By Lisa Wilbourne
In “Matters of Record,” a recently published collection of nineteen poems, Megan Roberts gives each subject, all women found guilty of murder and executed from years spanning 1860 to 2005, a final touch of humanity.
Taking a quote from a play of French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, Roberts opens her slim volume preparing the reader to find fragments of lives dropped into chaos. “I say a murder is abstract. You pull the trigger and after that you do not understand anything that happens.”
Unapologetic for their actions, but also nonjudgmental, the poems, each with a unique frame of reference, seek to understand some small part of the convicted murderesses’ lives. A last meal. A final prayer. A plea of insanity. A message of love for a son and daughter. Hints at the kind of childhood that would lead to patricide. Some take an external view — the observations of a witness, the voice of the murdered, a sympathetic stranger, a jury learning how to observe, the rope with too few knots.
Roberts displays thoughtful creativity in her treatment of the lives of the condemned with her vivid impressions of their deaths. She presents an artist’s understanding of significant elements of life with sensitivity and care.
“Peach,” the first poem in the collection, and one of the longest at just over a page, imagines the final meal of Karla Faye Tucker, executed in Texas in 1998. Ms. Tucker is moderate in her desires; she does not want the fatty fried favorites, but requests a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables; not being particular about her salad dressing, she receives both Italian and Ranch. Instead of changing into fine clothes, Ms. Tucker keeps her prison gown on. The final stanza of this poem exemplifies the vivid and highly evocative snapshots Roberts does so well.
Later, as the hollow needle
was pulled from her arm,
a cockroach entered Karla’s old cell.
within that leftover peach,
head stuck inside,
legs running on air,
body struggling to go deeper.
Once death has been rendered empty, the entrance of the scavenging cockroach introduces an element of dirtiness to the unadorned quarters. The peach, luscious and vibrant, innocence, perhaps, stands in stark contrast to the image of emptiness. Described earlier in the poem as “so ripe a slight pinch / gushed syrup from its skin,” it is so saturated with life it is barely able to contain it. Left in the room now devoid of life, the too-colorful peach sits, defiled.
With their simple and sharply-focused depictions of the blurry place between fact and fiction, the poems appeal neither to sentimentality nor a prurient taste for others’ misfortunes. Roberts allows the reader to live a different death.
I highly recommend it.
Megan Roberts is an English instructor at Methodist University in Fayetteville, N.C. She is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Wilmington (B.A.), East Carolina University (M.A.), and North Carolina State University (M.F.A.). “Matters of Record” is her first book.
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