The phoenix falls into fire, burns, and dies. Then rises again, reborn.
The phoenix triumphs over adversity. Life gets hard, excruciatingly hard. Everything falls to shit. But the phoenix rises again.
Or so we hope.
Sometimes, the fire burns too hot. And then the phoenix dies and stays dead. Sometimes ash isn’t a phoenix egg.
Sometimes ash is only ash.
Here’s a poem by my friend Satish:
COULD I BE
– a peacock, so vibrant
& bright, but vulnerable
for lack of flight, a
turkey that flutters
searching for height.
A dove that flies so
high, so pure & clean.
I’m none of these.
Just searching for a
balance – in between.
Maybe a phoenix, mystical,
reborn from fire &
Satish wrote this poem while he was living inside the dormitory on the ground floor of the Monroe County Jail. This is an awful little space. It’s about the size of my living room. Twelve men lived there. They slept on bunk beds. The fluorescent lights were turned off only from midnight until four a.m. The single window, a tiny rectangle of wire-reinforced glass inside the steel door, faced the subterranean booking desk – no glimpse of the outdoors. There were two steel tables bolted to the floor, and each table had six steel stools curving out from beneath it, like a pair of silver-skinned twice-amputated octopuses where the men could sit to eat their meals.
The jail dorm shared a wall with soft booking – “the drunk tank.” Much of the time, someone with mental health issues would be in there, hollering. If someone in the tank decides to stand there rhythmically kicking the steel door, the noise resounds through your skull like the repeated cocking of a shotgun inside your brain. All thoughts disappear but hate. At least, that was my experience, and I never spent more than two hours at a time inside that space.
Satish was there for months.
But he stayed chipper. It was always a pleasure to go in there with a stack of poems and have the chance to talk with him. On his good days, his enthusiasm was infectious, leaning in close to ask questions or banter about religion, his huge eyes gleaming like polished fishbowls.
The saddest poem he wrote was about cheating on his girlfriend with an old man – “old man” is slang for heroin.
The other men in the dorm loved having him around. In such a small space, where people are going through the worst time of their lives and yet are expected to endure the constant presence of a roomful of other men who’re also going through the worst time of their lives, emotions fray easily. Twice when I came in there, my buddy Max had ugly blue bruises covering his face.
“We had a little disagreement,” Max would tell me. And he’d mention the name of somebody who’d been in the dorm the week before, but had since been moved to a different block.
But nobody had trouble with Satish.
Nobody except the judge.
Max told me, “Judge ______ gave him this deal, Satish was on this drug court thing, and she was going to pretend to care. She said, ‘write me a letter, write me a letter and convince me why I should go easy on you.’ But if she’s going to go easy, why would she need that letter? So Satish wrote this letter, he basically wrote to her, ‘Fuck you, just do what you’re going to do.’ “
The thing is, we all thought he would walk. The case, as far as I knew it, was pretty weak. He had come home, he’d lost his keys, and he was high. He thought he could sleep it off, go look for his keys in the morning, and so he tried to get in through the window.
Except he picked the wrong window. He was climbing in the neighbors’, and they freaked and called the police. The cops came. By then they figured out who he was, everybody was confused, but mistakes happen. Mistakes happen more when people are on drugs, but, regardless, mistakes happen.
The neighbors didn’t want to press charges. They weren’t going to cooperate with a case.
In the United States, prosecutors have a lot of leeway, though. Doesn’t matter what the police report says, doesn’t matter what the witnesses say, the prosecutor gets to decide what charges to file. They get to pile charges on as leverage for plea bargaining. They don’t have to justify which people get dog piled and which people walk free.
The prosecutor’s decisions are yet another place in our criminal justice system where racial injustice creeps in. Perhaps it’s worth mentioning that, in the eyes of the state, Satish was Black.
So, a phoenix. Maybe they’d send him away. But he could overcome adversity.
We thought he would walk. We expected that he’d go to court, then get sent home for time served.
Instead, they gave him seven years.
He was shipped off to the “Reception & Diagnostics Center.” This is where they do psychological evaluations, figure out which prison you’ll be sent to. While at reception & diagnostics, nobody can get a hold of you.
He’d been there two days when his girlfriend – mother of his two children, pregnant with their third – overdosed and died. She’d been clean a while. But after something like that – you think he’s coming out, instead they give him seven years – it’s easy to relapse.
Heroin killed her. But the courts killed her too.
He took it hard.
We volleyed letters for a while – he’d send me folded bundles, six or seven sheets that he’d written over the course of a week, and he stamped the envelopes low to dodge the postmark – but he always said that it was hard to find time to write. He was doing as many programs as he could, trying to get level-headed, trying to get out. Most programs will give you a time cut.
They’d given him seven years, but he was out after another two. Lots of guys have tried to explain the math of criminal justice time to me; I have never understood.
Max said, “He was in a pretty good place, at first. I mean, he had a handle on it, what’d happened with Chelsea, everything that happened. But when he started using …”
He was trying to rise. Twenty-nine, and rebuilding his life.
But sometimes the fire burns too hot. Sometimes it burns and burns and the ash stops being an egg. Sometimes ash is only ash.
At a library booksale, I purchased a copy of The Magus intending only to read the racy bits. At a comic shop in California, I bought a bundle of Playboy magazines from the 1970s. After reading an interview with the Erika Lust, my spouse & I watched some of her company’s short films. While traveling in India with friends, we visited a health center and each purchased an Ayurvedic massage.
massage, each of us was taken to private rooms and told to change into rather skimpy
thong underwear. Then a trained
professional – a man for the males in our group, a woman for the females –
rubbed our bodies with a blend of oil and spices, carefully kneading our
muscles. There wasn’t the sort of
rhythmic, focused attention that I imagine to be a component of “happy
endings,” but midway through I began to fret about what I would say if that was
the sort of massage that I’d inadvertently purchased.
Worrying left me even more tense after the massage than before it started. Whoops.
after we had all showered and reconvened in the lobby, my friend who’d
convinced us to try ayurvedic massage regaled us with a story from his
childhood. His parents were Indian, and
massage was a totally normal part of their culture. And so, during a family vacation to Mexico
when my friend was fourteen, his mother purchased a massage for him at one of
the tents near their beach.
through, the masseuse wrapped her fingers around his oiled penis and rapidly
pumped back and forth. My friend was
alarmed but, as a naive adolescent, didn’t know how to make it stop. So he assumed that the easiest way to get
through the experience was to close his eyes and think of things sultrier than
masseuse cleaned off his belly. He
sheepishly exited the tent. His mother
asked, “Was it a good massage, beta?”
averted his eyes and mumbled, “yup.”
Most teenagers act embarrassed and cagey around their parents all the
time, so she didn’t realize anything was wrong.
would have been outraged to realize that she had hired a sex worker.
is a slippery concept, though. In the
process of writing this essay, I tried to come up with a definition; I
failed. You could reasonably argue that all
massage therapists are sex workers.
