On reading poems from Donika Kelly’s ‘Bestiary’ in jail.

On reading poems from Donika Kelly’s ‘Bestiary’ in jail.

This post briefly touches on sexual assault and child abuse.

Many of the men in jail have struggled with interpersonal relationships.

After reading Bruce Weigl’s “The Impossible,” a poem about being sexually assaulted as a child, somebody stayed after class to ask if there were resources to help somebody recover from that sort of experience.  The next week, he brought a two-page account of his own abuse.

After reading Ai’s “Child Beater,” many men proffered their own horror stories.  Sometimes they offered excuses for their parents: “My mom, she had me when she was thirteen, I guess what you’d call it now would be ‘statutory rape.’  So she didn’t know what to do with us.  But there were plenty of times, I’d be mouthing off, she’d tie my arms to rafters in the basement with an extension cord, and … “

Seriously, you don’t need to hear the rest of that story.  Nor the conversation (we’ve read “Child Beater” about once a year) when the men discussed which objects they’d been hit with.  They appraised concussions and trauma with the nuance of oenophiles.

Consider this gorgeous poem by Mouse:

 

THAT CAT

– Mouse

 

We had this cat

Small gray and frantic

Always knocking over my mother’s lamps

 

Me and my sister can’t sit on my mother’s furniture

But that cat can

My mother would whoop my ass for her lamps

Knocked over and broken

 

One day my mom bought me a dollar sign belt

Made of leather and metal

I put that belt to use every time I

Got my own ass whooped

 

We humans evolved to hunt.  By nature, we are a rather violent species.  But these cycles – people’s crummy childhoods; institutional violence during schooling and incarceration – amplify aggression.  Our world “nurtures” many into malice.

If you ask people in jail why they’re in, almost everybody will say that they were busted for drugs or alcohol.  But if you look at bookings, or hear from somebody what sort of case he’s fighting, about half the time it’s domestic violence.

So we’ve been reading poems from Donika Kelly’s Bestiary, a charming volume that uses abundant animal imagery to elucidate human relationships.  The men need a safe space to discuss love and romance.  Obviously, a dingy classroom inside a jail is not the ideal place, but this is what we’ve got.

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Kelly’s “Bower” opens with:

 

Consider the bowerbird and his obsession

of blue,

 

… then catalogs some of the strange objects that a male bowerbird might use to construct his pleasure dome.  They are artists, meticulously arraying flowers, berries, beetles, even colorful bits of plastic, striving to create an arch sufficiently beautiful that a visiting female will feel inclined to mate.

Among tropical birds with female mate choice, most males will remain celibate.  They try to woo each visitor, but fail.  Usually one single male – he of the most impressive aerial gymnastics (among manakins) or he of the most impressive bower – will be chosen by every female in an area.  Because the males don’t actually raise their young (their contribution ends after the ten or twenty seconds needed to copulate), any given male will have more than enough time for everyone who wants him.

Every male bowerbird devotes his life to the craft, but most of their creations will be deemed insufficiently beautiful.

 

And

how the female finds him,

lacking.  All that blue for nothing.

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I love the irony of this ending.  This bird’s bower has failed.  The bits of blue that he collected were not sufficient to rouse anyone’s interest in him as a mate.

But life will generally seem pointless if we focus only on goals.  Most bowerbirds won’t mate; Sisyphus will never get that boulder up; you and I will die.    This poem is heartbreaking unless we imagine that the bowerbird takes some pleasure in the very act of creation.

(The natural world is not known for its kindness, but in this case it probably is – because every male bowerbird feels compelled to build these structures, it’s likely that their artistic endeavors feed their brains with dopamine.)

Indeed, most poems that we humans write will go unread.  Even for published poets, it’s probably rare that their words woo a future mate.  But even if Kelly’s own creation did not bring her love (and, based on what little I know about the publishing industry, it almost certainly did not bring her great fortune), it’s clear that all that effort was not for naught.

She made something beautiful.  Sometimes, that alone has to be enough.

