Poetry: Jill McDonough

July 12, 1726: William Fly

Boston, Massachusetts

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.

May 3, 1946: Willie Francis

Saint Martinsville, Louisiana

They brought Louisiana’s only chair
in a pickup 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.

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 these 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.

These three poems were previously published in Threepenny Review.

JILL McDONOUGH has published poems in Slate, Threepenny Review, and Poetry. The recipient of fellowships and grants from the Boston Athanaeum, the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, and the National Endowment for the Arts, she is currently a fellow at the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library.

(c) copyright 2005, Jill McDonough; author retains all rights.