Patrons are nearly naked; there’s a whole lot of lubricated skin-to-skin
contact; a body is used as conduit to satiation.
A number of other professions fit most of the definitions of “sex work” that I came up with. In strip clubs, lap dancers rub against a patron’s body in order to produce orgasm. After pregnancy, many women visit physical therapists who help them regain bladder control; a worker rhythmically curls her gloved fingers inside the patron’s vulva. A model might pose for Playboy – or even the Victoria’s Secret catalog – knowing that young men will climax while gazing at her image. An actor in a pornographic film engages in sexual contact for money; so do police officers.
who drafts an erotic story is arguably a sex worker, too. The experience is enjoyed asynchronously, but
the exchange of titillating words can be a form of sexuality, and a patron can
certainly reach orgasm.
practice, these people are unlikely to face legal consequences for their sex
work. Because the term “prostitution” is
so nebulously defined, prosecutors and judges get to decide what counts.
Even for full-fledged, both-parties-shuck-their-clothes, somebody’s-parts-enveloping-somebody-else’s-parts types of sex work, certain people slide right past the law. Many clients look like prosecutors and judges – wealthy, white, and male – so it’s easy to feel sympathy for them. Hasn’t the bad press already hurt this man enough? And, he’s a pillar of his community! We’d cause too much collateral damage by locking him up!
we punish people who are already marginalized.
Poor people, Black people, brazen women, LGBTQ folks, undocumented
immigrants, drug addicts … they elicit little sympathy from our
prosecutors. Go ahead and lock them
up. Fine them. Deport them.
Juno Mac and Molly Smith have written an excellent book, Revolting Prostitutes, documenting the actual results of our laws against sex work. On the topic of nebulous definitions, Mac and Smith write that, in England (where sex work itself has been decriminalized, but every measure that would allow sex workers to keep themselves safe is illegal):
The definition of brothel-keeping is so capacious as to easily facilitate the criminalization of sex workers: a brothel can be any place where ‘more than one woman offers sexual intercourse, whether for payment or not’ or that is ‘resorted to for the purposes of lewd homosexual practices’. In other words, a flat-share where both housemates regularly have casual non-commercial sex could theoretically count as a brothel under British law.
and misogynistic, this is exactly the sort of language that leads to injustice. Police officers haven’t been raiding the
apartments of college kids who choose to fool around with their classmates;
instead, they use this law as another tool to oppress undocumented immigrants.
should be no surprise that carceral feminists and sex-working feminists have
such difficulty even discussing this topic.
We disagree not only on the solution but on the problem: for
carceral feminists, the problem is commercial sex, which produces trafficking;
for us, the problem is borders, which produces people who have few to no rights
as they travel and work.
solutions we propose are equally divergent.
Carceral feminists want to tackle commercial sex through criminal law,
giving more power to the police. For sex
workers, the solution includes dismantling immigration enforcement and the
militarized border regimes that push undocumented people into the shadows and
shut off their access to safety or justice – in other words, taking power away
from the police and giving it to migrants and to workers.
Smith acknowledge that there are valid reasons to dislike the existence of sex
work. But there is a danger – if we are
too focused on the risk that society might view women’s bodies as objects to be
bought and sold, we might lose sight of the real problem.
workers don’t like their jobs. They sell
sex because they need money.
When we devote resources to the criminal justice system instead of the social services that people need, we make the problem worse.
not here to uplift the figure of the ‘sympathetic’ client, nor the idea that
any client has a ‘right’ to sex. We are
not here to prioritize discussion on whether the sex industry, or even sex
itself, is intrinsically good or bad.
Nor – as we will unpack over the course of this book – are we uncritical
of what work means in a context of insatiable global capitalism and
looming environmental catastrophe.
sense that we wish to see an end to all work, particularly the gendered and
exploitative nature of prostitution, many sex worker activists are in fact ‘sex
industry abolitionists’. As the English
Collection of Prostitutes have said, ‘Ultimately we are organizing for an end
to prostitution … When women are able to claim back the wealth we helped produce,
the economic conditions which have forced millions of people everywhere to sell
their mind, body, time, and skills in order to survive or improve their
standard of living, prostitution will no longer be there.’
feminists] position work in general as something that the worker
should find fulfilling, non-exploitative, and enjoyable. Deviation from this supposed norm is treated
as evidence that something cannot be work.
work, it’s exploitation’ is a refrain you hear again and again. One feminist policymaker in Sweden told a
reporter, ‘Don’t say sex work, it’s far too awful to be work.’ Awfulness and work are positioned as
antithetical: if prostitution is awful, it cannot be work.
feminists and even policymakers often ask sex workers whether we would have sex
with our clients if we weren’t being paid.
Work is thus constantly being re-inscribed as something so personally
fulfilling you would pursue it for free.
this understanding is in some ways embedded in anti-prostitution advocacy
through the prevalence of unpaid internships in such organizations. … The
result of these unpaid and underpaid internships is that the women who are most
able to build careers in the women’s sector – campaigning and setting policy
agendas around prostitution – are women who can afford to do unpaid full-time
work in New York and London. In this
context, it is hardly a surprise that the anti-prostitution movement as a whole
has a somewhat abstracted view of the relationship between work and money.
be mostly positive for those who can largely set the parameters of the
conversation, like high-profile journalists.
However, this does not describe reality for most women workers or
workers in general (or even many journalists).
Most workers suffer some unfair conditions in the workplace and would not, as a rule, do their jobs for free. Work is pretty awful, especially when it’s low paid and unprestigious. This is not to say that this state of affairs is good, or that we should accept it because it is normal, but nor is it useful to pretend that work is generally wonderful and exclude from our analysis the demands of workers whose experience does not meet this standard.
Smith would love to live in a world where no one felt the need to sell
sex. Barring that, they would like to
see sex work become less exploitative, and they offer concrete policy
suggestions that would help. Their
proposals are reasonable – and very different from the laws that our predominantly
wealthy, white, male legislatures have been passing.
Even in Sweden – where we first saw the “Nordic model,” which ostensibly decriminalizes the act of selling sex while punishing buyers – sex workers are harassed by the police. There has been no amnesty for women who sell sex because they are barred from other forms of employment by their immigration status.
if the police chose to pursue only buyers, these laws would still harm sex
workers. If any person involved in a
transaction is considered a criminal, the transaction will be dangerous. Sex workers subject to the Nordic model are
unable to take basic safety precautions, and so they are hurt by these laws.
U.S. bills that were ostensibly passed to protect women have instead caused
worldwide harm. Mac and Smith write
SESTA-FOSTA [which shut down websites like Backpage for trafficking concerns] censored a huge number of advertising platforms at once in spring 2018, rendering sex workers in the US and beyond more precarious, broke, and desperate almost overnight as their source of income vanished. SESTA-FOSTA increased the power of clients and would-be managers, as sex workers scrambled to find work in any way they could.
