Poetry

A Juror Must Fold in on Herself
by Kathleen McClung

 

The Sequestered Juror Writes a Pantoum                        

It’s no mystery where straight As come from.
You need a knack for following instructions.
“Sit up. Pay attention. Listen and learn,” your mother always said.
The judge said: no talking, no research whatsoever about the trial.

You need a knack for following instructions
and watch documentaries about the solar system, but no news.
The judge said: no talking, no research whatsoever about the trial,
only one juror at a time in the hotel pool,

and watch documentaries about the solar system, but no news.
The mini-bar is off-limits. In fact, for you it’s a lunar landscape.
Only one juror at a time in the hotel pool
and forget about those computers in the Business Center.

The mini-bar is off-limits. In fact, for you it’s a lunar landscape.
Verdicts don’t follow vodka. Vice versa, though, is common
and forget about those computers in the Business Center.
No Googling that lanky prosecutor who doesn’t wear a ring.

Verdicts don’t follow vodka. Vice versa, though, is common.
Anything goes once this godforsaken trial ends next month.
No Googling that lanky prosecutor who doesn’t wear a ring—
until later. But even then, that could open a can of worms.

Anything goes once this godforsaken trial ends next month.
For now a juror must fold in on herself
until later. But even then, that could open a can of worms.
In lieu of sleep or prayer or trance, there is, of course, poetry.

For now a juror must fold in on herself.
It’s no mystery where straight As come from.
In lieu of sleep or prayer or trance, there is, of course, poetry.

 

 

The Sequestered Juror Writes a Sestina

Luckily, you knit. You finished the first sleeve yesterday,
wool almost as soft as Alegria’s fur, rose red.
No needles allowed in the metal detector. You take
them into court only in your mind. And yarn. Now,
here, your clicking’s a jig in this pub of one,
this room overlooking someone’s Mercedes, Maine plates, a long

way from home. What distance to a verdict—long
or unbearable? The OJ jury in custody 265 days.
You remember white Ford Bronco, tight black glove. No one
forgets. Then quarters plinked in yellow boxes, and you read
testimony in narrow columns of print every morning. Now
you are forbidden from reading, forbidden from any talk

of this trial. For good measure all your talk,
your mail—monitored. A deputy sits in the long
corridor, plays video games, his “yessssss!” audible every now
and then. You have begun counting nights and days
the way you count cars (eight blue, three red,
six silver) or words per line (nine, plus one

extra here and there). You see yourself as someone
who’ll be a champion deliberator, someone who will take
her time, weigh evidence on a sturdy scale, reread
notes in her steno pad aloud, only humor long-
winded men for a little while, not all day.
But you’re nowhere near that conference table yet. Now

you have an armada of pillows, coffee from pods. Now
you knit a sleeve, remember the Dream Team won,
OJ went free. Imagine the twelve that October Monday,
imagine their exhaustion, their bursting like volcanos to talk
at last, lift their voices again after so long.
Did they get drunk after their verdict was read,

did they leave car keys with valets in red
jackets, dance like dervishes, spinning in dark nightclubs now
defunct, or did they instead embark on impossibly long
hikes in the San Gabriels, looking for the one
sacred hawk or wolf or moth that would take
everything, carry everything away? You finished a sleeve yesterday,

a small one, rose red, for a newborn. More
must take shape from your long skeins, your clicks,
from these sequestered days you are counting, counting now.

 

Both poems are from A Juror Must Fold in on Herself (Rattle 2020), winner of this year’s Rattle Chapbook Prize, and available for order here. “The Sequestered Juror Writes a Pantoum” was first published in Little Patuxent Review, Issue 27: Winter 2020, and “The Sequestered Juror Writes a Sestina” was first published in The MacGuffin, slated to appear in Vol. 36.3 (Fall 2020). Listen to the poet reading both poems here.

 

Kathleen McClung is the author of Temporary KinThe Typists Play Monopoly, and Almost the Rowboat. A Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net nominee, she is the winner of the Rita Dove, Morton Marr, Shirley McClure, and Maria W. Faust national poetry prizes. Her work appears widely in journals and anthologies, including Fire & Rain: Ecopoetry of California, Raising Lilly Ledbetter: Women Poets Occupy the Workspace, Atlanta Review, Connecticut River Review, Southwest Review, and others. McClung lives in San Francisco and teaches at The Writing Salon and Skyline College, where she served for ten years as director of the annual Women on Writing Conference. She is associate director and sonnet judge for the Soul-Making Keats Literary Competition, and in 2018-19, was the writer-in-residence at Friends of the San Francisco Public Library.

 

 

Poet’s Note

The hardest part of jury duty for me was being forbidden to talk about the trial until after our verdict. Writing poems months later helped restore the voice that had been silenced, but midway through working on my collection, I got to thinking, “Wow, you think your experience was stressful—what about somebody separated from her family and friends, confined to a hotel room for the duration of a trial? What would that feel like?” I did a little research on the OJ Simpson trial—those jurors were essentially quarantined for nearly a year—and I decided to try crafting some poems in the voice of a sequestered juror. Once I started, I found this imaginative landscape very fertile to mine. This series brought a whole other layer, a wider and deeper context, to my chapbook project. And, truth be told, these poems were fun to write. I invented a juror just like me. Except she’s not. For one thing, I don’t know how to knit.

