On nature.

On nature.

The modern world is a stressful place – some medical doctors advocate “therapeutic” nature walks.  Surround yourself with trees, wildlife, a babbling stream or waterfall, and your body will remember what it means to be alive.

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Image by Steven Depolo on Flickr.

For millions of years, our ancestors needed specific environments in order to survive.  Almost every animal species experiences instinctual urges toward healthful habitats – it would be surprising if our own minds didn’t have a residual response toward landscapes that provide what our forebears needed.  Running water, trees for shelter, grassy meadows to hunt, fecund animal life suggesting a thriving ecosystem.

But people who need to heal are cut off from these environs.

When somebody doesn’t fit in our world, they wind up in jail.  Maybe this person has trouble holding down a job and so forged checks, or counterfeited money, or robbed a store.  Maybe somebody is plagued by nightmares and takes methamphetamine to forgo sleep.  Or shoots opiates to stave off the pain of withdrawal.  Maybe somebody has so much tension and anger that he threw a television at his girlfriend.

These are people who’d probably benefit from a de-stressing stroll through the woods.

Instead, they’re surrounded by concrete, in a clanging, reverberating room with 25-foot-high ceilings, locked doors stacked atop each other, steel tables, boaters crowding the floor (with two tiers of 8 double-occupancy cells, the jail could hold 32 per block … but most have wobbled between 35 and 40 people all year, with the excess sleeping on plastic “boats” on the common area floor.  Things were worst in July, when they were so many inmates that the jail ran out of boats – then people slept on a blanket spread directly over the concrete), toilets overflowing with the excreta of many men shitting their way through withdrawal.

grow posterIn the classroom where I teach poetry, there’s a picture of a redwood forest.  It’s shot from the ground, the trunks soaring up to the canopy overhead, and at the bottom of the poster there’s the word “GROW” above a corny quote from Ronald Reagan.

Stephen “Greazy” Sapp wrote the following poem at the end of class one day; he’d spent almost the whole hour staring at the picture of those trees:

 

GROW

Greazy

 

I want to live to see things grow –

From the fury of a great storm, started from

A single drop –

To the ten foot tree from one tiny seed, one sheet

Of paper as from any other tree

Knocked down by a great storm –

The child who grew from a seed in the spouse

Of the man who held paper from the tree –

Maybe the seed buried in his mind could become

Greater in life than the tree that withstood

The storm, now given opportunity to transform

Into stories – of future, generations who dwell

In the single rain drop in

The forest of days to come –

 

Greazy told me that he loves plants.

(My inclination is to use people’s first names as a sign of respect, but he told me not to – “nobody calls me ‘Stephen’ unless they’re mad about something.  You know, like, my grandma, if she was pissed, I might hear her yell, like, Stephen!  Even the cops.  They pulled up one day, they were like, ‘Greazy, come here, we want to talk to you,’ I knew everything was fine.  They were like, ‘look, man, we know you’re selling pot … but stay up near 17th street or something.  We don’t want you downtown, selling it to college kids.’  But then, another day, they came down, spotted me, said ‘Stephen, get over here!’ I was like, ‘man, I know they’re gonna haul me in.’ ”)

Greazy was in the jail all through autumn, waiting on his trial, and he told me that one day he was sitting in his cell on the fourth floor, watching a leaf blowing around on the sidewalk down below, and he found himself thinking, “Man, I’d sign whatever, I’d take whatever plea they wanted, if they’d just let me out there, get to look up close at that little leaf.”

Another man told me that he felt so starved for the world that he started gardening inside the jail.  He didn’t want for me to include his name but graciously allowed me to share his story.  Here’s a poem I wrote:

 

OUR MAN GROWS AN ORANGE TREE

 

by sprouting seeds in a paper towel,

planting one in dust & dirt

he collected scraping his fingers along

each corner of the concrete walls,

& using an Irish Spring soap box as a shelf

to lift his sapling to the light.

 

Our man only wanted to

oxygenate his air

but soon the whole block shuffles by

checking on the tree each day.