One client wrote, ‘I definitely think this will end up being a win for hobbyists [habitual clients] … prices will drop because providers [sex workers] will not be able to pull in new customers and have to take whoever they can get. Specials [such as sex without a condom] will become more prevalent … They will have to act friendlier and not have the luxury of turning away clients any longer.’
clarifications for terms like “hobbyists” and “specials” were provided by Mac
seem paradoxical that these laws, which ostensibly aim to fight exploitation,
instead make exploitation easier and more prevalent. But ultimately it is not a paradox: reducing
sex workers’ ability to connect with clients always increases scarcity and
makes workers more vulnerable.
When we try to suppress demand by passing laws that punish people who buy sex, the lives of sex workers become more dangerous. When we try to suppress demand by shutting down advertising platforms, the lives of sex workers become more dangerous.
doing the wrong things.
are targeting the wrong sort of demand.
In economic terms, the demand for sex work is relatively elastic. Fooling around is fun; it isn’t necessary. When the price goes up – because sex workers raise their rates, because there’s an outbreak of STIs, because the transaction is criminalized, because there’s a cultural norm that people share their sexuality only within the confines of a church-sanctioned marriage – most people will have less sex.
of contrast, the demand for a safe place to live, food for your children, or
medicine are all inelastic. When
you’re fleeing the ravages of climate change or militarized gang violence, it
doesn’t matter how much it costs. That’s
why our immigration policies have been failing – by policing our borders, we’ve
raised the price of migration, but we haven’t addressed substandard living
conditions in people’s home countries.
Instead, we are making people’s homes less safe. Both the colonial legacy and ongoing carbon pollution of places like the United States and wealthy European countries have led to droughts, government corruption, and drug-sale-funded violence around the world. We have a moral obligation to help the people whose homes we’ve ruined; instead, we’re treating them like criminals.
I’ve written previously that a global wealth tax used to fund a guaranteed basic income would be the best solution to many of our world’s problems; Mac and Smith also conclude that:
sex work unnecessary, there is much work to do: winning rights for
freedom of movement, labor rights, access to services and to work without
threat of deportation, employment alternatives, better welfare provisions,
cheaper housing, support services for single mothers, and so on. If everybody had the resources they needed,
nobody would need to sell sex.
Revolting Prostitutes is an incredibly well-written, deeply researched, important book. It deserves to be widely read – certainly by everyone who purports to care about feminism, immigration, or human rights.
I worry, though, that some readers might be turned away by an ad hominem attack. Many authors have careers that inform their writing; I’ve never seen these mentioned in our local university’s library listings before. Wouldn’t it be enough to list “Author: Smith, Molly” with no clarification?
After William Burroughs experienced how
pitifully he could be held in thrall by a small molecule, he developed a
lifelong interest in telepathy and mind control.
His own brain had been upended. Suddenly, he found himself devoting the vast majority of his time and money toward a single cause: obtaining a day’s ration of opiate. If he was delinquent in this task, he grew sick. Agony would keep him focused.
If that drug was capable of re-sculpting a human personality, might there be other ways? In Queer, the protagonist speculates:
“I know telepathy to be a fact, since I
have experienced it myself. I have no
interest to prove it, or, in fact, to prove anything to anybody. What interests me is, how can I use it?
“In South America at the headwaters of
the Amazon grows a plant called Yage that is supposed to increase telepathic
sensitivity. Medicine men use it in
their work. A Colombian scientist, whose
name escapes me, isolated from Yage a drug he called Telepathine. I read all this in a magazine article.
“Later I see another article: the
Russians are using Yage in experiments on slave labor. It seems they want to induce states of
automatic obedience and ultimately, of course, ‘thought control.’ The basic con. No buildup, no spiel, no routine, just move
in on someone’s psyche and give orders.
“I have a theory that the Mayan priests
developed a form of one-way telepathy to con the peasants into doing all the
work. The deal is certain to backfire
eventually, because telepathy is not of its nature a one-way setup, nor a setup
of sender and receiver at all.”
As it happens, psychedelic drugs are quite poor tools for potentiating mind control. But there are other ways. A precisely-localized magnetic pulse can cause prompt, unnoticeable alterations in a person’s behavior – researchers were able to change how their human study subjects responded to unfairness, all without those subjects realizing that they were acting differently from usual.
Because repeated behaviors give rise to
our personality, it stands to reason that repeated transcranial magnetic
stimulation could rewire a person’s identity.
Invisibly, and, with the right interference patterns, at a
You could be made other.
The more common form of mind control
practiced in the United States is much less technologically advanced. Rather than using a magnetic pulse to
stimulate or suppress particular regions of the brain, we employ narrative
Here’s a simple story: a bell rings, then dinner is served. If this story is integrated inside the brain as universally true, then the sound of the bell will trigger salivation. This is the basic principle behind Pavlovian conditioning. You can train a dog to associate dinnertime to the sound of a bell, or to have an aversion to a particular smell.
Humans can be similarly conditioned. Companies like Facebook and Apple have incorporated a variety of sensory experiences into their designs, all intended to engender a sense of urgency about checking your telephone. The alerts, the updates, the little pings – these are pushed to the forefront of the design because they compel engagement. Likewise the little jingles of dropped loot in online fantasy games.
In a perfect world, corporations would not make their users’ brains worse in order to increase their own profits. If those companies’ designs were less malicious, the makers wouldn’t need to be so vigilant about making sure that their own children don’t engage with their creations.
But those are little stories. A few stray details added to the narrative of
your day: if you see the dot, click to see the update! More threatening is the prospect of mind
control that totally rewrites an internalized narrative. Take a person’s memories and supplant them.
In Burroughs’s Naked Lunch, the doctor Benway describes his interrogation techniques:
“While in general I avoid the use of
torture – torture locates the opponent and mobilizes resistance – the threat of
torture is useful to induce in the subject the appropriate feeling of
helplessness and gratitude to the interrogator for withholding it. And torture can be employed to advantage as a
penalty when the subject is far enough along with the treatment to accept
punishment as deserved.”
In an excellent article for Science magazine, journalist Douglas Starr describes research into false confessions, situations when people are subjected to such extreme narrative control that they temporarily lose grasp of their personal memories and accept instead an interrogator’s version of reality.
A variety of techniques are employed – the threat of torture, as above; a questioning regime that is in itself torturous, giving the subject an incentive to play along just to make it stop; sleep deprivation to muddle the brain; ardently repeated falsehoods to supplant the subject’s own stories; deceitful cajoling to persuade the subject that there would be minimal consequences to accepting an alternate version of reality (by saying things like “Anyone would have done the same thing”).