 

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

Form is enjoying a comeback in poetry, a far cry from just a decade ago when the so-called “New Formalists” were still wringing their hands over feeling marginalized by mainstream American poetics. Their battles with “free-versers” are legendary and now, it seems, the stuff of the past. I just finished teaching at the 2020 Frost Place Poetry Seminar that added a new track, “Freedom and Form,” to an already rigorous, craft-oriented curriculum; the Seminar filled almost immediately even though it had to be conducted this year on Zoom. A number of exciting new books—e.g., John Murillo’s Kontemporary Amerikan Poetry (Four Way Books 2020)—take the subject of received forms head-on, and include masterful sonnet sequences. So, it really feels to me as if—hooray!—form is enjoying a robust resurgence in contemporary poetry practice.

This week’s poems are from Kathleen McClung’s new book, A Juror Must Fold in on Herself (Rattle 2020), winner of this year’s Rattle Chapbook Prize and its own remarkable celebration of form. In it, you will find examples of the villanelle, ghazal, rondeau, pantoum, sonnet, and two impressive linked series: “Summons” (a sonnet corona) and “The Juror’s Lament” (a rondeau triptych). McClung also includes a cento that, I was honored to see, borrows lines from my own work along with lines by Martin Espada. As noted on the book’s press page,  these poems illuminate “the interior world of a juror abiding by the rules of an imperfect legal system and balancing head and heart within” its tight confines.[Source here.]

In A Juror Must Fold in on Herself, form works with rather than against expression of the vital, moving, and essential humanity of the book’s characters—speaker, other jurors, attorneys, judge, and defendant. The poems marshal humor and suspense to forge a narrative that builds up to and back down from a classic Aristotelian “revelation,” with sequencing so tightly managed that at times I felt as if I were reading a short story or novella. A little over halfway through the book, in a Shakespearean sonnet called “The Forewoman Speaks,” readers finally learn the nature of the crime that has landed the defendant—and everyone else—in the courtroom. Delaying the “reveal” like this is a smart narrative move and another example of this author’s canny restraint and sense of timing. Afterward, the book turns reflective and inward, revisiting the speaker’s childhood memories while still keeping tabs on the rest of the trial. All along the way, I found myself marking memorable lines, images, and diction.

Today’s first poem, “The Sequestered Juror Writes a Pantoum,” is the source of the book’s title. As the title says, this poem is a pantoum, defined in Lewis Turco’s The Book of Forms (University Press of New England 2000) as follows:

The pantoum, a Malayan form, is an interlocking poem composed of quatrain stanzas, and all the lines are refrains. The meter is generally iambic tetrameter or pentameter. The second and fourth lines of each stanza become the first and third lines of the following stanza: A1B1A2B2, B1C1B2C2 and so forth. It can be ended with a circle-back to the two unrepeated lines of the first stanza, or in a couplet made of those lines in reversed order, A2A1. [Turco, p. 223]

Other definitions, such as the one on the Poetry Foundation website, mandate the “circle-back,” a technique that conveys ring construction on the poem as a whole. Still others seem to require not just the patterned repetition of lines but also an ABAB rhyme scheme throughout the quatrains.

McClung’s unrhymed version follows the form by bringing back second and third lines of preceding stanzas to function as first and third lines of the next. The meter is iambic and mostly pentameter, though some lines have more than five stresses. The main departure from form comes in the concluding stanza, a tercet rather than the traditional closing quatrain or couplet:

For now a juror must fold in on herself.
It’s no mystery where straight As come from.
In lieu of sleep or prayer or trance, there is, of course, poetry.

In this case, the closing stanza continues the pantoum pattern by opening with repetition of the second line from the preceding stanza, a line that also serves as the book’s title. The second line repeats the very first line of the poem. Finally, the poem’s last line makes a new statement that reflects more broadly on poetry.

There is a lot to like in this poem, beginning with the tension between its serious subject and playful use of language:

Verdicts don’t follow vodka. Vice versa, though, is common
and forget about those computers in the Business Center.
No Googling that lanky prosecutor who doesn’t wear a ring.

In these lines, alliteration, vernacular diction, and pop culture references make an amusing and effective counterpoint to the poem’s staid courtroom setting, reflecting the deep divide between what shows on a juror’s demeanor and what he or she is actually thinking. As Laura Schulkind notes in her praise of A Juror Must Fold in on Herself, the poems “remind us that to be wise in judging others (as this juror promises to be), we must inevitably turn inward, and do not—perhaps should not—come away unscathed.”

