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. 

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