by Jill McDonough
Alice James Books, 2022
$16.69, purchase at bookshop.org
Review by Risa Denenberg
Jill McDonough’s American Treasure has been called “wildly funny” and “hilarious” which is certainly the case. But I found its most salient quality to be the treasured feeling of sharing secrets with a sister. McDonough’s humor is wry and invigorating, offering discovery after discovery of her overarching perspective on the nature of all things American. In poems that are both openhearted and unsparing, she takes the reader along with her into classrooms, on travels, and for walks in the park; she lets us eavesdrop on private conversations with her partner and confrontations with strangers; she shares thoughts on “whiteness,” enslavers, Rosa Parks, and the end of the world.
It’s rare that a book of poetry so immediately calls up another writer’s work for me, but reading American Treasure, poem after poem, I thought of George Saunders’ fiction. Let me explain.
Consider this passage from George Saunders’ short story, “Love Letter” from The New Yorker (April 6, 2020):
[…] Are we or are we not (as I have grown sick of hearing)
“a nation of laws”?
Even as they change the laws constantly to suit their own beliefs!
Believe me, I am as disgusted as you are with all this.
Compare this both in tone and content to McDonough’s lines from “Zero Slave Teeth”:
[…] But it’s worse than that: slave teeth.
I post this on Facebook, asking what might the reparations
be for having your teeth pulled, having to see your teeth
every day in your owner’s stupid mouth. Melodie posts a comic
from The Oatmeal: This is old news, the slave teeth thing, also
that people LOSE THEIR MINDS denying it. […]
With a conversational tone, a self-conscious twang, lots of authentic dialog, and a surprisingly deft use of exactly those things us writers are not supposed to use—exclamation points and ALL CAPS—both writers blast inequities with incisive dissent, penetrating humor, and genuine compassion. Both writers slyly deplore how history is re-written using laws, lies, and silence. In “Love Letter,” Saunders’ narrator timidly cautions his grandson to remain silent in an Orwellian future, rather than help a friend who is being deported. McDonough ridicules how people “lose their minds,” in their efforts to refuse to accept the past—in this case, the history of black slavery in the US.
My favorite poems here are the narratives drawn from McDonough’s work with incarcerated people—men, women, and and people in the juvenile detention centers where she teaches. And of those, I especially love the poems from what she calls “kidjail.” These lines from the title poem are a classic example of how she is able to depict inequity while responding with warmth:
My students in jail are experts in getting their own
way, destroying what they’re mad at most:
themselves. But also racism! Some things it makes more sense
to hate. They’re invisible, trapped by shorter sentences.
They write about jail, prison, America, gun violence.
We laugh about everything: white privilege,
when we’re going to die, drugs—”Jill, do you do coffee before
you come here?” “Nope! Just a leetle bump of coke.” […]
McDonough’s poems reveal her fully-conscious and uncompromising life. She has a partner and has traveled purposefully all over the US and abroad, noticing history, racism, and injustice and having fun. How could I resist a poem in which McDonough gives one of the best examples of “show don’t tell,” in a love poem, “The Serious Downer” written to her partner: “I tell Josey when she dies I am going to eat her face.” The poem continues this part love letter, part gothic tale:
I tell her the EMTs for the dead, the morgue guys, will walk
in on me, her blood by now darkening and crusting
all over my mouth, me looking up like dag, busted,
mouth agape and also full of one last bite of her unchewed body.
But it’ll be so sad; you won’t be there to think it’s funny,
In the poem, “My History of Lead,” (which was made into a broadside by Broadsided Press), she travels back and forth to create an unforgettable analogy from ancient Rome to Flint, Michigan. The poem starts in the past:
The Romans love it. Sweet and sour
in wine, sprinkled as salt on their suppers. Decline
and fall, poor Romans: go crazy. […]
A few lines later, the poem moves to the present:
[…] Come over here, to almost now:
we opaque our paint with it, make it quick to coat,
a glossy pleasure on the brush, until our babies take
up flakes from windowsills, doorjambs. […]
The poem rounds up with this ending, “And here we are, a stack of easy / metaphors: declining, falling, the bodies of the poor / all pave the way, their leaders knowing better, / knowing best.”
In American Treasure, McDonough uses humor—morbid, gothic, and just plain funny—to make her case, like the stand-up comic who can make an audience laugh at their own transgressions. While these wide-ranging, firsthand poems are entirely non-didactic, there is an important take home lesson: we too should, indeed we must, do what we can to alleviate inequities and fight racism and xenophobia. And if we can, we should do it with compassion and humor.
The Broadsided Poem:
“My History of Lead,” words by Jill McDonough and art by Lisa Sette, published in April 4, 2016.
Four Questions from Broadsided Press; Four Answers from Jill McDonough:
Bsided: Which group of students do you enjoy teaching most?
Jill McDonough: I love everyone, as you know. And there are different joys in giving a nervous undergrad the permission, time, and skills they need to go to a museum and write a villanelle about a painting they love, or helping an incarcerated student expand the line “I smacked Ace with the gun” into the satisfying pentameter “I smacked Ace bitchass with the butt of the gun.”
