Pushcart prize winner Jill McDonough’s books of poems include Habeas Corpus (Salt, 2008), Oh, James! (Seven Kitchens, 2012), and Where You Live (Salt, 2012). 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 UMass-Boston and directs 24PearlStreet, the online writing program at the Fine Arts Work Center.
“Martinis and fantastic breasts. A wild wedding hangover. Pink angora and “instructing six women/ to write tercets on snow”. In lesbian love-poems, conversations, intimate jokes from a hundred parties, five prisons, and three beloved bars, Jill McDonough’s second book tells where we live, and how: “each day fresh with the gift of it. Fierce/nose-sting of tears, quick breath out of nowhere”.
Often frankly autobiographical, her poems are also peopled with others’ stories. Some are familiar – Cary Grant and Charles Darwin, Sappho and Hildegard von Bingen. Others we come to know: prison inmates Julie and Andrea, friends comforting in kitchens or riotous in the yard, the little Chinese lady from the Lucky Star kiosk. McDonough is honest with them: stitches their actual words into her poems, understands their motives and her own. This poetry is vivid with reality, even where the subjects are pictures: Mary in an illuminated Annunciation “suspicious/ in her lapis robes, her double chin doubting, perhaps/ one eyebrow raised” or “a small, unseemly Venus, hair in pearls” holding the dead Adonis and “furious at death and grief”.
Above all there are poems of love and desire – “I, Jill McDonough, have something to declare: je t’aime, je t’adore, Josey” – ardent, funny, and erotically charged:
For better or worse. For root
canal, for laughing on the high
speed ferry to the cape. My mouth on your
neck, say. My hand on your
“I am always proud to print Jill McDonough’s poems in my magazine, not only because she is one of the most exciting younger poets writing today, but also because she focuses on things that really matter. Her latest book, Where We Live, shows her working at the height of the powers, in poems that investigate (among other things) how our bodies have occupied the world and how we have occupied our bodies.”
– Wendy Lesser
“Beneath the poker-faced humor and cosmopolitan wit in Jill McDonough’s Where You Live is a profligate mind, urgently intoning her inexhaustible humanity and our not-too-perfect existence. As always with her well-regarded, poetic narratives, the hilarity quotient is high, but also, too, her sense of history and a poignant seeing that makes any reader feel deeper than before, when they first encounter her poems. Each poem evidences a deep ardor for language. She names in her poems and makes a massive sweep and embrace of her large coterie of friends and family, and like Frank O’Hara, ecstatically divines and celebrates kinships until they emerge as a virtual village, a transcription of affections. You, reader, prepare to be embraced. Welcome to the World According to Jill.”
– Major Jackson
When I take twelve high school students
into Special Collections, the curator lets them
touch everything, asks if we’d like to see
a book of hours. He brings out two illuminated
manuscripts, one with initials cut out
by long-dead stupid bastards, the other
perfect, perfectly preserved. He tells them
smell the vellum, tells them it’s painted with powdered
lapis, flakes of gold on kidskin, stretched and scraped.
Someone’s touched the first initial until it’s rubbed away,
edges darkened, hazy. He explains red letter days,
shows them strawberries and thistle, golden vines,
forget-me-nots, Florentine flourishes, a green parrot,
a much beloved annunciation. Mary, suspicious
in her lapis robes, her double chin doubting, perhaps
one eyebrow raised. The angel’s in crisp white robes,
green and purple wings, bringing her a scroll
like a fortune in a fortune cookie. He holds it
and waits, her raised hand not a benediction,
more like Just hold it right there. A peacock
on the facing page, Mary’s in a mullioned-windowed
stone room: green carpet, canopy bed behind her.
Any girl would love a room like that, her red and gold
book, holding her place for once this angel’s gone.
The halo more gorgeous than his wings, a little nicked
where the prayerful have rubbed for luck or piety,
the flowered border worn away. Other pages —
Lazarus fresh from a subterranean spa, knights stabbing
all the wrong babies — are worn, too, but not as much.
We love an annunciation, Fra Angelico’s tiny doves
on golden beams, this anonymous monk’s patient angel,
his peacock wings. She was just sitting there with her prayer book,
and look what happened. Something amazing
could happen to any one of us, at any time. You
might be that important. You never know.