They’re surprised that it survived,

but proud to see it grow

until the warden declares it contraband.

 

Young_orange_tree

On drinking.

On drinking.

In our poetry classes, we’ve had a lot of guys doing time or awaiting trial for domestic.  As you might expect, their troubles are often wrapped up with alcohol.  Nobody wants to think of himself as the kind of dude who’d hit his partner, but booze saps self-control.  Sober, we feel angry; drunk, we lash out.

Screen Shot 2018-05-24 at 7.20.19 PMWe began a recent class with Dave Johnson’s “Dave Gibson Makes His Way Down.”  Johnson teaches poetry in probation office waiting rooms, and he cares deeply about the ways so many of us struggle to be good.  His poem opens with the line,

image         Seven Sundays in a row he fell

         on his knees at the altar

         of Rocky Creek Presbyterian.

Each week, the protagonist of Johnson’s poem slips again.  He drinks then he repents.  At church, he’s “shaking his head / crying for forgiveness.”  But everyone knows that it won’t last, until one day his wife has had enough.  He staggered home drunk; she sewed him up inside a rug.

         And she beat him blue.  He swore he’d never

         drink anymore, and she beat him.

         And then he swore he’d go to church every Sunday.

         And she still beat him.

         He told her he’d love her forever.

         She kept on.

         And he said he’d repent.  She beat him harder.

         And he said he wanted to die.

         She beat him.

         And he said he’d never repent again.

         She stopped.

A man in class – back inside after only nine days out because he drank the night before a visit with his parole officer – hung his head.  “I should send this to my wife,” he said.  “I’m always telling her, I’ll stop, I’ll stop.  But then I hit that bottle.”

Apologizing isn’t enough.  We have to make sure we won’t apologize again.  “Sorry” doesn’t mean much if you have to say it again and again.

And, yes, it’s still mind boggling to me that MDMA and psilocybin – two low-risk chemicals that can help turn somebody’s life around – are illegal whereas alcohol, one of the world’s most dangerous drugs, is openly shilled with flashy television ads.

waterThen we read two poems by Raymond Carver.  “Woolworth’s 1954” has long been a favorite of mine – a man slips into reverie while he’s out walking with a buddy and the buddy’s young kids.  The man thinks about when he “was sixteen, working / for six bits an hour” as a stockboy in a department store.  An older man was training him; Carver writes,

        Most important memory

         of that whole time: opening

         the cartons of women’s lingerie.

         Underpants, and soft, clingy things

         like that.  Taking it out

         of cartons by the handful.  Something

         sweet and mysterious about those

         things even then.  Sol called it

         “linger-ey.”  “Linger-ey?”

         What did I know?  I called it

         that for a while, too.  “Linger-ey.”

Poets play with the difference between private and public language.  Some words mean almost the same thing no matter who hears them.  When I write “of,” chances are there are few strong associations in your mind that would cause you to misinterpret my intent.

But many words feel very different from one person to the next.  When the New York Times printed poems alongside photographs they inspired last summer, I brought them in to jail.  I had no idea that a line from Ada Limon’s “What It Looks Like to Us and the Words We Use” would jolt the men out of reading.

         And how we stood there,

         low beasts among the white oaks, Spanish moss,

         and spider webs, obsidian shards stuck in our pockets

But “shard” is slang for methamphetamine, apparently, and once the idea of meth has wormed into their brains, it’s hard to shake away.  That’s the whole problem with addiction. 

Blue_Crystal_Meth
A shard of crystal (in this case, meth).

For Carver, the private meaning of “lingerie” is safer.

        Then I got older.  Quit being

         a stockboy.  Started pronouncing

         that frog word right.

         I knew what I was talking about!

         Went to taking girls out

         in hopes of touching that softness,

         slipping down those underpants.

         And sometimes it happened.  God,

         they let me.  And they were

         linger-ey, those underpants.