At another class, we read Kelly’s “What Gay Porn Has Done for Me.”

Thanks to the internet, many people learn about sexuality from pornography.  One flaw with this “education” is that even when the female actors mime pleasure, they do so while gazing outward.

 

Kelly writes:

 

Call it comfort, or truth, how they look,

not at the camera, as women do,

but at one another.

 

In generic heterosexual pornography, there is a distance.  There is no “relationship” shown between the actors – they’re not even looking at one another.  Instead, the female actor is expected to gaze at a camera, and the (likely male) consumer is gazing at a computer or telephone screen to make some simulacrum of eye contact.

 

Each body is a body on display,

and one I am meant to see and desire.

 

Generic heterosexual pornography seems to objectify the actors much more than gay pornography because the focus is on a performer’s body more than the romantic acts depicted.  Because so much of this pornography is consumed by a homophobic audience, male bodies are depicted minimally – usually only a single organ within the frame – which prevents couples from being shown.

The pleasure offered isn’t quite voyeurism, pretending to watch another pair make love.  It’s fantasy, the chance to imagine being the bearer of the male genitalia.  But this fantasy, independent a fantasy of conversation and mutual seduction, makes others’ bodies seem a thing to be used, not a carriage for the partner’s personality.

 

I am learning

 

what to do with my face,

and I come on anything I like.

 

To desire, and to be desired, need not be degrading for anyone involved.  This is a hard lesson to square with the sort of “sex education” that I received in school, which was sufficiently Christian that sex was presented as both desirable and bad.  If a person thinks that he or she is wicked for wanting, it’ll be hard to discuss what each person wants.

There’s no way to pretend “I’m a good person who just got carried away!” if you make a sober, premeditated, consensual decision to do something bad.

Of course, sexuality isn’t bad.  But many people still posture as thought it is.  When these people feel (totally natural!) desire, they’re forced to create dangerous situations that might excuse their subsequent behavior.

Which, because of those excuse-enabling contortions, often winds up being bad.

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On race and our criminal justice system.

On race and our criminal justice system.

I’ve been teaching poetry in the local jail for over a year. The guys are great students, and I love working with them… but there are differences between these classes and my previous teaching experiences. Not just the orange attire or the chance that somebody down the hall will be rhythmically kicking a cell door all hour.

When I was teaching wealthy pre-meds physics & organic chemistry at Northwestern & Stanford, none of my students died. Nobody’s boyfriend or girlfriend was murdered midway through the semester. Nobody was sitting in class with someone who had ruined his or her life by becoming a police informant. Sometimes people got teary eyed, but only over grades.

plowWhereas… well, when we were discussing Norman Dubie’s “Safe Passage” last December – a beautiful poem about riding in the snowplow with his grandfather the night before the old man died – we wound up talking about our families. A forty-year-old man wept: he had thought that this year, for the first time in years, he would get to spend Christmas with his kids … but, even after they let you out, they take away your license … and make you show for blow-and-go some fifteen miles away, every single day … and charge you for the classes, but those classes mean you have no way to schedule regular work hours … so they put you on warrant when you can’t paid … and then, if you make one tiny mistake …

Christmas was in two days. He’d spend another month inside.

Ai_bwThe accumulated trauma that these guys shoulder from their past lives is heartbreaking. One of the best lesson plans my co-teacher and I have come up with uses several poems from Ai to prepare for writing our own persona poems. A former student – now released, & still sober after two months – says he still feels changed by the experience of writing in someone else’s voice. In that space he was made to feel so small, but taking a few minutes to ponder the world from another perspective let him escape. And it gave him a new view of the consequences of his own choices.

But a lot of Ai’s poetry is very difficult. She writes from the perspectives of murderers and rapists. We’ve discussed her poem “Child Beater” with several groups of men, and at least a third of the guys, every time, shared harrowing stories of their own.

On a good day, these men have long histories of suffering weighing them down.

