The Jury’s In: The Magic of Small Lit Presses Lives On

A Juror Must Fold in on Herself

by Kathleen McClung

Rattle Foundation (2020)

Chapbook $6

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 their owners 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 late-70s, freezing my ass off in winter, having an affair with a cute, freckled social worker; living off cheap spaghetti and the aforementioned cheese. The odd bottle of off wine. It was a good, if you’re a liar.

There was a small letterpress machine there. Hmm. 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:

The Sunflower

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?

Imagine Ben Stiller, that Zoolander pout, reading it. I was parsing a lot of German Romanticism at the time. Young Werther and suicidal ideation, 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. They tell me.

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:

“…And youth is cruel, and has no remorse
And smiles at situations which it cannot see.”
I smile, of course,
And go on drinking tea.

This is how we are when dealing with types, role players, the wise and wizened, DAs and Ladys. We nod and go on drinking tea. But, of course, Justice is no Lady, but blind, and with scales, and, I seem to recall, a terrible swift sword. Such detachment is resistance. For me, it was like the resistance I felt toward Church rituals, counterintuitively, not long after my confirmation, when the magic seemed to disappear. Transubstantiation no longer held an allure; you began to notice it was cheap wine. What, they couldn’t have splurged a little for the Lord who took away all our sins?

Seriously (but, then again, not) these courtroom scenes, the dramaturgical displays, like some old Greek tragi-comedy, with Judge Deus in her wig, and juror choir, the lawyerly pro- and anti- tagons, some sad sinner, an audience keened for a taste of Ichor and hamartia — the Press there to spin-and-package. The Poet there to objectively observe it all, including herself. McClung reminds us that the thin space between the object and the subject is a contested space, stuck between a rock and a hard place.

In the next poem, “The Public Defender First Approaches the Box,” brings his shoes for you to wear. He reminds the Juror that The cops are all bastards and corrupt, and that his client, the Presumed Innocent, has “not / received a fair shake from these guys.” In this answering villanelle, the anchors are “not” and “lot”. The recurring motif: “My client’s a lot like you, but he’s not.” It’s comical, and, for a moment, I conjure up some courtroom scene from Boston Legal. Slick, polished, commercial.  Then,

Some sentences may leave you cold—some, hot.
My job: to sow a field of doubts through words.
My client’s just like you. Except he’s not.
He’s silent. So are you. But me, I talk a lot.

But McClung is all about everyday people. You feel as if you’re in some small swing state town that swaggers a bit on that account, and that account alone.

And yet, at the same time, one is reminded that no village or city is an island, off the grid. Our small town ways are now proud Wordpress blog sites in cyberspace, with pictures of hay, a needle sticking out: “Bucolicton, a needle nestled away just for you! Why not have a roll in the hay with us?” And stuff. But in the Internet of things and Places, we’re a lot like the Presumed Innocent, all eyes on us, dossiers all:

The tall prosecutor in particular casts a spell over
me—not the kind on Sinatra records. More like
he probably Googles us, assigns his staff to pore over

our profiles, tailors his closing argument by quoting
novelists we know.

It’s clear: This is not your father’s democracy. And we’re way beyond the black-and-white monkeyshine of the Scopes trial.

In “Notes Not Scribbled in Juror 6’s Steno Pad,” McClung proves that flotsam and jetsam of everyday thinking can rise out of consciousness to the occasion and become, together, a poetry of small things. Dig it:

What is the purpose of a square root?
Alegria needs a new collar.
I can’t believe all these high heels.
This trial’s like a tunnel.
RBG earrings—Maeve’s graduation.
If I’d gone to law school
I might have a backyard.
Who does he remind me of?
Jim worried about slipping
on the ice outside his courthouse.
I should tip 20%.
This city’s like a griddle.
Maybe one of those sky blues.

Decontextualized, it’s chaos, but the poet finds a pattern — abstract and concrete, personal, deep as language itself. The space debris orbiting between our ears.