On Being Asked “What is Poetry?”
I ask that a lot, ask a lot of students that. Whitman,
Dickinson, Dietz. There are hundreds of ways
to say you don’t know, most of them
pretty good. Anne Bradstreet, Anne Carson, Anne
Sexton, Annie Finch. Right now I teach Understanding
Literature. They didn’t Understand
that people still write Literature, that it’s alive. Bishop,
Pinsky, Lowell. It took me three weeks to make them
stop saying they don’t like poetry. No to Baudelaire.
Ditto John Clare, Gwendolyn Brooks. What the hell
are you talking about? Don’t like poetry. Don’t like food.
Vessels, buildings, days. Don’t like lumber, time.
Poetry: whatever we say it is. We’re
in charge. Homer, Akhmatova, Frost. I don’t know
art, but I know what I like. Here’s
what I like. Fresh chalk on my hands, marking stresses
on the board. a PLUM. a PURple FINCH: three
iambs. Hopkins, Herbert, Fred Marchant. Then reading
aloud from Alan Dugan who, I admit it, is dead. But not
much: the purple prick of that skunk cabbage is still
erect in its frost-thawing fart gas. Bashō, Bronte, Keats.
Berryman, Ashbery, Yeats. Poetry means you get to say
whatever whatever you want. Your professor might close the class
with Dugan’s prick in her mouth. It’s poetry, so it’s
allowed. Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day? Sure.
Also, They Fuck You Up, Your Mum and Dad. What is poetry?
What is poetry? I don’t know.
What Hell’s Really Like
Infinite, eternal; these words
do not hold meaning but gesture
toward unending, ample, bounty.
We’re usually glad to have
enough. I’ve had enough.
My hands smell like bleach. They fold
the careful thirds of your shirts,
pair your white socks, tuck
them into your half of the third drawer.
Last month’s dream: I went to Hell, descended
with a guide in a green blazer, a charming
undergrad. In Hell, she showed me
each of the exhibits: it was like
Williamsburg, or Spooky World,
the Halloween Theme Park in Foxboro
Stadium, but with a bigger budget. Fog
machines disseminating sulphur, rotting
meats. Each area evidence of our infinite
imagination: pits of fire, lava simmering
in kiddie pools, gratuitous
pitchforks. Rolling hills, each
with a stone pushed up or rolling
down. A living diorama of that liver:
black daws gathered with gobbety beaks, live video
feed of pulsing cells, raw, regenerating. Hungry
ghosts: huge bellies, tiny mouths. All
there. The staff takes breaks,
stands around galvanized basins of
transubstantiating ice, small
green bottles of Coke. I congratulate them
on their long success, how all of us, everybody
on the outside, up top, is fooled.
They love me, laugh, show me
Laundry doesn’t end. It’s something
we can count on. I suspect divorce stats rose
in correlation with our disbelief in hell.
Who, now, imagines anything could last
so long as you both shall live, much less
eternity? The eternal
silence of the infinite spaces
terrifies, sure: Eternal. Infinite. Not
silence, space. Nobody minds a quiet
Sunday, an extra pantry shelf. The dryer
in our small apartment tumbles
gentle, low. No silence, and very little space.
In the dream, during Hell’s employee
break, I said I couldn’t wait
to bring you down, show you
what hell is really like.
They stopped, looked at my green blazer girl,
wandered tactfully off. No, now you’re with us.
You can’t see her anymore. Matter
of fact. Firm babysitter
to insistent two year old.
Her hand on my stunned arm.
Women’s Prison Every Week
Lockers, metal detectors, steel doors, C.O.
to C.O., different forms, desks — mouth open, turn — so
slow I use the time to practice patience,
grace, tenderness for glassed-in guards. The rules
recited as if they were the same rules every week:
I can wear earrings. I cannot wear earrings. I can wear
my hair up. I cannot wear my hair up. I dressed
by rote: cords in blue or brown, grey turtleneck, black
clogs. The prisoners, all in grey sweatshirts, blue jeans,
joked I looked like them, fit in. I didn’t think about it,
until I dreamed of being shuffled in and locked
in there, hustled through the heavy doors.
