Saturday, February 25, 2017

Poetry from Prison

Glutton for Punishment
By an anonymous inmate at Clinton Correctional Facility, NY State

 Not a masochist per se
 In fact physical pain’s anathema to my well- being
 But still it’s freeing to wallow in self- loathing, disposing of this pretense and common sense at
 my own expense
 I’m my own worst enemy
No friend of me or confidant, just he who
 Wants to turn the screw and earn a few rebukes and looks of pity from
the committee times infinity plus one
 You’re me, scary, ain’t it?
I can’t explain it but I love to be down sometimes
It’s when I feel most alive,
 Primetime for rhyming and winding up climbing the walls
 I’d rather feel nothing. Isn’t that something?
 No, it’s something else, a cry for help, A yell, the death knell of my self-actualization
The realization, in amazement that I’ve wasted and squandering by pondering The very that thing that buries me is the colossal chasm between
what everybody else thinks of me and what I think of myself.
One of us has to be right.
 Either way I lose.
 I’m doomed or an underachiever
 Oh well, at least I’m not mediocre
 I feed the ogre inside of me because I have no self- respect
I’d rather be right than correct and just write so I get something tangible out of it
And really, I’m proud of it
 a little bit
 But a little bit less each day

Women’s Prison
 by Joseph Bathanti

Two Sundays a month, darkness still abroad,

we round up the kids and bundle them

into a restored salvaged Bluebird school bus,
repainted green, and make the long haul

to Raleigh where their mothers are locked

in Women’s Prison. We pin the children’s names,

and numbers, to their coats, count them
like convicts at lights-out. Sucking thumbs,

clutching favorite oddments to cuddle as they ride

curled in twos on patched sprung benches,

they sleepwalk bashfully, the little aged,
into the belly of the bus, eyes nailed to its floor.

We feed them milk and juice, animal crackers, apples;

stop for them to use the bathroom,

and to change the ones so young, they can’t help wetting.
We try singing: folk tunes and strike ballads –

as if off to picket or march with an army of babies –

but their stony faces will not yield and, finally,

their passion to disappear puts them to sleep,
not to wake until the old Bluebird jostles

through the checkpoints into the prison.

Somehow, upon reopening their eyes, they know

to smile at the twirling jagged grandeur
surrounding the massive compound: concertina –

clotted with silver scraps of dew and dawn light,

a bullet-torn shroud of excelsior, scored

in dismal fire, levitating in the savage
Sabbath sky. By then, their mothers,

in the last moments of girlish rawboned glory,

appear in baggy, sky-blue prison shifts,

their beautiful hands lifting to shield their eyes,
like saints about to be slaughtered,

as if the light is too much, the sky suddenly egg-blue,

plaintive, threatening to pale away, the sun

still invisible, yet blinding. Barefoot, weepy,
they call their babies by name and secret endearment,

touch them everywhere like one might the awakened dead.

The children remain dignified, nearly aloof

in their perfect innocence, and self-possession,
toddling dutifully, into the arms of anyone

who reaches for them, even the guards, petting them too.

When visiting hours conclude, the children hand

their mothers cards and drawings, remnants
of a life they are too young to remember,

but conjure in glyphic crayon blazes.

Attempting to recollect the narrative

that will guide them back to their imagined homes,
the mothers peer from the pictures to the departing

children – back and forth, straining

to make the connection, back

and forth until the children, already fast asleep
as the bus spirits them off, disappear.

Shadow on My Soul by Linda Guthrie
My love rented me a ship with crew
 and we sailed through San Francisco Bay.
Cloudy Skies, threatening rain,
 and a cold, wet dark chill settled deep in my bones.
We sailed underneath the famous Bridge 
and stopped exactly where the bay met the sea.
I stood with the dense small box grasped tightly and waited, wet, 
while the Captain turned the ship upwind.

I walked alone to the edge of the gangplank
 where Captain caught my eye uncertain if I would jump.
My words already said, tears falling soundlessly into the open box.
Is here OK? 
Not under ground in the dark.

Surprised by bits of bone, not just fine grey dust
Lifting you on a breeze, I see why we turned upwind 
or you’d blow and dust our Captain’s deck 
set with teak tables, fine wine, linens white and food that goes uneaten.
This one last act is mine alone for I brought you in and I shall see you out.
Scattered out far as I could reach, then sinking into deep dark blue.
My fingers dip and stretch outward as you slip between them.
My small boy made smaller still.

