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Injustices of the American Prison System: Review of Susannah Nevison's Lethal Theater

Marisa L. Manuel

Cover of Susannah Nevison's Lethal Theater

Reviewed: Lethal Theater by Susannah Nevison (Mad Creek Books, 2019)

Lethal Theater, winner of The Journal’s Charles B. Wheeler’s Poetry Prize (Mad Creek Books, 2019) is Susannah Nevison’s second poetry collection, and it’s unflinchingly critical of the American prison system. Written in three parts—similar to the three-act style of a play, as well as the three drugs administered during an execution—the poems lead the reader through accounts of torture and experimentation on prison inmates, crescendoing with the botched execution of Claude Jones. In each section, the executioners have a role to play; the witnesses have a role to play; the condemned have a role to play, too. But putting on a good performance isn’t the same as administering justice, and sometimes, the play goes off script: an execution goes awry, or the public learns of some behind-the-scenes “war game” they weren’t meant to see. In these moments, the truth is finally visible, and undeniable: by participating as viewers, we are complicit in these prisoners’ abuse. We are part of the lethal theater.

Early on in the first section, Nevison’s poems connect very purposefully, line by line. The poem “[The bars lash light across his body, and he]” ends with the line “he becomes a stripped and weathered cross.” Two pages later, the poem is titled, “[He becomes a stripped and weathered cross],” and it begins with the same refrain. Several other poems follow a similar setup, suggesting that each is a variation or related component of the same fundamental story. Different prisoners or different prisons, perhaps, but all part of the same theatrical production. The cruelties these prisoners suffer are shown in detail, from binding to electrocution. And in each instance, there is the suggestion of more to come, of worse to come:

believe the chill’s enough to make a man

talk to cure his conscience so that he gives

himself up, before you bind his arms to a board

again, before you bind his arms to his legs

again, a position that reminds you of tying

hogs, how it renders a man useless (“[The winter field has forgotten what it knows]”)

Nevison’s use of repetition and wordplay is dizzying—so dizzying, in fact, that the reader never knows what to expect next. In “Barrel,” Nevison leads the reader from a barrel used as a hiding spot to the barrel of a gun. In “Chamber,” she repeats this concept of barrels by connecting heart chambers and grave chambers to “music... barreling down.” Her narrative play induces a dreamlike quality, which seems structurally intentional; based on the three-drug cocktail used in executions, it is here that Nevison inserts anesthesia, which will leave us sedated, drowsy, and numb to the prisoners’ suffering. However, while the reader is made to experience this dreamlike state in full, Nevison has purposely denied us the complete effects of her sedative; we feel each injustice as if we’re personally watching it, or even living it. And we’re made to endure these tortures because, so often in executions, inmates don’t receive the right sedative, either.

The second section of Nevison’s collection homes in on experiments conducted on prisoners by prison complexes. Here, Nevison inserts a paralyzing agent—the second drug of the execution cocktail—which makes it impossible for us to move; we are literally asked to stay in the poem “Euphemism,” and it becomes even harder to leave when “our shadows… pin us down” in “Parables.” We’re trapped in a cycle of repeated injustice and suffering, unable to escape, which culminates in the section’s final poem, our “Confinement Prayer.” And through our paralysis, our eyes open on an even larger scale. These are not individual injustices; these are systematic injustices, perpetuated time and time again because we allow them.

In this second section, Nevison also calls upon the idea of a prisoner’s cinema, which is a hallucinatory “light show” that appears to prisoners who have been confined to dark, empty cells. By highlighting these hallucinations alongside the executions of Saints Catherine and Lucy, the poem “Prisoner’s Cinema with Saints Catherine and Lucy” martyrs the victims and sheds light on their abuse, by forcing us to view “a spectacle of light you cannot fathom / until you fathom it.” In “Prisoner’s Cinema with News from Home,” the speaker adds, “I thought of the distance / we touch without seeing one another.” This idea of seeing and being seen resonates throughout Nevison’s poems.

Nevison’s collection is filled with descriptions of eyes. Some of these eyes refuse or are unable to see, while others view all and choose to ignore what they’re seeing. In “Tapetum Lucindum,” the speaker says of a dead cat, “a veterinarian shows me how it works—how to shine a light in the animal’s eyes… I want to see what the cat must have seen…the eye says what it can.” And in “Prisoner’s Cinema with Saints Catherine and Lucy,” the speaker states,

you understand the fabled bowl

a saint carries, its hollow lit

by the eyes it cradles and the saint

eyeless and God-filled. You are not

eyeless, and God is nowhere

These images of broken and missing eyes highlight the dual nature of our role as viewers. We watch the executions and view the prisoners’ abuse, but we don’t see or acknowledge them for what they truly are.

In the final act of Nevison’s three-act play, we’re forced to confront the executioner’s heart-stopping drug. We literally see this drug administered in her titular poem, which serves as an indictment against all who read and watch but do nothing more: “this is how / a man dies. This is how we kill him” (“Lethal Theater”). Her third section ends with an account of Jones’s botched execution, in which it took 30 minutes for executioners to find a vein. Real witness accounts are used alongside fictionalized executioner narratives, which are further juxtaposed against the interior musings of anesthesiologists who administered Nevison’s own anesthesia during past sicknesses. None of these voices are speaking to each other, but these small poems are essentially one big poem, delivering a larger commentary on medicine and incarceration.

As a whole, Lethal Theater has, perhaps, a few too many threads. Nevison’s attempt to compare the inmates and the torturers to different animals was hard to parse, and the metaphor seemed muddy. Perhaps the muddiness was her point, that at different times both the condemned and the condemner are animals. If so, her hallucinatory, dreamlike way of writing—which is so effective elsewhere—didn’t quite work. Other themes, like her gamification of torture, do more to show the sadism of the prison system. For instance, in “American Icon,” an electrified prisoner is described as “Like a real live / wire, he jumps. Like hopscotch / or rope. Like nothing a child / couldn’t name. Hasn’t seen. / Like nothing, like a game.”

Nevison’s collection ends with the proclamation, “Dear You, Dear Wrong and Forgotten, / everywhere I look, I am looking for you—" Here, the poem goes beyond all past injustices, all individual accounts, any one name. Now, the subject is any and every “you” who has ever been wronged by the prison system—tortured, executed, or otherwise forced to entertain us.

While I don’t personally know anyone in prison or on death row, Susannah Nevison’s collection made me realize I have a connection all the same. We all do. Societal injustices are society’s injustices. We can’t continue to ignore the lethal theater, and we can’t pretend we have no part in it. The more we turn a blind eye to these injustices, the more we perpetuate them, and the more lethal they become.

Amie Whittemore standing by a pond in the woods

Marisa L. Manuel recently earned her MFA in fiction from the University of Memphis. She currently works as an editor for Novice Writer and reviews editor for Harbor Review. She’s also served as managing editor of The Pinch literary journal. Her publications are present or forthcoming in HuffPost, Cosmonauts Avenue, Thimble, and others.