In the dream the guards just shook their heads, smirked
when I spelled out my name, shook the freezing bars.
Instead of nightly escorts out, I’d stay in there
forever. Who would know? So I went to Goodwill,
spent ten bucks on pink angora, walked back down those halls
a movie star. When I stood at the front of the class
there rose a sharp collective sigh. The one
who said she never heard of pandering
until the arraignment said OK, I’m going
to tell her. Then she told me: freedom is wasted
on women like me. They hate the dark cotton, jeans
they have to wear, each one a shadow of the other their
whole sentence. You could wear red! she accused.
Their favourite dresses, silk slips, wool socks all long gone,
bagged up for sisters, moms — maybe Goodwill,
maybe I flicked past them looking for this cotton candy pink
angora cardigan, pearl buttons. They can’t stop staring, so
I take it off and pass it around, let each woman hold it
in her arms, appraise the wool between her fingers,
a familiar gesture, second nature, from another world.
Accident, Mass. Ave.
I stopped at a red light on Mass. Ave.
in Boston, a couple blocks away
from the bridge, and a woman in a beat-up
old Buick backed into me. Like, cranked her wheel,
rammed right into my side. I drove a Chevy
pick up truck. It being Boston, I got out
of the car yelling, swearing at this woman,
a little woman, whose first language was not English.
But she lived and drove in Boston, too, so she knew,
we both knew, that the thing to do
is get out of the car, slam the door
as hard as you fucking can and yell things like What the fuck
were you thinking? You fucking blind? What the fuck
is going on? Jesus Christ! So we swore
at each other with perfect posture, unnaturally angled
chins. I threw my arms around, sudden
jerking motions with my whole arms, the backs
of my hands toward where she had hit my truck.
But she hadn’t hit my truck. She hit
the tire; no damage done. Her car
was fine, too. We saw this while
we were yelling, and then we were stuck.
The next line in our little drama should have been
Look at this fucking dent! I’m not paying for this
shit. I’m calling the cops, lady. Maybe we’d throw in a
You’re in big trouble, sister, or I just hope for your sake
there’s nothing wrong with my fucking suspension, that
sort of thing. But there was no fucking dent. There
was nothing else for us to do. So I
stopped yelling, and she looked at the tire she’d
backed into, her little eyebrows pursed
and worried. She was clearly in the wrong, I was enormous,
and I’d been acting as if I’d like to hit her. So I said
Well, there’s nothing wrong with my car, nothing wrong
with your car . . . are you OK? She nodded, and started
to cry, so I put my arms around her and I held her, middle
of the street, Mass. Ave., Boston, a couple blocks from the bridge.
I hugged her, and I said We were scared, weren’t we?
and she nodded and we laughed.
Where You Live
In the waiting rooms of our prisons, women wait
with well-dressed kids. The kids
are cuter here, somehow, than any body has a right
to be. I get in first, but no one’s angry; I look
like a nice lady, smile at the babies, carry books
but no briefcase, don’t wear a lawyer’s suit. Going in
to talk about Othello with rapists, murderers,
con-men, thieves; all men defined by what they did
one time, now a long time ago. Prison: a place
where people live. It might be nice to know
your neighbors are reading Shakespeare instead
of carving a shiv. Where you live it’s sunny, where I live
today, it’s not. When Josey was offered that stake in the bar
in L.A., we were instant Los Angelenos in our minds.
How quickly it happens, Eliot Spitzer behind bars
in an instant, Cheney arrested in Spain. All of us
imagining him there. Our imagined house with its imagined
Meyer lemon tree, the hard time we had parking
our imaginary car. How then can anyone imagine it’s so hard
to change? The students in the prison: scholars as soon
as they sign up. Their children, poets as soon as they
rhyme. I want to be a writer, people tell me, and I nod.
Me too. That’s part of why I write. Prisons,
hospitals, schools, the great cities,
their one-way streets and festivals; we put our bodies
there together, upright and seated, walking
along the hallways built to human scale, sitting
in rooms designed around imagined hordes of you. Prison
cell, cathedral: we imagined them, invented. Built them
around our bodies, or the bodies those spaces would hold.
from Where You Live (Salt Publishing, 2012).
Order Where You Live.
Visit Jill’s website.