And it works. Innocent people can be made to believe that they’ve done horrible things. With a variety of laboratory experiments, psychologist Saul Kassin has shown that these techniques can induce almost anyone to confess to things they haven’t done.
Your stories can be wrested from you.
Indeed, our entire legal system is a battleground for narrative control. Two sides compete to determine what story will enter the legal record: this is typically set up as a test of wits between a well-trained, well-funded prosecutor and an indigent, incarcerated individual who might or might not receive a brief consultation with an overscheduled public defender.
Predictably, the prosecutor often wins. Because prosecutors have absolute, unchecked power to determine what charges to levy against a defendant, they can threaten people with the risk of outlandish punishment … and they can force a defendant to suffer in jail simply by delaying trials. So, eventually, when a prosecutor offers an alternative story that would allow the defendant’s torture to end, most people will renounce their own memories. They plead guilty. After all, you might spend another year in jail waiting for a trial, or you could just let the prosecutor re-write history and walk out today.
Of course, you might not walk out today. Even if you were told that you would. In this battle for narrative control, one side – the defendant – is required to be honest. The other is not.
And so people lose their stories, the very narratives that make us who we are.
After discussing several forms of parasitic mind control during our poetry class in the local jail, somebody asked – somebody always asks – whether there’s some sort of parasite that makes people want to use drugs.
A few guys looked down at the table and nodded. People are in there for a variety of reasons – domestic violence, burglary, DWIs, dealing or possession – but no matter the charge, many of the guys in jail were dealing with substance use that got out of hand.
I gave the same answer as always.
“Drugs do it on their own. Chemicals can remodel your brain to make you want them again. Like cocaine, it’s a dopamine re-uptake inhibitor, so if something makes you happy after coke, it’ll make you more happy than it would’ve … but your body responds by down-regulating the receptors, and then you’re stuck feeling less happy all the time unless you take it again.”
But it’s not all bleak. Drug addiction takes hold because the brain is plastic – our minds change and we want that rush again, potentially to the exclusion of all else – but neural plasticity allows people to recover, too. Dopamine receptor levels fall during periods of excessive drug use, but they’ll rebound during sobriety … and this rebound should attenuate the desire to use again.
(Unfortunately, the lecturers in our area’s court-mandated rehab courses have been telling people that, “After you take methamphetamines, it takes eight years of sobriety before your dopamine receptor levels come back.” This sounds wrong to me – I don’t know the half-life of dopamine receptors, but the timing of sensitization and de-sensitization in conditions like bipolar disorder and antidepressant-induced mania suggests that it’s on the order of a month or so, not years – and it’s definitely unhelpful to say. If you’re trying to help someone quit taking drugs, you want their goals to be feasible.
A former co-teacher tattooed “Day By Day” on his arm because quitting forever seemed impossible, but getting through one more day without drugs sounded like something he could do. He’s now weathered five years of single days. But if I felt like garbage and an instructor told me, “You’ll only feel like this for eight more years!”, I’d give up immediately.)
I don’t really understand Scientology – all my current knowledge comes from a single episode of South Park and a few minutes spent skimming through the Wikipedia article – but I was intrigued by the practice of using “E-meters” to measure a person’s cognitive development in the faith. It made me wonder whether the sort of person who was interested in biofeedback and numerical metrics – somebody who tracks steps with a Fitbit or the gasoline saved on a Prius console – could use self-administered polygraphs for cognitive behavioral therapy.
It’s well-known that polygraphs are fallible – you can fail them when you’re telling the truth, and you can learn to pass them while lying – but I imagine that the easiest ways to pass a polygraph is to convince yourself that whatever you’re saying is true. There many physiological correlates to dishonesty – skin voltage, electroencephalogram patterns, eye movement, vocal tones – and by convincing yourself to earnestly believe whatever you happen to be saying, you could pass any of them.
Because you can cheat, U.S. courts generally don’t trust the results of lie detector tests. In the pursuit of justice, cheating would be bad. But as self-administered therapy, cheating is the whole point. You cheat at lying until the lie becomes the truth.
“I like myself and I am worthy of love and self-respect.”
Rig up your polygraph and say something like that until the machine stops dinging you. Do it daily. Your brain is plastic, designed to learn and change. Your words will become true.
In The Hatred of Poetry, Ben Lerner posits that many people dislike poems for falling short of an ideal. We hold a vision of the glory that poetry could be: we want crackling verses that would, per Rilke, inspire us to change our lives; we want phrases that speak to all without resorting to postcard platitudes; we want poems to be universal, yet firmly rooted in a particular writer’s lived experience.
But the particular is never universal. The catacombs of memory ensure that words convey slightly different meanings to us all; the best poems revel in this private language. And we, the readers, are stubborn, inertial creatures. It is unlikely that any page’s worth of written words will change us, no matter how magnificent.
And so actual poems fail. The ones we read seem little different from any other set of words. As do those we write – if you are one of the few people who reached adulthood yet still writes poems. All children do, just as all children draw, but the world trains us to slough off artistic expression as we age. What’s worse, many of us are taught in elementary school that poetry – the ideal again – is the deepest possible expression of self. Language is the medium of thought, and poetry is the art of language. Lerner suggests that, in giving up on poems, there comes a nagging sensation that we are giving up on ourselves.
Why wouldn’t we hate an art that hurts us this way?
In Lerner’s words,
Great poets confront the limits of actual poems, tactically defeat or at least suspend that actuality, sometimes quit writing altogether, becoming celebrated for their silence; truly horrible poets unwittingly provide a glimmer of virtual possibility via the extremity of their failure; avant-garde poets hate poems for remaining poems instead of becoming bombs; and nostalgists hate poems for failing to do what they wrongly, vaguely claim poetry once did. … one thing all these demands share is that they can’t ever be fulfilled with poems. Hating on actual poems, then, is often an ironic if sometimes unwitting way of expressing the persistence of the utopian ideal of Poetry, and the jeremiads in that regard are defenses, too.
I can understand why a published poet like Lerner would put forward these arguments. But I don’t agree, in large part because most people I’ve talked to sincerely enjoy poetry – ever since graduating from high school, that is, when poems were hated for being foisted upon us. Among adults, I’ve found a dislike of poetry to be exceedingly rare.
Not many people gravitate specifically toward lyric poetry, though, especially not the sort that is featured alongside Lerner’s bio for the Poetry Foundation website. But I believe the unpopularity of this type of poetry, with lines like “Emulsions with / Then circled the lake like / This is it.” (from Lerner’s “[By any measure]”) or “jumpsuits, they have changed / painting, I / behind the concertina wire / can’t look at it anymore …” (from Lerner’s “[jumpsuits]”), is not caused primarily by dissonance between actual poems and a reader’s pedestaled ideal. I’d add an asymmetry of trust to the litany of offenses of which poetry stands accused in Lerner’s monograph.