And on a bad day? My co-teacher and I might show up with a stack of poems, start teaching class, and, mid-way through, learn that another of our students’ family members has just died. Over the course of a year, at least two had wives die of overdose, another’s partner was murdered … and, in that case, one of the killers was placed overnight in a cell adjacent to his own …

And, half an hour after my second class there ended, one of my students died.

The men do great work, both interpreting poems and writing their own, but, just think for a moment: what could they accomplish if they weren’t oppressed by so much misery? Compared to my experience teaching at wealthy universities, the emotional toll is excruciating. And I am just a tourist! After every class, I get to leave. A guard smiles and opens the door for me. I walk away.

This is their life.

And it’s my fault. All citizens of this country – all people who benefit from the long history of violence that has made this nation so wealthy – bear the blame. As beneficiaries, the suffering caused by mass incarceration is our responsibility.

So, the guy who died? He was just a kid. Nineteen years old. And he’d gone over a year without medication for his highly-treatable genetic condition. I’ve written previously about the unfair circumstances he had been born into: suffice it to say that his family was very poor. He’d been in jail awaiting trial since sixteen – he was being tried as an adult for “armed robbery” after an attempted burglary with a BB gun – and then, when he turned eighteen – please ignore the irony of this age constituting legal adulthood – the state said he had to pay for his own medication. With beta blockers, people with his genetic condition have a normal life expectancy. Beta blockers cost about $15 per month.

No, a dude whose family is so poor that he attempted robbery with a BB gun can not afford $15 per month. Sitting in jail, it’s not like he could help pay.

A few weeks after his death, I remarked to one of the other guys that he probably wouldn’t have been charged as an adult if he’d been a white kid. I told two anecdotes from the local high school: a student with psychiatric trouble amassed weapons in his locker and planned a date to do something violent. Another student participated in a food fight during the last week of school. The former was welcomed back; the latter was told that he’d be arrested if he returned to school grounds. And he hadn’t taken all his finals yet! If all his teachers had known about this disciplinary ruling in time, he wouldn’t have received a degree.

The first student was white; the latter black.

snowflakeThere’s no universal standard. Maybe there can’t be – we are all “beautiful unique snowflakes,” and so every case will be slightly different. But unfairness blooms when so much is left up to individual discretion. Black students are punished excessively throughout our country. Black children as young as 4 or 5 are considered disproportionately threatening and are treated unfairly.

Prosecutors in the criminal justice system have even more power. There’s no oversight and often no documentation for their decisions. Charges can be upgraded or downgraded on a whim. A white kid might’ve been sent to reform school for his “youthful indiscretions”; this dude sat in jail from age 16 until his death.

“Yeah, but _____ always said, ‘I’m not black. I’m mid-skinned.”

(You can also listen to a podcast about his unfair treatmeant and premature death here.)

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This spring, I said to one of the guys whose trial date was coming up, “I feel like, if I’d done the exact same thing as you…” I shook my head. There was no reason to go on. “But black guys get the hammer.”

He disagreed. Not with the idea that black people are punished disproportionately in this country, just that it would be his burden, too.

NCA-Earth“Well, but I’m not black,” he said. “My family is from all over the place … I’m Native American, and Caribbean, and …” He listed a long pedigree. Indeed, his ancestors had come from around the globe: Europe, India, Africa, the Americas …

“My apologies,” I said. “And, I guess … so, my wife teaches at the high school in town, and one of her kids, his family is Polynesian … but at school everybody assumes he’s black. So he mostly identifies with Black culture here.”

“I get that,” the guy said to me, nodding. He’s a really kind and thoughtful dude. “Cause, yeah, some of it is just who other people think you are.”

His words stuck with me: who other people think you are.

We were sure he could walk. Probation, rehab, that kind of thing. We’d seen other people with equivalent bookings go free.

We were wrong. Dramatically so: he was sentenced to seven years. His family was devastated. You don’t even want to know the extent.

Soon after, I was looking up his prison address to send him a letter and a few books of poetry. On the page of “Offender Data” provided by the Indiana Department of Correction, it read,

Race: Black.

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