         They tended to linger a little

         sometimes, as they slipped down 

Raymond_CarverCarver thinks back to those bright early years, when everything felt charged with possibility.  Dangerous, but navigable.  Undergarments “kicked free / onto the floor of the car and / forgotten about.  Until you had / to look for them.

But his past is gone.  He’s grown up, made mistakes, worked crummy jobs and started drinking.  He has more freedoms now – a house to take dates to, instead of fumbling in the car – and yet fewer possibilities.  Those women he knew have grown up too; they have families and responsibilities.  Or they’ve died.  Some of us find less luck than others. 

Carver is left lamenting his mistakes, knowing that some things he’ll never fix.

Then we read Carver’s “Fear.”  One man read the first half of the poem, but when he reached the line “Fear of my children’s handwriting on envelopes”, he paused, blinked, started again, and found he had no voice.  We sat in silence for about ten seconds, then he said, “Yeah, that one got me.  Somebody else is gonna have to read the rest of this.”

He was too broke for bail and had spent almost a year inside (waiting on a case that would wind up dismissed when the witnesses didn’t show), and each week said something to me about his daughter, seven years old, living a state away, whom he hadn’t seen in years.  On his good days, he’d tell me, “When I get out, I’m gonna get myself on a bus, go up and see her.”

On his bad days, he’d say, “I don’t know if she’s gonna want to see me.  Cause it’s been years, you know?”

After reading the poem, I thought we’d use “Fear” as a writing prompt.  “Jot down five things,” I said.  “What are you afraid of?” 

This was a terrible writing prompt.

Seriously.  Only two people wrote anything (“I’m afraid of being killed by an ex / I’m afraid of dying broke / I’m afraid of dying alone”).  It can’t feel safe to write about your fears in jail. 

Mea culpa.

But some of what the guys said while telling me that they couldn’t write was heartbreaking.  Like the guy with the seven-year-old daughter he wanted to visit:

I’m afraid that when they let me out I’m not gonna want to go, cause I’ll have forgotten how to live any place but here.

Or another guy, who said that his first grandchild was born while he was stuck there.

The only thing I’m scared of is that I’m gonna drink again and my daughter won’t let me see my grandkid.  Because she says that if I get back to drinking, she won’t let me around.  I’m an alcoholic, and I’m a mean alcoholic.

And yet, the week before he left, he told me, “When I get out, first thing I’m gonna do, I’m gonna walk down to that liquor store and buy myself a beer.”

At the end of class I told him, “I don’t have anything against drugs, you know.  But some of us, some drugs, we just don’t mix well.  So I wish you’d go, maybe buy that grandkid a present, go down to see her instead of buying yourself a drink.”

“I know, I know … but it’s something I told myself, to get me through this time here.  That I’d get out, and when I got out, I’d get to have a beer.”

“I mean, if it’s just one …” I said.

“Yeah, but I’m an alcoholic.”

 

On ‘The Theft of Fire.’

On ‘The Theft of Fire.’

Stories are powerful things.  A world in which workers are brought into a country as farmhands is very different from one in which barbaric kidnappers torture their victims to extract labor.  A world in which death panels ration healthcare is different from one in which taxpayers preferentially fund effective medical care.

You’ll feel better about your life if you sit down and list the good things that happened to you each day.  There’s only one reality, but countless ways to describe it.

Like most scientists, I love stories of discovery.  These stories also reflect our values – many years passed before Rosalind Franklin’s role in the determining the structure of DNA was acknowledged.  Frontal lobe lobotomy was considered so beneficial that it won the Nobel Prize – sane people didn’t have to tolerate as much wild behavior from others.  Of course, those others were being erased when we ablated their brains.

Even equations convey an ideological slant.  When a chemist writes about the combustion of gasoline, the energy change is negative.  The chemicals are losing energy.  When an engineer writes about the same reaction, the energy change is described as positive.  Who cares about the chemicals?  We humans are gaining energy.  When octane reacts with oxygen, our cars go vrrrooom!