I do not mean to impugn asymmetry in general. For instance, consider this beautiful passage from Jana Prikryl’s “Thirty Thousand Islands”:
Because the moon’s mass is a considerable fraction
of the earth’s, it exerts a gravitational force
on oceans as it orbits overhead, producing the
tides, or put another way, you can stand
on the shore twice daily and witness the very
water flinging itself upwards.
This verse is secretly a paean to asymmetry. Water has an electric dipole moment – it is asymmetric – with oppositely-charged ends attracting each other like so many microscopic magnets. This allows water to move and flow cohesively, one molecule tugging the next along their shared path. But the physicist and Nobel laureate Philip Warren Anderson, who made great advances in our understanding of asymmetry, writes that, as a graduate student, “this seemed very strange to me, because I was just being taught that nothing has an electric dipole moment.”
“The professor was really proving that no nucleus has a dipole moment, because he was teaching nuclear physics, but as his arguments were based on the symmetry of space and time they should have been correct in general.
“I soon learned that, in fact, they were correct (or perhaps it would be more accurate to say not incorrect) because he had been careful to say that no stationary state of a system (that is, one which does not change in time) has an electric dipole moment.
“In quantum mechanics there is always a way, unless symmetry forbids, to get from one state to another. Thus, if we start from any one unsymmetrical state, the system will make transitions to others, so only by adding up all the possible unsymmetrical states in a symmetrical way can we get a stationary state.”
According to the laws of physics, the world should be symmetric. And in the long run – on time scales that leave us dead and the Earth barren and the sun cold, impossibly far from any other source of light – the world is. At any moment, however, objects may exhibit a temporary asymmetry (with this temporary state sustained perhaps for billions of years). This asymmetry gives us our world. Water that flows. Water capable of “flinging itself upward” with the tides.
The very stars in the sky depend upon asymmetry. According to the laws of physics, the Big Bang should’ve birthed equal amounts matter and antimatter, rapidly coalescing into nothing. And yet, in our universe, matter predominates. We live.
But asymmetry in human relations can be harder to bear than the (world-enabling) asymmetries of nature. At first blush, we thought the internet would be a great equalizer, giving a voice to all. Instead, the increasing quantity of stuff out there has served to concentrate attention further on a dwindling number of foci. So many in the modern world flail, shouting into the void, aspiring to fame. The Orlando shooter checked Facebook during his crime, verifying that his humanity (at its worst) had finally been recognized. For a moment – gun in his hand, eyes on his phone – he was as important as Beyonce.
This asymmetry is stark in poetry. The greatest poets use language in idiosyncratic ways: they bend the rules of grammar, they use words as though their definitions were somewhat skew to those organized dissections found in dictionaries. And readers of these poems work to understand why. Readers at times treat great poems as puzzles: told that this combination of words is beautiful, a reader might dust and scrape with the care of an archaeologist, searching for the wellspring of that beauty.
Lerner, of course, has reasons for employing these constructions. Just as Jack Gilbert had reasons for his choice of the adverb “commonly” in the line, “commonly I prepare for death” (from “In Between Poems”). Just as William Shakespeare had reasons for inventing language when no existing words fit his needs.
But if average people – the uncredentialed readers of poetry – were to use words in these ways, their choices would be considered mistakes. They are taught to trust established poets, to presume positive intent and tease out why a published poem sounds the way it does, but their own idiosyncrasies would not receive the same presumption.
This seems especially true for the people with whom I read poems most often. Twice a week, some dozen inmates at the county jail join a co-teacher and me for poetry class. Not every poem we bring has immediate, intuitive appeal. But even when discussing difficult material, the men work to understand why a piece might have been written the way it was. Then, when given paper and pencils, these men pour themselves into their own writing, for reasons Lerner well understands:
I also received multiple letters from prisoners who felt poetry publication was their best available method for asserting they were human beings, not merely criminals. I’m not mocking these poets; I’m offering them as examples of the strength of the implicit connection between poetry and the social recognition of the poet’s humanity. It’s an association so strong that the writers in question observe no contradiction in the fact that they are attempting to secure and preserve their personhood in a magazine that no one they know will see.
Incarcerated writers do dream that their words could allow someone to see them as human. During one of our recent classes, TC told me that he’d seen a commercial on the jail television showing caged dogs in the pound with a voiceover saying “No animal deserves to be treated this way.” He looked left, looked right, and started wondering: where is our commercial?
And I’m by no means arguing that the poems written by men in jail are all great, or even good. Drug addiction in southern Indiana has swept up all sorts, but people with money can bond out, lawyer up, and fight their cases from the outside. They tend to win, landing treatment instead of time. Our pay-to-play criminal justice system reserves jail for the poor. Given the paucity of services our nation offers to impoverished children, and the underfunded state of our public schools, shunting un-aided kids straight from uncomfortable desk to uncomfortable cell, jails are full of luckless individuals who never had much scholastic success.
When inmates write, many of their poems are utter clunkmonsters, vague and sloppy and misspelled. The men force rhymes, having conflated the concepts “poem” and “children’s book.” Sometimes they’ll pour out saccharine repentance as though my co-teacher and I were allied with the state, rather than volunteering our time simply because this country inflicts mass incarceration on our behalf and has made us feel ashamed. And it can be a battle convincing dudes who’ve been told over and over again “You’re bad!” that when we suggest they revise a poem, it means we liked it.
But sometimes their work is lovely.
On a Friday afternoon last August, the men were in a particularly rotten mood. Technological doodads break in the jail just like anywhere else, and a security camera on the fritz meant they’d been on lockdown all week. Usually they have access to a common area and can play cards or pace back and forth, but “lockdown” means being confined to those little cells twenty-four hours a day.
Tensions were high. And when we decided to take a few minutes for a writing prompt, they snapped.
“Nobody’s gonna read anything I write! This won’t change shit!”
Grim. And arguably untrue. But…
“They’re not gonna do anything till we pull some ISIS shit, start taking off people’s heads!”
At which point my co-teacher flipped: “Fuck you, man, no. You say shit like that, they’re gonna cancel this class. And it’s not even fucking true. I mean, look at this… we’re here, right? And Frank and I are here because of shit we read. You write it well, people will read, it will change things.”
I was nodding, although I have to admit: there’s a lot out there to read. It’s hard for any writer to be noticed, let alone somebody pegged as an uneducated fuck-up – a criminal from southern Indiana – right off the bat. The battle for attention can be nightmarish, giving rise to phenomena like that Orlando shooting… or the election of Donald Trump.
I have to admit: even if people do read the poems written by incarcerated men from our classes, nobody will work to understand. These men are forced to write with one hand behind their backs, so to say. Linguistic flourishes that would seem striking from another would be considered mistakes.