The sun dared come out and just in time 
to sear the darkest moment’s shadow on my soul.


by an anonymous inmate at Denver Women's Correctional Facility

I know "why" the caged bird sings.
She knows of the hope tomorrow holds.
Though she is caged and cannot fly.
A song helps her to carry her heavy load. 

I know "why" the caged bird sings.
She has joy despite the hole in her soul.
Her soul gets to soar on the wings of her song.
The music makes her feel whole. 

I know "why" the caged bird sings.
Only joy comes from song.
And it lifts her heart up from the depths of her hell.
It helps her to keep her head up and be strong. 

I know "why" the caged bird sings.
At times, a song is all she has to call her own.
It's her courage in adversity, her pride in oppression.
It's her friend when she's all alone. 

I know "why" ... the caged bird sings 

By: K.S. 

Tulips in the Prison Yard
By Daniel Berrigan

All kinds of poets, believe me, could better praise your
Sovereign beauty, your altogether subtle translation
Of blank nature.
So that winds, night, sunlight
(extraordinarily colorless phenomena) are drawn into
What can only be called a “new game”. Well I will not revel
In humiliation. Yeats, Wordsworth, would have looked once
Breathed deeply, gone home, sharpened quills,
With a flourish plucked you from time.
You are jailyard blooms, wear bravery with a difference
You are born here, will die here. Making you,
By excess of suffering
And transfiguration of suffering, ours.
I see prisoners pass
In dead spur of spring, before you show face.
Are you their glancing tears
The faces of wives and children,
The yin yang of hearts
To-fro like hanged necks,
In perpetual cruelty, absurdity?
The prisoners
Pass and pass, shades of men, pre-men, khaki ghosts;
Shame, futility.
Between smiles, between reason for smiles, between
Life as fool’s pace and life as celebrant’s flame, is
Yet-thank you. Against the whips
Of ignorant furies, the slavish pieties of Judas priests
You stand, a first flicker in the brain’s soil,
A precursor of judgement-
Dawn might be
Man might be
Or spelling it out in the hand’s palm
Of a blind mute:
God is fire

Is love.

NOTES: "Glutton for Punishment" and "Untitled" were both discovered through the website of The Prison Arts Coalition, which provides ongoing, personalized guidance to people who are working to develop arts programs or looking to support incarcerated and formerly incarcerated artists and writers.

Sadly, many women and men are sent to prison as a result of a wrongful conviction. In 2004 I became deeply involved in one such case. For more information about this, please visit The Opus 30 Mission. 

Saturday, February 18, 2017


by Edward Thomas

Fair was the morning, fair our tempers, and
We had seen nothing fairer than that land,
Though strange, and the untrodden snow that made
Wild of the tame, casting out all that was
Not wild and rustic and old; and we were glad.

Fair, too, was afternoon, and first to pass
Were we that league of snow, next the north wind.

There was nothing to return for, except need,
And yet we sang nor ever stopped for speed,
As we did often with the start behind.
Faster still strode we when we came in sight
Of the cold roofs where we must spend the night.

Happy we had not been there, nor could be.
Though we had tasted sleep and food and fellowship
Together long. 
                            “How quick” to someone's lip
The words came, “will the beaten horse run home.”

The word “home” raised a smile in us all three,
And one repeated it, smiling just so
That all knew what he meant and none would say.
Between three counties far apart that lay
We were divided and looked strangely each
At the other, and we knew we were not friends
But fellows in a union that ends
With the necessity for it, as it ought. 

Never a word was spoken, not a thought
Was thought, of what the look meant with the word
“Home” as we walked and watched the sunset blurred.
And then to me the word, only the word,
“Homesick,” as it were playfully occurred:
No more. If I should ever more admit
Than the mere word I could not endure it
For a day longer: this captivity
Must somehow come to an end, else I should be
Another man, as often now I seem,
Or this life be only an evil dream.

