy is on a tight budget. We're strange to each other, but in an intimate way.
In the second poem, we switch out of the civilian life of free-verse observing to the more formal musicality of courtroom rituals that McClung brings to life, starting with "The D.A.'s Opening Statement", a villanelle. The anchor line is a perfect pitch from the DA, "Don't put yourself in anybody's shoes." Just the facts, ma'am. Nevertheless, the Juror notes, "(The prosecutor looks me in the eye.)" You are only to see through his shoes. The repeated "shoes" is repeated with the admonition "lose". An empathetic prosecutor would be a failing prosecutor: now introject that. Be a logical positivist, not a teary metaphysician. If you must, the DA says, "Go somewhere else behind closed doors to cry."
The Juror hears the sing-song rite, detached, and one is reminded of T.S. Eliot's "Portrait of a Lady", where a tea-mate goes on, in her wistful, matronly intonations:
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