A reader must extend trust to be willing to work. But if we trusted these men, they wouldn’t live like they do: mired in cages not fit for dogs. Then booted out broke, job-less, home-less, med-less, into a probationary existence with far more rules than other citizens must abide by.
And yet these men dig poems.
Lerner is correct: they’re not always keen on the abstruse lyrical sort. That distaste seems fair. I pray that they can one day write compelling narratives that will help change the world. But if these uncredentialed, MFA-less men wrote tricksy lyrics, flaunting rules like Lerner does? Then they’d be right. Nobody would read their shit.
In their shoes (lace-less orange crocs, hosed down and issued to some new sap straight from the off-putting feet of the recently released), I too might hate lyric poetry.
In Philosophical Investigations (translated by G. E. M. Anscombe), Ludwig Wittgenstein argues that something strange occurs when we learn a language. As an example, he cites the problems that could arise when you point at something and describe what you see:
The definition of the number two, “That is called ‘two’ “ – pointing to two nuts – is perfectly exact. But how can two be defined like that? The person one gives the definition to doesn’t know what one wants to call “two”; he will suppose that “two” is the name given to this group of nuts!
I laughed aloud when I read this statement. I borrowed Philosophical Investigations a few months after the birth of our second child, and I had spent most of his first day pointing at various objects in the hospital maternity ward and saying to him, “This is red.” “This is red.”
“This is red.”
Of course, the little guy didn’t understand language yet, so he probably just thought, the warm carry-me object is babbling again.
Over time, though, this is how humans learn. Wittgenstein’s mistake here is to compress the experience of learning a language into a single interaction (philosophers have a bad habit of forgetting about the passage of time – a similar fallacy explains Zeno’s paradox). Instead of pointing only at two nuts, a parent will point to two blocks – “This is two!” and two pillows – “See the pillows? There are two!” – and so on.
As a child begins to speak, it becomes even easier to learn – the kid can ask “Is this two?”, which is an incredibly powerful tool for people sufficiently comfortable making mistakes that they can dodge confirmation bias.
(When we read the children’s story “In a Dark Dark Room,” I tried to add levity to the ending by making a silly blulululu sound to accompany the ghost, shown to the left of the door on this cover. Then our youngest began pointing to other ghost-like things and asking, “blulululu?” Is that skeleton a ghost? What about this possum?)
When people first programmed computers, they provided definitions for everything. A ghost is an object with a rounded head that has a face and looks very pale. This was a very arduous process – my definition of a ghost, for instance, is leaving out a lot of important features. A rigorous definition might require pages of text.
Now, programmers are letting computers learn the same way we do. To teach a computer about ghosts, we provide it with many pictures and say, “Each of these pictures has a ghost.” Just like a child, the computer decides for itself what features qualify something for ghost-hood.
In the beginning, this process was inscrutable. A trained algorithm could say “This is a ghost!”, but it couldn’t explain why it thought so.
From Philosophical Investigations:
And what does ‘pointing to the shape’, ‘pointing to the color’ consist in? Point to a piece of paper. – And now point to its shape – now to its color – now to its number (that sounds queer). – How did you do it? – You will say that you ‘meant’ a different thing each time you pointed. And if I ask how that is done, you will say you concentrated your attention on the color, the shape, etc. But I ask again: how is that done?
After this passage, Wittgenstein speculates on what might be going through a person’s head when pointing at different features of an object. A team at Google working on automated image analysis asked the same question of their algorithm, and made an output for the algorithm to show what it did when it “concentrated its attention.”
Here’s a beautiful image from a recent New York Times article about the project, “Google Researchers Are Learning How Machines Learn.” When the algorithm is specifically instructed to “point to its shape,” it generates a bizarre image of an upward-facing fish flanked by human eyes (shown bottom center, just below the purple rectangle). That is what the algorithm is thinking of when it “concentrates its attention” on the vase’s shape.
At this point, we humans could quibble. We might disagree that the fish face really represents the platonic ideal of a vase. But at least we know what the algorithm is basing its decision on.
Usually, that’s not the case. After all, it took a lot of work for Google’s team to make their algorithm spit out images showing what it was thinking about. With most self-trained neural networks, we know only its success rate – even the designers will have no idea why or how it works.
It’s possible to create images that most humans recognize as one thing, and that an image-analysis algorithm recognizes as something else. This is a rather scary opportunity for terrorism in a world of self-driving cars; street signs could be defaced in such a way that most human onlookers would find the graffiti unremarkable, but an autonomous car would interpret in a totally new way.
In the world of criminal justice, inscrutable algorithms are already used to determine where police officers should patrol. The initial hope was that this system would be less biased – except that the algorithm was trained on data that came from years of racially-motivated enforcement. Minorities are still more likely to be apprehended for equivalent infractions.
When an algorithm thinks that the shape of a vase is a fish flanked by human eyes, it’s funny. But it’s a little less comedic when an algorithm’s mistake ruins somebody’s life – if an incident is designated as a “gang-related crime”, prison sentences can be egregiously long, or send someone to solitary for long enough to cause “anxiety, depression, and hallucinations until their personality is completely destroyed.”
This isn’t as scary as it sounds – the local mall Santa happens to be a developer for Dungeons & Dragons. Unfortunately, our daughter has a bit of trouble with impulse control. I’ve heard that this is normal for three year olds.
“What would you say to other kids about Santa?” we asked her.
“I’d tell them that Santa isn’t real.”
“But, remember, only their parents are supposed to tell them that.”
“Well, you should know that we will always tell you the truth. If we’re telling you a story, we’ll let you know that it’s a story. But some other families are different. They want their kids to believe the dungeon master lives on the North Pole with an army of elves.”
“I … I dunno, dude. But don’t tell the other kids, okay?”
I’ve written previously about the harm in conspiring against children – belief in one conspiracy theory makes people more likely to believe in another. People who believe that the government is covering up evidence of UFOs are also more likely to believe that vaccines cause autism, fluoride in the water enables mind control, and the Earth is flat.
And, sadly, we start our citizens early. The Santa story is a vast conspiracy, a large number of authority figures (grown-ups) collaborating to keep the child in a state of ignorance. A local philosophy professor told me that he felt the story was valuable as a measure of intellectual development – at first the child believes, but then begins to notice flaws in the story.
“Uh, if it takes two minutes to deliver presents, it would take a thousand years to visit everyone in the United States, or two million Santas on Christmas Eve – but not every house has a chimney!”
I think it would be cynical to lie to children as a developmental metric. This measurement changes the child (which is not Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, f.y.i.). The experience of uncovering one conspiracy will train children to search for conspiracies elsewhere. Perhaps a child is supposed to realize that there’s no Santa at seven years old, that there are no gods at eleven, that the moon landing was faked at thirteen, that JFK is smoking blunts in the Illuminati’s underground lair at seventeen.