Home Fire
by Linda Parsons Marion

Whether on the boulevard or gravel backroad, 
I do not easily raise my hand to those who toss 
up theirs in anonymous hello, merely to say 
“I’m passing this way.” Once out of shyness, now 
reluctance to tip my hand, I admire the shrubbery 
instead. I’ve learned where the lines are drawn 
and keep the privet well trimmed. I left one house 
with toys on the floor for another with quiet rugs 
and a bed where the moon comes in. I’ve thrown 
myself at men in black turtlenecks only to find 
that home is best after all. Home where I sit 
in the glider, knowing it needs oil, like my own 
rusty joints. Where I coax blackberry to dogwood 
and winter to harvest, where my table is clothed 
in light. Home where I walk out on the thin page 
of night, without waving or giving myself away, 
and return with my words burning like fire in the grate. 

Home Again, Home Again
By Marilyn L. Taylor

The children are back, the children are back— 
They’ve come to take refuge, exhale and unpack; 
The marriage has faltered, the job has gone bad, 
Come open the door for them, Mother and Dad.

The city apartment is leaky and cold, 
The landlord lascivious, greedy and old— 
The mattress is lumpy, the oven’s encrusted, 
The freezer, the fan, and the toilet have rusted.

The company caved, the boss went broke, 
The job and the love affair, all up in smoke. 
The anguish of loneliness comes as a shock— 
O heart in the doldrums, O heart in hock.

And so they return with their piles of possessions, 
Their terrified cats and their mournful expressions, 
Reclaiming the bedrooms they had in their teens, 
Clean towels, warm comforter, glass figurines.

Downstairs in the kitchen the father and mother 
Don’t say a word, but they look at each other 
As down from the hill comes Jill, comes Jack. 
The children are back. The children are back.

Some keep the Sabbath going to Church
By Emily Dickinson

Some keep the Sabbath going to Church – 
I keep it, staying at Home – 
With a Bobolink for a Chorister – 
And an Orchard, for a Dome – 

Some keep the Sabbath in Surplice – 
I, just wear my Wings – 
And instead of tolling the Bell, for Church, 
Our little Sexton – sings. 

God preaches, a noted Clergyman – 
And the sermon is never long, 
So instead of getting to Heaven, at last – 
I’m going, all along.

Going Home
By William Arms Fisher

Going home, going home
I'm just going home
Quiet light, some still day
I'm just going home

It's not far, just close by
Through an open door
Work all done, care laid by
Going to fear no more

Mother's there expecting me
Father's waiting, too
Lots of folk gathered there
All the friends I knew

All the friends I knew
I'm going home
Nothing's lost, all's gain
No more fret nor pain
No more stumbling on the way
No more longing for the day
Going to roam no more

Morning star lights the way
Restless dream all done
Shadows gone, break of day
Real life begun

There's no break, there's no end
Just a living on
Wide awake with a smile
Going on and on

Going home, going home
I'm just going home
It's not far, just close by
Through an open door
I am going home
I'm just going home

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Program for February 3, 2017

Song for Putting Aside Anger
By Stephen Dobyns

Four walls open to the sky: you are
in a small prison.  There is no door.
You are there for hatred, theft; it doesn’t
matter.  You might have been here all your life.
You might have come yesterday.  It feels like
your entire life.  It feels like your friends
have all died.  You imagine their bodies
in a white room.  Perhaps you killed them.
Your throat is too small for your hatred.
You sit sifting dirt through your fingers.
You say it is your heart:  a dry sand,
an encumbrance.  You wish it were a red bird in the blue sky above you. 
In the hills above you, a dozen monks
hurry along a road toward a mountain.
They wear blue robes.  They play flutes and
small cymbals.  In the midst of four walls,
you listen to the high notes of the flutes,
the chime of the cymbals.  The sounds turn,
spin together in the air around you,
weaving together into a thin rope.
Having found it, you must trust it.
This is how you put aside anger:
Pulling yourself up, hand over hand.