The Juror “knits” a lot in her hotel room, through four middle “Sequestered” poems in the collection, weaving and winding words with rondeaus, pantoums, sestinas, centos, and sonnets. Biding time, not free, the Juror takes solace in these template forms you fill with metaphor, little tension points. In her rondeau, her hotel room a kind of cell, the Juror is

more grateful for the view
than for the king size mattress because you
don’t sleep with any regularity

Instead, she looks out the window at the parking lot, noting the pattern of cars that come and go. “You fill your cell.”

And on and on it goes with the others. No talking allowed. No Googling. Just killing time, and doing time for it. In her pantoum,

Anything goes once this godforsaken trial ends next month.
For now a juror must fold in on herself
until later.

(Which is exactly what a pantoum does; McClung’s is poetry that suits the occasion.) One juror at a time in the pool. In her sestina, she reminds herself, “Now / you are forbidden from reading, forbidden from any talk / of this trial.” How long will it take?

She remembers the OJ trial, “The OJ jury in custody 265 days.” She knits, and sits, and counts the cars, day and night, notes plates, models, conjectures. And,

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.

She wonders, did they get shitfaced after the verdict or go climb a sacred mountain? What will she do?

By the time she reaches her cento, she’s losing it, stir-crazy and waxing profound, the cumulative effect of her previous “days” now paying dividends in layers of emerging abstraction:

There are no words in our language to say this.
They call it being in shock, this state
where gas stations snap their lights off one by one
and we’re marooned here now, left
deep in the well where anesthesia
is carnival.

This is a long way, in just a few days, from wonderments on high heels, front yards, and buying RGB earrings.

And then, finally. comes the verdict and aftermath poems.  No spoilers.  All taking stock poems, putting things in place. The seven-sonnet set, “Summons,” is a mini-memoir, a summoning of forces and memories, outcomes and outstanding desires. All, carry-on effects of the trial.  There are sightings of former jurors, briefly nodded at, the silence between still intact. Out and about with her husband:

Last week nearby,
a crowded diner, loud hole-in-the-wall,
I elbowed Tom: “Look. There’s the jury guy.”
Quick nods. Rueful hellos. But we did not discuss.
The quietest, he sat apart from us.
No talk, even after the verdict no longer mattered. Omerta is golden.

McClung closes out the collection with a set of suggestions to jurors selected to deliberate over a tragic community event, in the two-sonnet poem, “Advice for the Ghost Ship Jurors.” McClung notes,

On December 2, 2016, at 11:20 p.m. PST a fire broke out in a former warehouse in Oakland that had been converted into an artist collective with living spaces known as Ghost Ship. The fire killed 36 people.

The poem contains no advice on their jury duties; that might be construed, somehow, as tampering with their newfound neutrality. Instead, McClung writes of doodling Canadian geese in their notepads at Lake Merritt, or doodling surfers, and shaking out sand at Ocean Beach, when the sequester turnkeys take them on outings to relieve their hotel room stir-craziness. The notepads will be confiscated and thrown away; doodle anyway, says the Juror. You’ll thank her later.

To me, A Juror Must Fold in on Herself, is a tribute to the staying power of fine literary presses, which Rattle most certainly is; and how important such chapbook releases are, not only to the individual poet’s career (McClung is a 2020 winner of Rattle’s Chapbook Prize), but proudly have taken the torch from an era when the country was alive with theatre and poetry and protest. (I miss it, so much.) Plus, such chapbooks, like the rejuvenation of novellas in the last few decades, are a tonic for the short attention span era we live in, bombarded daily with achy breaky news — most of which, we discover, is drivel.

Good stuff here.

You can hear McClung read two of her poems from the collection – “The Sequestered Juror Writes A Rondeau” and “The Public Defender First Approached the Box” – at the Rattle site. More information on the author can be gained by visiting her website:

John Kendall Hawkins is an American ex-pat freelancer based in Australia.  He is a former reporter for The New Bedford Standard-Times.