I was especially impressed by McClung’s sestinas, difficult to pull off anytime much less with the apparent ease managed in poems like “The Sequestered Juror Writes a Sestina,” above. A Medieval French form attributed to Arnaut Daniel in the 12th century, the sestina was used by Dante and by Petrarch, who gave it its name. (Turco, p. 251) It’s a repeating form that follows a strict 39-line pattern of six six-line stanzas (or sestets) plus a final three-line stanza (called an envoi). In a sestina, the six end words (called “teleutons”) are repeated as end words in a particular sequence throughout the remaining sestets before all appearing, once last time, in the envoi. The lines may be of any length, but they must follow the pattern below, with capital letters representing the sequence of end words—in today’s poem: “day (A)” “red (B),” “take (C),” “now (D),” “one (E),” and “long (F).”

Stanza 1. ABCDEF:  day, red, take, now, one, long
Stanza 2. FAEBDC:  long, day, one, red, now, take
Stanza 3. CFDABE:  take, long, now, day, red, one
Stanza 4. ECBFAD:  one, take, red, long, day, now
Stanza 5. DEACFB:  now, one, day, take, long, red
Stanza 6. BDFECA:  red, now, long, one, take, day
Stanza 7. EB / CF / AD: one, red / take, long / day, now

Today’s sestina follows the form faithfully until the envoi or last stanza, which arranges its end words in a slightly different sequence (EB / CF / AD) from what strict form prescribes (BE / DC / FA).

The repetitions of end words in sestinas create a pattern that, in a way, stands in for a rhyme scheme. If you study the diagram above, you’ll notice that in each new stanza, the first word mirrors the end word of the previous stanza’s last line, and then fills in the rest of the stanza by borrowing end words from the preceding one in ping-pong fashion, starting at each end and working back towards the middle. The movement is hypnotic, like a pendulum swinging back and forth, or as Annie Finch puts it, like braiding hair. Reading today’s poem out loud makes clear that the repetitions and pattern are sometimes more striking to the ear than they are to the eye.

Whether reading or hearing the poem, though, our minds register a definite if almost subliminal pattern. The movement is elliptical and circular, and in “The Sequestered Juror Writes a Sestina,” ends where it began, with a confined juror working on a piece of knitting. These qualities make the sestina form less than ideal for storytelling. In fact, one risk of writing sestinas is that the repetitions can have a deadening effect, especially when the end words are repeated verbatim and without variation.  Smart poets convert this inherent weakness into a strength, using the form for situations in which it is desirable to have a numbing effect; Ted Kooser’s “Weather Central” sestina, for example, was intended to convey the tediousness of TV weather reports. [Ted Kooser, Poetry Home Repair Manual (Bison Books 2007)]

An example of what some call organic form, today’s sestina seems to arise from the poem’s subject matter and takes advantage of the form’s special abilities to capture the static, repetitive elements of a courtroom scene. Here we not only see and understand the speaker’s experience of being a sequestered juror but also, in the complex, subtle repetitions knitted into the form, we powerfully feel the claustrophobia and inherent boredom of that experience.

Ezra Pound and John Ashbery are among many poets who have written sestinas; Elisabeth Bishop’s two spectacular examples, “Sestina” and “A Miracle for Breakfast,”  are here and here. A contemporary master of the form, Jim Cummins, has written two remarkable full-length books of sestinas, The Whole Truth (Carnegie Mellon University Press 2003) and, with David Leman, Jim and Dave Defeat the Masked Man (Soft Skull Press 2006), books that had a great effect on my perception of what is possible in poetry. The sestina suits the contemporary taste for repetitions that are subtle but still haunting and is enjoying a resurgence of popularity in poetry today. In my recent Frost Place Poetry Seminar workshop, students brought in several examples, and one remarkable poem by Eric Odynocki was both a sestina and a Golden Shovel, harvesting its end words from a different, flash fiction piece by Ernest Hemingway.

Some say the key to writing sestinas is choosing optimally flexible end words—that is, words with naturally occurring homonyms or other variant forms. You’ll note in today’s poem substitutions like “yesterday” for “day,” “read” or “reread” for “red,” “talk” for “take,” and “won” or “someone” for “one.” How interesting, by the way, that two of the end words are reverse rhymes of each other: “one (won)” and “now.” Often unnoticed, reverse rhymes may be the most subtle of rhyme forms; I learned about them in a seminar with Robert Pinsky and have come across them in the work of Sylvia Plath.

One way to tackle writing a sestina is to choose the end words, fill them in at the ends of 39 lines according to the pattern above, and then write “towards” those end words. I haven’t had much luck with that, but you should try it, if for no other reason than to gain an appreciation for just how difficult it is to write a good sestina. Throughout A Juror Must Fold in on Herself, this and other forms are executed with technical virtuosity while still allowing room for breath, humor, believable dialogue, and the development of a compelling storyline. If you have any interest in form, or in a very funny, smart, and human account—in verse—of what it is like to be a juror in our legal system, then this book is for you.

Join the conversation

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

  • MaryEllen Talley September 28, 2020 at 3:51 pm

    Great review of Kathleen’s book! Excellent teaching, too.

    Reply