ANGER by April Bernard

When in a farmhouse kitchen that smelled
of old rinds and wet cigarette butts 
I hoisted the shotgun to my shoulder
and aimed but did not fire it at the man 
who had just taken my virginity like a snack, 
with my collusion, but still — 

When I sat in a conference room 
in an inquisition
at the “newspaper of record,”
across from the one slurping his pipe,
the one arching her eyebrow,
and I felt the heat like a wet brand in my chest,
repaid insult for insult and left their fancy job
like a squashed bug on the floor — 

When I was twelve, too old, the last time my father 
spanked me, pants down, 
because I had “distressed” my mother
and my vision went red-black and
I did not forgive — 

When, during my travels along the Gulf Coast, 
the intruder returned in the night
and I did not call the cops again but stood
with a butcher knife facing the door, yelling, “Come in!”
although this time it was just the wind flapping 
and banging the screen door — 

When across a skating-rink-sized glistening table
I told the committee chair and her brooch I was a fan of Marx
and lost the fellowship — 

When I threw a pot of hot coffee
and it just missed a man’s head, and the black-brown spatter stains
were still there four years later long after he’d left me 
when I finally moved out of that East Village hole — 


I would have had to be thinking
in order to have thought — loaded, not loaded?
 — and I was not thinking, I was only dripping hot
and oh the pleasure, I can still feel its prickling,
crackle over the furnace of my rage,
to see his face go pale, his eyes widen,
his “put it down, put it down” — and I
put it down and allowed my life as well as his
to go on.


I miss my anger. Decades go by
when all I can muster is absent-minded invective,
you know, directed at the news;
or a brief fantasy 
of shoving someone in front of a bus. Yesterday
I slammed my fist on my desk
and then apologized, to the desk.

Consider the tapestry of the seven deadly sins, at Saint-Denis:
Anger, wild-haired and half-dressed,
picked out in blue and silver thread bunched 
against the crimson,
rough against the fingertips, she
rides a black boar dappled with blood
and waves her double-headed axe — 

Yes, I remember her.
I always lie when I always say
I didn’t know the gun was loaded.

The Bad Old Days
The summer of nineteen eighteen   
I read The Jungle and The 
Research Magnificent. That fall   
My father died and my aunt   
Took me to Chicago to live.   
The first thing I did was to take   
A streetcar to the stockyards.   
In the winter afternoon,   
Gritty and fetid, I walked 
Through the filthy snow, through the   
Squalid streets, looking shyly   
Into the people’s faces, 
Those who were home in the daytime.   
Debauched and exhausted faces,   
Starved and looted brains, faces   
Like the faces in the senile   
And insane wards of charity   
Hospitals. Predatory 
Faces of little children. 
Then as the soiled twilight darkened,   
Under the green gas lamps, and the   
Sputtering purple arc lamps,   
The faces of the men coming 
Home from work, some still alive with   
The last pulse of hope or courage,   
Some sly and bitter, some smart and   
Silly, most of them already   
Broken and empty, no life,   
Only blinding tiredness, worse   
Than any tired animal.   
The sour smells of a thousand   
Suppers of fried potatoes and   
Fried cabbage bled into the street.   
I was giddy and sick, and out   
Of my misery I felt rising   
A terrible anger and out 
Of the anger, an absolute vow.   
Today the evil is clean 
And prosperous, but it is   
Everywhere, you don’t have to   
Take a streetcar to find it, 
And it is the same evil. 
And the misery, and the 
Anger, and the vow are the same.

Kenneth Rexroth, “The Bad Old Days” from The Collected Shorter Poems. Copyright © 1966 by Kenneth Rexroth. 

Justice, Come Down

A huge sound waits, bound in the ice, 
in the icicle roots, in the buds of snow 
on fir branches, in the falling silence 
of snow, glittering in the sun, brilliant 
as a swarm of gnats, nothing but hovering 
wings at midday. With the sun comes noise. 
Tongues of ice break free, fall, shatter, 
splinter, speak. If I could write the words. 

Simple, like turning a page, to say Write 
what happened, but this means a return 
to the cold place where I am being punished. 
Alone to the stony circle where I am frozen, 
the empty space, children, mother, father gone, 
lover gone away. There grief still sits 
and waits, grim, numb, keeping company with 
anger. I can smell my anger like sulfur- 
struck matches. I wanted what had happened 
to be a wall to burn, a window to smash. 
At my fist the pieces would sparkle and fall. 
All would be changed. I would not be alone. 

Instead I have told my story over and over 
at parties, on the edge of meetings, my life 
clenched in my fist, my eyes brittle as glass. 

Ashamed, people turned their faces away 
from the woman ranting, asking: Justice, 
stretch out your hand. Come down, glittering, 
from where you have hidden yourself away. 

