by Scott Owens
AN INNOCENT IN THE HOUSE OF THE DEAD
Joanna Catherine Scott with John Lee Conaway
Main Street Rag, 2011
Joanna Catherine Scott possesses a certainty that few of us can readily share. She knows that John Lee Conaway, a NC man who spent 16 years on Death Row following a double murder conviction before recently being granted a new trial which he still awaits, is innocent. She knows this and she knows Conaway with such conviction that she has legally adopted Conaway as her own son. As with all knowledge, hers is a knowledge born of belief, a belief the NC criminal justice system does not currently share.
In Scott’s amazing new collection of poems, An Innocent in the House of the Dead, she invites the reader into the experience of her coming to belief and peripherally into the experience of John Lee Conaway’s development into accused, prisoner, condemned, and loved one. No one else could have written this book, and regardless of one’s belief, no one should forgo the opportunity this book offers to share in the depth of emotion conjured by the very real and very human circumstances recorded here.
One of the charges often leveled at poetry today is that it is irrelevant, that it is written only for academes and other poets, that it is neither concerned with nor can play any role in the real world of the vast majority of people. Surely, An Innocent in the House of the Dead clearly and strongly refutes that claim. What could be more relevant to all of us than an examination of our criminal justice system through which our communal expectations are enforced and our own standards of behavior and ethics are tested? When not reminding us of the humanity of those involved in the incidents of Conaway’s life and her own progress towards belief, Scott’s poetry takes on a more activist stance, presenting a strong indictment of the cruelty, unfairness, and unreliability of a racist justice system, the institution of capital punishment, and a corrections industry centered on the issue of profit.
More than relevant, these poems are also accessible, but they go beyond mere accessibility as well. Due to their relevance, immediacy, and reality, as well as to the skill with which Scott has crafted these poems, they practically leap from the page into one’s heart and mind. They resonate with our appreciation of life and fairness and freedom and love, and with our discomfort with the standards of justice. They are as real as our realest moments. They will not leave us alone; they are both relevant and impactful.
I offer no excerpts from Joanna Catherine Scott’s An Innocent in the House of the Dead because the vitality of the book, the realness of the story it tells, would make any excerpting a form of mutilation. This is a book that needs to be read whole, in its entirety. Relevant, accessible, important and powerful — Joanna Catherine Scott’s An Innocent in the House of the Dead is poetry that will make a difference, but only if it is read.