I’ve been reading a lot of mythology, which contains our oldest stories of discovery.  The ways we tell stories haven’t changed much – recent events slide quickly into myth.  Plenty of people think of either George W. Bush or Barrack Obama as Darth-Vader-esque villains, but they’re just regular people.  They have myriad motivations, some good, some bad.  Only in our stories can they be simplified into monsters.

In Ai’s poem, “The Testimony of J. Robert Oppenheimer,” she writes that

512px-JROppenheimer-LosAlamosI could say anything, couldn’t I?

Like a bed we make and unmake at whim,

the truth is always changing,

always shaped by the latest

collective urge to destroy.

Oppenheimer was a regular person, too.  He was good with numbers, and his team of engineers accomplished what they set out to do.

My essay about the ways we mythologize discovery was recently published here, alongside surrealistically mythological art by Jury S. Judge.

theft of fire

On gateway drugs.

On gateway drugs.

bruce.pngIn jail recently, we read Bruce Weigl’s “A Romance.”  I gave a brief introduction:

“A lot of Bruce Weigl’s poems are about trauma – we’ve read something about his childhood, and he wrote about serving in the Vietnam War.  What is was like to return home, trying to deal with everything he’d seen.  In this poem, he’s been drinking.  Others are about trying to suppress the memories that keep coming back.”

Describing a hollow night out, Weigl writes:

I can’t sleep anyway so I go to bars

A bearded dude near the back shook his head.

“I been there,” he said.  “Can’t never fall asleep.  Did two tours, in Iraq and Afghanistan.  But they just kicked me out of veteran’s court.  Said I was too violent.  But all those other guys, the ones they’re letting stay, who’re getting helped because they served?  None of them saw combat!  I was the only one who’d fought!  But they said veteran’s court’s not for me.”

“I’m sorry,” I said.  And it’s true, I am.  A lot of the people in prison and jail have done awful things, but there are often reasons why their lives went awry, and the way we treat people inside often makes matters worse.

“And it’s hard,” I said, “because people use drugs to try to deaden some of the horrible stuff that keeps whelming up, and the drug we say is okay to use, alcohol, is one of the worst.  Researchers tried to rank drugs in terms of which are most dangerous, you know, for the people who use it and for everybody around them.  I think alcohol was at the top of the list, then maybe heroin, and …”

harm.JPG
From The Economist.

“But what about pot?”  Somebody always asks.  In this case, it was somebody who says he’s in for marijuana, although he once let slip that it was domestic violence.

“I dunno … pretty far down.  I mean, you can’t OD or anything, but you shouldn’t drive stoned.”

“I’d rather drive stoned than after eight days of meth!”

Well, sure.  But that seems like a false dichotomy – shouldn’t the comparison be between driving stoned or sober?

“But what do you think,” the first guy said, “about them saying pot is, like, a gateway drug?”

“I believe that,” said an older guy.  “I used pot for years before I ever had a drink.”

“Me too – my pops was an alcoholic, I didn’t want to touch that stuff.”

“I started smoking when I was thirteen … you had to know somebody to get a beer, but anybody could buy pot.”

“I mean, pot’s gotta be the first drug most people try.”

I disagreed.

“No way.  My kids, they’re one and four years old right now … and I can tell you for sure, the first drug anybody tries, it’s spinning.  Around and around in circles till they’re staggering.  Drunk, dizzy, falling down and giggling.  Humans have always wanted to experiment with altered consciousness.  Like, how would the world look if … every culture uses drugs.  A lot of other animals will use them too.  And we start young.  Little duders love to spin.”

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Image by guilherme jofili.

The guys thought this sounded reasonable enough, but I’ve reconsidered.  Maybe marijuana is a gateway drug … but only because it’s illegal.  I don’t think that smoking pot would compel someone to use other drugs, but our laws imply that heroin is no more dangerous than marijuana – both are Schedule I – and that Schedule II drugs like Vicodin are less dangerous.

