Tuesday, July 26, 2005


Even my own father doesn’t know I’ve been to jail twice.

The first time was during Christmas break, back home in Ocala, Florida during my freshman year at Colorado State University. A couple friends and I were driving to the local mall in my trusty Isuzu Trooper. We were loaded down with fireworks that my friend purchased down from Tennessee. My other friend, in the passenger seat, tossed a lit smoke bomb into the truck a lane over. Long story short, four hours later we were arrested as we left the mall and approached the Isuzu, surrounding by police cars.

We spent the night in the Marion County Sheriff’s Detention Center, going through the routine of finger-printing, mugshot, one phone call. We knew the clerk who checked us in, a recent graduate of our Lutheran high school. By the time we were bailed out, in the wee hours of the morning, we had sung the whole litany of prisoner songs—“Amazing Grace,” “We Gotta’ Get Outta’ This Place,” “Murder by Numbers.” As we were leaving, the male prisoners were stripped down, the guards pulling on latex gloves.

We did get out of there just in time—bailed out by our pastor who, it turns out, was involved in his own illegal doings that landed him, last I heard, in a job selling encyclopedias at that same mall. But we didn’t get out before being charged—in my case—with a second-degree felony, Missiles, and a misdemeanor, Possession of Fireworks.

Over the next four weeks, I went to court three times, was refused a public defendant (“because if you can afford to go to college out of state you can afford to hire your own attorney”), and ultimately had the case dropped (no cause given, but rumor has it the paperwork was lost) and my record officially expunged. My partner in crime was given six months’ probation.

Needless to say, I got the point, and have walked a predominantly straighter line since then.

My second visit to jail was under more reasonable circumstances: As a political science major at Auburn University, a couple years later, I served an internship under Alabama’s Lee County Circuit Court Judge Richard D. Lane. We took a bus full of juvenile delinquents to an Alabama state prison, visited with prisoners (who scared most of the kids and definitely the intern), and drove home in the wilting Alabama heat to the bus driver’s suffocating gospel music. Which seemed quite right, looking back.

So when I came upon Walking Rain Review XI the other day at the University of Arizona Poetry Center, I was intrigued. WRR “is a product of the Creative Writing Workshops directed by Richard Shelton and Mac Hudson in several Arizona State Prison complexes.” An attractive annual journal publishing fiction, poetry, and essays, all work “was produced by inmates or ex-inmates of the various Arizona correctional facilities.”

And some of it is pretty good, too. This from William Aberg:

Yuletide, Santa Rita Prison

They had stolen his eye—a powder grey, almost
a perfect match—as it lay in a solution-
filled cup by his bunk while he slept,
its thief hoping to tap it
for a necklace. And although we had a notion
who took it, talk was
it had been given to a woman
during a visit. Some recommended
vengeance with a stone, pipe, or knife
or to go with him as back-up
if he wanted to fight—a spiritual sickness
soured our stomach—but in less than a day
he shrugged it off; he was less than
twenty, had maybe six months left,
and more importantly, sat
cross-legged, eyes ahead, jaw
in hand, at the impromptu Bible studies
held in small circles near dusk
on the yard. Within the week of the theft
it was Christmas Eve: the December winter
swarmed with swirling, low cumulus
spilling a fine, cool mist
that would turn to snow on the higher
close Rincon mountains. The lights
outside the chow hall
attracted us in a rugged line
of denim coats and blue navy caps
for the evening meal when I saw him, right
eye covered with a thick gauze swatch,
oblivious to the cold, tufts
of short brown hair
turning slick, wind ruffling
his white T-shirt, handing in innocence
each man a holiday card
and shaking his hand, ignoring
the lifted brows, dropped jaws, lost
in the simple act of giving. Many men shifted
toward the building, or walked away
with glistening eyes. I remember
the sudden fear he was about to die

or disappear, that no task in life
remained for him: his past was that forgiven.

If poetry is, as I.A. Richards has said, “a perfectly possible means of overcoming chaos,” then it’s no surprise that notable contemporary poetry comes from inmates and ex-inmates. It’s no surprise, either, that poetry can help these inmates turn their lives around. And of course we don’t need to be incarcerated for poetry to do that.



Suzanne said...

A friend of mine teaches poetry to incarcerated teens (he used to teach at a very cushy/posh private school in NYC) and the stories and poems he shares about his students are amazing.

Suzanne said...

I meant poems about or by his students. oops.

Simmons B. Buntin said...

There's a certain, quick truth that can't be denied, definitely.

Pearl said...

I can see why that stood out. Great storytelling and, pardon me, eye for detail.

Simmons B. Buntin said...