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“Dear You, Dear Wronged and Forgotten, / everywhere I look, I am looking for you–” the narrator aches in the final poem of Lethal Theater, Susannah Nevison’s unflinching examination of the legacy of American imprisonment and its attendant shame, execution by lethal injection. The collection opens upon a prison cell, each one a new world populated by an Adam, in which “you” (the viewer) are its God. This carceral world is revealed to be devoid of justice, “nothing more than God’s hand / grenade spinning through the air.”
Prisoners and animals merge together as a “hunted thing,” objectified through the gaze of the butcherer, executioner and medical personnel. The poems found in the second section meditate upon historical instances of medical and scientific experimentation on incarcerated populations. The poem “At Holmesburg Prison” is headed by a quote from Dr. Albert Kligman, who oversaw traumatic tests of LSD and dioxins upon the inmates at this facility. He exclaims, “All I saw before me were acres of skin. It was like a farmer seeing a fertile field for the first time.” Meanwhile, in “At Folsom Women’s Facility” those who forcibly sterilized inmates reimagine them as inverse Marys; “The warden comes down / like Gabriel with news / of the Lord that you are / blessed among women.” Power, even when wielded in ways seen as “kind” from the perspective of the powerful, is absolute.
Lethal Theater takes its name from Lethal Theatre: Performance, Punishment, and the Death Penalty by Dwight Conquergood, but it is also a merging of the terms “lethal chamber” and “surgical theater.” Nevison reminds us that the surgeon must not be conflated with the executioner, but her first person narrator in the last section finds kinship with executed through their twin experience of being sedated: “This isn’t where I die. I wait in my brain’s thicket / and a sedative disrupts the nerves. They reach / their branches. A smokescreen so that the men / may approach. Soon, burning.” This is the fork in the road, from which the execution victims are taken on the other path involving a paralyzing agent and a drug that stops the heart. As for the narrator’s reason for travelling the road of sedation, “where I go / isn’t as cold, and they always say / I go for my own good.”
Punctuating the first person poems of the last section are poems titled “Protocol [#]:” and “Witness:” often written in a conversational tone in italics from the perspective of executioners and witnesses to the lethal theater. Their comments detail the horror of how the lethal injection procedure can go wrong, and the performance involved in convincing others that it hasn’t. Their indifference is captured in one “Witness:” poem: “I’m trying to remember what his victim’s name was–”
In this collection of poems Nevison shows us that through the act of looking, whether it be at a photo from Abu Graib or a dead deer, we are complicit in the harm imbedded there. If the act of executing incarcerated people is seen as a theater, the carceral project itself can be imagined this way. Lethal Theater is chilling in the deftness with which it draws back the curtain.
Ysa Pitman is a poet and student of sociology and economics based in Salt Lake City, Utah. Her work can be found in Social Dialogue and The Canticle, publications from The University of Utah.