But I have a special place in my heart for the intense work I get to do with MFA grad students in poetry at UMass Boston! We get to talk about how to be in a way that I think is really hard to find in our capitalist plague state. How to be vulnerable, how to be funny, how to help each other, how to take up space and be ourselves, how to deal with everything in the world and on the page, in ways that make us happy. And in meter! Or spread all over the page! And in the archives. And eavesdropping on the T. And, eventually stacked up in huge sheaves of poems they didn’t even realize they were writing sometimes. And, in SUBMITATHON!
At the end of their three years they read me their whole thesis out loud in my office while I make notes. It takes hours. I love it so much.
Bsided: I love your activism through teaching. I note from the poem “Whiteness in Bloom,” that you refer to “phrases from my Southern youth.” Can you tell me when and how you first arrived at your understanding, as a Southern white woman, of racism and white privilege.
JM: I don’t know when it first occurred to me that it was weird to be in all-white spaces. That if you are in an all-white space then a LOT of work went in to that, that all-white space isn’t just what happens sometimes, randomly. Rural spaces are great for this: It’s rural! So, it’s all white! It JUST HAPPENS. Okay, how did the white people get here, to this previously “blank” (or, really, Indigenous) space? And just them? Generations of effort have gone into making those spaces ON PURPOSE and of course from the inside it’s hard to see. When you’re white!
It’s not like I have it figured out. I still have tons of privileges I can’t see. My wife is butch and she says the way I drive is . . . what does she say, assertive? I drive like I live in Boston. But because of how I look, what’s going to happen when I get pulled over? I will smile and apologize, and maybe I’ll get a ticket that I can afford to pay. People who don’t look like me, even white women who look like my wife Josey, can get into a different kind of trouble.
Lots of times there are ways that I can be deploying my privileges to help people that don’t even occur to me. It’s so horrible when you figure it out. When I found out after years of going into the kid jail that I can bring in candy? Whenever I want? And give it to anyone? I was operating on ideas about contraband from grownup jail, where candy isn’t allowed. That’s years of Reece’s cups I didn’t get to share with those boys. Ugh, it still makes me miserable.
Bsided: You’ve traveled extensively throughout the US. In the poem, “Small Pleasures,” you write of your visit to Mount Vernon: “On the Enslaved People Tour our guide / calls whipping discipline. One woman says, So they get food and clothing and a place to sleep. As if / she’s laying out fresh terms, some universal rights. Also rape! / I say brightly, which makes me feel better anyway.” You nail our nation’s current impasse, repairing the damage of systemic racism vs “Making white people feel better: what today is all about.” Do you have any advice for how a white person should respond to racist ideas? Particularly, as a teacher yourself, how do you avoid being didactic when in these situations?
JM: Wait, what’s wrong with didactic? Didactic: “intended to teach, particularly in having moral instruction as an ulterior motive.” I mean if people are being racist, being didactic seems like a great start, right? Also make fun of it! Making fun of racism: fun and easy! It’s not enough, but it is a good knee-jerk start. Just a nice loud NOPE! and laughing out loud can help. You can follow up with a WOW! and then start to drill down into whatever the racist idea or speech is, picking it apart with all those close-reading skills we have been working on all our lives.
Bsided: You tackle misogyny head on in your poem, “Reading ‘What a Waste’ to College Boys” who, “want to share with me and everyone else / their wide-eyed stories, how sometimes girls/ with beautiful bodies just don’t want to fuck them.” People should buy your book to read your fabulous retort! But I noted that few of the poems in American Treasure tackle homophobia or sexism, even though you are a lesbian woman. Do you think there is a hierarch of “-isms”? Can you comment on this?
JM: They don’t have to buy the book! They can see the poem here: “Day 18: What a Waste.”
But you are asking why, as a lesbian woman, I’m not tackling homophobia or sexism more in this book. I’ve been a lesbian woman a long time, Risa! I love making fun of ALL of the -isms. I have a poem titled “Three am” that talks about a cab driver in an earlier collection who says gays would be publicly executed in Somalia, which seems like a good idea to him. And then he’s relieved that “we’re not mad he sort of wants us dead.” I guess things are going pretty good, if I am thinking of what’s going on for other people instead of worrying about how homophobia and sexism mess with me. I mean they don’t, much, anymore. I’m in a pretty good spot. I’m a tenured full professor in a state with a lesbian governor; I have a lesbian doctor and a butch wife who just brought me an espresso. Don’t worry, though: I am sure somebody will try to fuck with me and I will make fun of them in a poem again. That’ll show ’em!
Jill McDonough’s books of poems include Habeas Corpus (Salt, 2008), Where You Live (Salt, 2012), Reaper (Alice James, 2017), Here All Night (Alice James, 2019) and American Treasure (Alice James Books, 202. The recipient of three Pushcart prizes and fellowships from the Lannan Foundation, 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 has appeared in Poetry, Slate, The Nation, The Threepenny Review, and Best American Poetry. She teaches in the MFA program at UMass-Boston and offers College Reading and Writing in Boston jails.
Risa Denenberg lives on the Olympic peninsula in Washington state where she works as a nurse practitioner. She is a co-founder of Headmistress Press; curator at The Poetry Café Online and the book review editor at River Mouth Review. Her most recent publications include the chapbook, Posthuman, finalist in the Floating Bridge 2020 chapbook competition, and Rain/Dweller (MoonPath Press, 2023).