After all, the Santa story isn’t the final time we conspire against children. In my school’s health classes, all sexuality outside of marriage was described as fundamentally bad. Even if we somehow dodged pregnancy and disease, disrobed physical affection would break our hearts and leave us feeling guilty and ashamed. Recreational drug use was described in similarly bleak terms (by a teacher who drank coffee every morning).
Students grow up, get laid, drink beer, smoke pot. Grown-ups were hypocritically hiding the truth. Sex is fun. Drugs are fun.
What else were they hiding?
(Have you seen all those children’s books with pictures of happy animals on the farm?)
A lot of the guys in jail believe in conspiracy theories. Despite a plenitude of dudes with Aryan tattoos, I’ve never heard anybody on a full-tilt ZOG rant, but I’ve been told about Nostradamus, Biblical prophecy, the CIA (to be fair, I’ve spent a fair bit of time talking about MK Ultra, too).
To an extent, I understand why. The people in jail are being conspired against by judges, informants, and the police. With lives in thrall to the overt conspiracy of our criminal justice system, covert conspiracy seems probable, too.
And so, in preparation for this essay, I took a few minutes at the beginning of class to say, “There’s an administrator at the local school who thinks the Earth is flat. Says so to kids. You guys hear anybody talking about that?”
“Oh, yeah, there was this dude in A block! He was talking about it like all the time!”
“Now he’s in seg.”
“It’s like, has he never seen a globe?”
And the guys wondered what that administrator was doing inside a school.
“Cause kids go there to learn, right?”
Kids do need to learn critical thinking. They should question whether the things they’re taught make sense. I’ve heard plenty of teachers make erroneous claims, and not just in Indiana’s public schools – some professors at Northwestern and Stanford didn’t know what they were talking about either. Even so, I think it’s unhelpful to train children by having them uncover the Santa story. That experience is a step along the way to thinking your sensory experience has primacy over abstract data.
After all, the planet feels flat enough. It looks flat from most human vantages. And it would be cheaper to deceive people than to send spacecraft to the moon (a former colleague recently went to the International Space Station for some incredibly expensive molecular biology experiments. This was a huge undertaking – and she was only 0.1% of the way to the moon).
If you take a kid for his MMR vaccine, and shortly after vaccination he seems to regress into autism, that narrative – which you watched with your own eyes! – is more compelling than a bunch of medical statistics proving there’s no connection. If you comb the Bible and find lines mirroring current events, that narrative also must seem more compelling than the thought that history is chaotic. Physicists from Einstein till the present day have been dismayed that quantum mechanics feels so unintuitive.
It’s tricky to find a balance between our own senses and expert opinion. It’s even harder in a world where numerous authority figures and media outlets have been caught spreading lies.
And so, while I try not to judge others’ parenting decisions, please, take a few minutes to think about the holiday stories you tell. If you’d like to live in a country where the citizenry can agree on basic facts, lying to your kids might be not be the way to get there.
(After writing the preceding sentence, I wanted to mention which seasons. I typed “when can dolphins conceive” into my search bar. The top hit was a website called Can Male Dolphins Get Pregnant, with the blurb “There will be nothing you can do about it but pray.” I clicked the link. The page instantly re-directed to a website called Trusted Health Tips featuring a “new groundbreaking online video that reveals how to get pregnant,” alongside the disclaimer that “pharmaceutical and fertility companies have requested the government to ban” the video, since it would clearly destroy their businesses. Our generation is the first to have all the world’s knowledge at our fingertips! We are like gods, are we not?)
Dolphins, like humans, are attracted to a wide range of sexual partners. Pairs or trios of males form long-term strategic alliances, and they will engage in “psuedo-sexual” behavior with their allies. Presumably one or both of the participants finds these activities pleasurable. They’ll tumble with females, and males, and humans, too.
As best we know, dolphins hold no negative stereotypes against those who pursue consensual pleasure, no matter what form it takes.
I’ve felt surprised, when discussing sexuality in jail, that so many men who’ve spent time in prison still use starkly binary terminology. I’ve never heard anyone use the word “bisexual” in jail. Instead I’ve heard things like, “I’ve got nothing against people who want to be gay. It’s not for me, but I’ve got nothing against it. What gets me is when people who I know are gay, who I saw be gay inside, they get out and want me to back up their lies that they’re not. I’m like, excuse me, I know you’re gay, so how can you ask me to tell somebody that you’re not?”
At another class, we discussed human sexuality throughout history. Physical affection was encouraged among the troops of ancient Rome, with the idea that a soldier might fight more fervently to protect his lover than his country. Japanese samurai were considered unrefined if they didn’t savor the occasional dalliance with another male. (I refrain from describing the samurai’s encounters as “sexual,” because many were not consensual by contemporary standards – the objects of their desire were often too young.)
In many cultures, if someone was so persnickety that he had sex exclusively with women, despite spending long periods of time surrounded only by other men, he’d be seen as deviant.
One of the guys interjected, “Yeah, but what they were doing wasn’t, you know, cause I heard you’re only gay if your testicles touch.”
This was immediately disputed. “No way – there’s positions with two guys and a girl where your testicles touch, and I know for a fact that don’t make you gay.”
My co-teacher and I sighed. We’re both long-haired, relatively effeminate men, typically dressed in some measure of women’s clothing – every pair of pants I own comes from either the Indiana University dumpsters or the women’s department of Goodwill, and the same is true of most of my co-teacher’s jackets.
But my co-teacher and I live in a world where ambiguity is safer. The way we punish people in this country carves away the nuances of people’s personalities – immersed in violence, they’ll need friends, but people are shuffled so often that there’s little time to build friendships. They make do with communal identity instead.
When people were talking over a young black man as he read a poem, they were shushed by a convicted murderer covered in Aryan Brotherhood tattoos. The tattooed man never seemed particularly racist. He was very well read, and often mentioned things he’d learned from reading The Quran or Confucius. But he was socially a white supremacist. A pragmatic choice for a dude who’d spent eighteen years in prison. At cafeterias under AB control, he’d get to eat.
Likewise, no matter who men fool around with, most choose to identify as socially heterosexual while they’re inside.
(A lovely quote from Morgan Freeman that I first saw as an epigram in CAConrad’s While Standing in Line for Death: “I hate the word homophobia. It’s not a phobia. You are not scared. You are an asshole.”)
Our world didn’t have to turn out this way.
In the poem “Gilgamesh,” Spencer Reece documents the slow crumbling of an affair – the poet fell in love with a man who desires only the young. As Spencer ages, the romance fades. This man wants only to recapture the love that was denied to him in youth.
This instability is tragically common – Spencer’s paramour was raised in a culture that considered all sexual desire to be sinful, and homosexual desire especially so. Even outside prison walls, we consider certain ambiguities too fraught to tolerate:
Fragments, clay cylinders, tablets, parchment –
to write Genesis, they say, the writers
searched their neighborhood,
found all kinds of things, including
the epic about Gilgamesh, much of it damaged,
regarding the man who saw into the deep.
