This is going to need an introduction. The full title is:2nd Notice of Modifications to Text of Proposed Regulations. and is a straight copy of the reguations pertaining to the executions of prisoners in the state of California. Now, I've written about Vanessa Place's Tragodia, which is also an unmediated 'lift', on bebrowed in glowing terms because I'm of the view that documentary work of this kind is essential to the future of the poem. I know that there are many who view material in this vein as 'not poetry' and doing some damage to the ideas of creativity and imagination. I'm not of that view and would argue that one of the problems with the state of the poem today is that it is too hidebound by the past and the notion that poetry should contain authorial craft. This isn't any argument for anything goes, nor do I want to enter into the destructive factionalism that does so much damage. As a reader, I'm deeply sceptical about most conceptual work just as I am about the current mainstream but occasionally something comes along that is exceptional and demands my attention- Second Notice does that.
The second part of the introduction concerns the subject matter. In the United Kingdom the death penalty was abolished about fifty years ago and most of us cannot understand why the United States has not done the same, it seems barbaric to us liberals and has also been shown to have no deterrent effect whatsoever. We're also smug about the murderous absurdity of the gun laws.
The third part concerns bearing witness and what this might entail. This takes many forms from eulogising the dead across to protesting about a political/genocidal atrocity. It's also one of the things that poetry is very good at. Second Report is (in part) about the way that the state observes and records the death of one of its subjects and, on one level, John is memorialising the way that executions were carried out in 2010. On another level he's forcing his reader to consider how the state of Caliornia got to this point. As we shall see, this is an increasingly hygenic and banal process which gives away a few secrets as to the exercise of power.
I'll start with the regualtions routine. These are the details of policy and legislation, they set out what can be done and what can't and are especially important when making things like judicial murder a little more palatable. This document is full of regulations references to other regulations. We'll start with the 'key' to the text:
In the following, underline indicates added text and
strikethroughindicates deleted text to the original proposed text. Text in bold double underline and bold strikethrough indicates changes from the 1st 15-day renotice. Changes from this second 15-day renotice appear in bold dotted underline for additional text and bold dotted underline with strikethroughfor additional deleted text to either the original text or the first 15-day renotice text.
(The double and dotted underlines do appear in the appropriate places in the above but I'm not clever enough to reproduce these in html, sorry)
It's a mistake to think that this remarkable piece of pedantry is the work of particularly pedantic individuals, it is instead the product of this self-replicating, fecund machine that we think of as the state or 'our government'. Without getting too Foucauldian it is this kind of mechanism that functions as the conduit of power(s) in many directions with widely differing intensities.
Following this there are a few paragraphs as to the process whereby a prisoner is given the choice between 'lethal gas' or 'lethal injection'. This choice is recorded on forms CDCR 1801, 1801a and 1801b, apparently. Then there are the very many definitions, here's a few:
So there is a 'Master Execution File' but the tasks are split down sufficiently to ensure that nobody actually does the executing, in fact reading the Notice it is easy to overlook the fact that anybody is going to die. In fact it is the regulations that do the killing and they do it by a particularly exhaustive procedure which cross-references itself and thus elides what might really be going on. It's at this point that the oddness kicks in, an element of any death sentence is retribution and I find it hard to reconcile this mealy mouthed avoidance ('inserting the intravenous catheters') with this kind of punitive state violence. It's a bit like being in favour of the death penalty coupled with a reluctance to carry it out.
A further thought triggered off by re-reading the above is about our notions of barbarity and the way that this is currently contrasted with our 'civilised' way of doing things. The current (Oct 2014) narrative is that we're bombing two countries because of the barbarous nature of a laughable group of hapless opportunists and that this only became apparent when westerners were beheaded. I have to ask whether beheading, which is reasonably quick, does actually score higher than lethal injection which usually takes a little longer. There's also the issue of spectacle, doesn't the gathering of pro and anti crowds outside prisons at the time of execution still display some kind of need to bear witness to an execution?
By reproducing this process without any kind of commentary or embellishment and putting in a book, John has provided a platform for objective and informed debate which is much (much) more effective than the emotional / moralistic conversations that occur around this subject. He has stripped away the illusions and opacities that are created by the state and a supine media and left us with something concrete to talk about.
To conclude, I'm still of the view that the majority of political poetry (of whatever type) falls flat on its face by going for easy targets in an easy way that intends to provoke outrage rather than thought. It does now seem to me that John is one of the those very few that actually invite a considered response and move the political agenda forward.