Everybody Has a Heartache: A Blues

In the United terminal in Chicago at five on a Friday afternoon
The sky is breaking with rain and wind and all the flights
Are delayed forever. We will never get to where we are going
And there’s no way back to where we’ve been.
The sun and the moon have disappeared to an island far from 

Everybody has a heartache — 

The immense gatekeeper of Gate Z–100 keeps his cool.
This guardian of the sky teases me and makes me smile through the mess,
Building up his airline by stacking it against the company I usually travel:
Come on over to our side, we’ll treat you nice.
I laugh as he hands me back my ticket, then he turns to charm
The next customer, his feet tired in his minimum wage shoes.

Everybody has a heartache — 

The man with his head bobbing to music no one else can hear has that satisfied
Feel — a full belly of sweet and a wife who sings heartache to sleep.
In his luggage (that will be lost and never found) is a musty dream of flying
Solo to Africa, with a stop on the return to let go the stories too difficult to
Carry home. He’ll take off his shoes to walk in a warm, tropical sea.
He’ll sing to the ancestors:
Take me home to mama. No one cooks like her.
But all the mamas worked to the bone gone too young. 
Broken by The Man.

Everybody has a heartache —  

Everyone’s mouthing fried, sweet, soft and fat,
While we wait for word in the heart of the scrambled beast.
The sparkle of soda wets the dream core.
That woman over there the color of broth did what she was told.
It’s worked out well as can be expected in a world
Where she was no beauty queen and was never seen,
Always in the back of someplace in the back — 
She holds the newest baby. He has croup.
Shush, shush. Go to sleep, my little baby sheepie.
He sits up front of her with his new crop of teeth.

Everybody has a heartache — 

This man speaks to no one, but his body does.
Half his liver is swollen with anger; the other half is trying
To apologize — 
What a mess I’ve made of history, he thinks without thinking.
Mother coming through the screen door, her clothes torn,
Whimpering: It’s okay baby, please don’t cry.
Don’t cry. Baby don’t cry.
And he never cries again.

Everybody has a heartache — 

Baby girl dressed to impress, toddles about with lace on this and ruffle on that — 
Her mother’s relatives are a few hundred miles away poised to 
They might as well live on a planet of ice cream.
She’s a brand new wing, grown up from a family’s broken hope.
Dance girl, you carry our joy.
Just don’t look down.

Everybody has a heartache — 

Good-looking punk girl taps this on her screen
to a stranger she has never seen:
Just before dawn, you’re high again beneath a marbled sky,
I was slick fine leather with a drink in my hand.
Flying with a comet messenger nobody sees.
The quick visitor predicts that the top will be the bottom
And the bottom will flatten and dive into the sea.
I want to tell her:
You will dine with the lobster king, and
You will dance with crabs clicking castanets. You will sleep-
Walk beyond the vestibule of sadness with a stranger
You have loved for years.

Everybody has a heartache — 

This silence in the noise of the terminal is a mountain of bison skulls.
Nobody knows, nobody sees — 
Unless the indigenous are dancing powwow all decked out in flash and beauty
We just don’t exist. We’ve been dispersed to an outlaw cowboy tale.
What were they thinking with all those guns and those handcuffs
In a size for babies?
They just don’t choose to remember.
We’re here.

In the terminal of stopped time I went unsteady to the beat,
Driven by a hungry spirit who is drunk with words and songs.
What can I do?
I have to take care of it.
The famished spirit eats fire, poetry, and rain; it only wants love.

I argue:

You want love?
Do you even know what it looks like, smells like?

But you cannot argue with hungry spirits.

I don’t know exactly where I’m going; I only know where I’ve been,
I want to tell the man who sifted through the wreck to find us here
In the blues shack of disappeared history — 
I feel the weight of his heart against my cheek.
His hand is on my back pulling me to him in the dark, to a place
No soldiers can reach.
I hear the whoop-cries of warriors calling fire for a stand 
Against the brutality of forgetfulness — 

Everybody has a heartache — 

We will all find our way, no matter fire leaping through holes in jump time,
No matter earthquake, or the breaking of love spilling over the dreck of matter
In the ether, stacking one burden
Against the other — 

We have a heartache.

March 18, 2013 United Terminal C, Chicago and en route between Chicago O’Hare and Newport, Virginia.