Somehow, the part
about Gilgamesh and Enkidu
What a different world we’d have if our sacred books taught that love was love was love. People could comfortably be all of themselves.
In his poem “Dolphin” from An Aquarium, Jeffrey Yang writes that
You should read Demetrius Cunningham’s essay about learning to play the piano in prison. He describes taping together flaps of cardboard trash and training his fingers by pressing the places where a piano’s keys would be. It’s a beautiful piece of writing.
And it hurts to consider what Cunningham might accomplish if he had access to more resources.
He’s not alone in striving to apply his intellect within a situation where most of his effort is – from the perspective of our modern world – simply wasted. It’s incredible that he devised a system for learning to play piano with only cardboard at his disposal. But we live in a world with such cheap plastics and electronics that perfectly functional keyboards can be purchased for three dollars or less at most pawn shops and thrift stores.
But Cunningham, in prison, is not allowed a three-dollar children’s toy. He studies with cardboard.
Which is not to say that our world should be without punishment. Those who murder need time away from society. People should be kept safe from harm. But I find it inconceivable that the best way to help someone who has murdered become a kinder, gentler, wiser human would be to lock him inside a world of violence, mistrust, and cement.
K’s mother, too, was murdered recently. In her case, the man who murdered her had previously been held in New York prisons for some nine years on nonviolent drug charges. The time he served in prison surely affected him. Based on what little I know about life inside, that time probably affected him adversely.
So I’d argue that the state of New York’s efforts at “correction” contributed to K’s mother’s murder. Would that man have killed her had we not shunted him into prison for nine years? And, what of the childhood that led to his drug convictions in the first place? Did we devote the resources necessary to ensure that he felt safe and loved as a child? Did he have the opportunity to build a life around respected, well-compensated work?
In my poetry classes, only one participant (that I know of) has served time for murder – in his case, 20 years thus far of a 50-year sentence. He is an excellent writer, and very well-read, but, until our class, every time he wrote a poem or story he would crumple the pages and throw them away.
Why keep them? The world had made very clear that no one cared what he might have to say.
Inventions are made over and over again inside: using only those spare materials allotted inside prison, how might men mimic some of the conveniences of the modern world? In Heather Ann Thompson’s Blood in the Water, a clear-eyed description of the 1971 Attica prison riot and its aftermath, she describes the jury-rigged water heaters many inmates built for their cells.
Or there’s her passage on the amenities:
The men needed money at Attica because the state offered them only a few items gratis. These included a thin gray coat, two gray work shirts, three pairs of gray pants, one pair of shoes, three pairs of underwear, six pairs of socks, and one comb. Then, every month, prisoners would receive one bar of soap and one roll of toilet paper, which meant that men were forced to limit themselves “to one sheet per day.” The state’s food budget allotment was also meager. At a mere 63 cents per prisoner per day, it was insufficient to meet the minimum dietary standards as determined by federal guidelines. The reality was that many men at Attica went to bed hungry. For this reason jobs in the kitchen or the mess hall, while more arduous than others given their seven-day-a-week schedule, were some of the most coveted. At least on those jobs a man could eat leftovers.
To get anything beyond the supplies given them – warmer clothes, more food, toiletries like toothbrushes, toothpaste, deodorant, shampoo, razors, and extra toilet paper – prisoners needed money. Being able to buy deodorant was no luxury since these men were allowed only one shower a week and were given only two quarts of water a day. With this water prisoners were expected to wash their socks and underwear, shave, brush their teeth, and clean the cell to a correction officer’s exacting standards.
Prisoners had to be clever to endure such conditions. Likewise, it takes more cleverness to survive childhood poverty than is needed for a privileged middle class existence of soccer leagues at birthday parties at Chuck E. Cheese and A’s stamped on the state achievement tests.
But our world doesn’t celebrate the former type of cleverness. We prize instead earned wealth and good grades. And yet, think: what if all that ingenuity weren’t wasted? What if more of our nation’s childhood survivalists and prisonyard Edisons had been given a fair opportunity?
I love capitalism and the chance for people to profit from their discoveries. But capitalism crumbles without opportunity. Especially now, with automation at the forefront of technology, a system rewarding past capital ownership will waste more and more human ingenuity. The class of those born into opportunity will keep shrinking.
Of course, those privileged few – armed with their intentional misunderstandings of economics and technology – will argue otherwise. That’s how we got here in the first place.
(featured image: Prison Bound by Thomas Hawk on Flickr.)
Kids make mistakes. Spend some time around high schoolers, it’ll be readily apparent that their brains aren’t done cooking. As far as impulse control goes, male brains don’t fully mature until they’re almost 25.
Car rental companies know this. But our criminal justice system doesn’t.
Reginald Dwayne Betts, a Yale law student who currently serves on President Obama’s council for Juvenile Justice, was arrested for joyriding and tried as an adult at sixteen. He served eight years in prison, some fraction of that in mind-numbing, soul-killing, de-humanizing solitary confinement.
Betts’s recent poetry collection, Bastards of the Reagan Era, conveys the stark poverty of that experience. The lexicon he uses is intentionally minute: in the opening poem, “Elegy with a City in It,” he uses a small set of words over and over in as many contexts as possible, like “men awed / by blood, lost in the black / of all that is awful:” followed by the word “black” used again to describe the judges’ robes, the doomed men’s skin, men who then “blackened / the inside of a coffin,” more than sixty never-repetitive lines to unveil a world where the walls look the same, the concrete looks the same no matter which way you turn.
Even the titles of the poems in this collection feel like walls closing in: alongside “Elegy with a City in It” is “Elegy where a City Burns” and eleven poems titled “For the City that Nearly Broke Me.” In prison, I’ve been told, resources are scarce. Unless you learn to repurpose those few items that can be purchased at commissary, you’ll have to do without. There must be ways: inmates often sport fresh tattoos, even though they have access to none of the equipment I’d think necessary.
And Betts shows that the men in prison are men, too. Human beings, with their own hopes and dreams. They live. They pray. If they didn’t pray before, their time teaches them to pray: “A fifty-year sentence buckles / a man’s knees into prayer.” Reading that couplet, I can picture someone hearing from a judge and crumpling.
As human beings, they don’t deserve this. Fifty years? People do bad things, I know. And because we so rarely come to the aid of children, we allow some to grow into twisted, unstable adults. Some people probably are best kept away from their fellows.
But, eight years for a joyriding black teen? Fifty for selling cocaine? The sentences are egregious and unfair, too often left to the (at times racist) discretion of prosecutors and judges.
And then, instead of providing an environment where former criminals can easily heal and learn, we stuff them into a punitive box. As someone who has luckily never been there, I am grateful that Betts so eloquently describes the austere life inside that box.