Whereas most sensible people now know that alcohol is more dangerous than MDMA – it’s easier to overdose on alcohol, and easier to hurt other people while under the influence.  But veterans with PTSD turn to drink because booze is legal.  Not even licensed therapists are allowed to purchase the drug with a proven record for treating trauma.

(Note: pure MDMA is relatively safe, but a wide variety of chemicals are sold as “molly” or “ecstasy,” and some of those are dangerous.)

It doesn’t take kids long to realize how many well-respected, fully functional people have used drugs.  Our previous two presidents both consumed many more illegal drugs than I did, and our current president probably did also – I assume cocaine seems less taboo to most people than paying young women for sex.  Many cultures used psychedelic drugs as religious sacrament for centuries, if not millennia.

“When I was twelve years old,” one of the guys said, “my parents, first they burned all my records, then had our preacher take me to a mental hospital.  But I didn’t know it was a hospital at the time.  I just saw these people, you know, drooling, babbling, whatever.  And they told me, ‘See these people?  They’re like this because they used drugs.’  And it was years before I realized what they’d done.”

Lying to people is a gateway to disaster.

On sexuality: dolphins.

On sexuality: dolphins.

Dolphins, like humans, fool around throughout the year.  But dolphins, unlike humans, can conceive only during certain seasons.

(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?)

dolphin-marine-mammals-water-sea-64219.jpeg

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?”

Grande_Ludovisi_Altemps_Inv8574.jpgAt 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.

Morgan-Freeman(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

in love

got lost.

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.

41tsPGUSiCL._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_In his poem “Dolphin” from An Aquarium, Jeffrey Yang writes that

The Greeks thought dolphins

were once men.  The Chinese

river dolphin was a goddess.

Scientists tell us that if we

rearrange a few of our genes,

we’d become dolphins.  Wouldn’t

that be real progress!

2dolphins.jpeg

On reading Natalie Diaz’s “How to Go to Dinner with a Brother on Drugs” with a room full of men in jail for drugs.

On reading Natalie Diaz’s “How to Go to Dinner with a Brother on Drugs” with a room full of men in jail for drugs.

It seemed like our class would bomb last week.  The jail has been over capacity for months, so the blocks are being shuffled around.  Many of the guards seem stressed.  As do the inmates.  And so, although nine people came to class, six ensconced themselves at the far end of the table and wanted to talk amongst themselves.  Only three sat close, intending to discuss poetry with me.

aztecBut I’d brought excerpts from Natalie Diaz’s excellent collection, When My Brother Was an Aztec. I read her long, brutal poem “How to Go to Dinner with a Brother on Drugs.”  Everyone was rapt.

Wait for him in the living room

of your parents’ home-turned-misery-museum.

ten, twenty, forty dismantled phones dissected

on the dining table: glinting snarls of copper,

sheets of numbered buttons, small magnets

Your parents’ home will look like an al-Qaeda

yard sale. It will look like a bomb factory,

which might give you hope, if there were

such a thing. You are not so lucky –

there is no fuse here for you to find.

The guys laughed in recognition.  These lines come early in the poem, before the swerve to darkest hurt.

One guy told me that, if you needed to keep a friend safely occupied after he’d had too much meth, “best thing to do, tell him, hey, can you fix this radio for me?  There’s one piece in there that’s broken, but I’m not quite sure which one.

2546138159_a18621514b_z
Image by Clio CJS on Flickr.

“Aw, man,” said a dude who’s been studying the programming language Python during his time inside, “at my gramma’s place, there must be, like, eight dismantled computers I was working on.”

The programmer said it was getting harder and harder to keep clean each time he got out.  “Because it’s showing up everywhere, now.  It used to be, you could stay away from all that by just hanging with different people.  But now, like, middle class people, crowds that used to be all pot and psychedelics, now you go over, they’ve got meth, or they’ve got H … ”

I shook my head.

A man who wrote a jarring poem about the nightmare of his kid shaking him awake after an overdose (“I hear the sound of his little feet running / down the hall, I look to make sure the door / is locked, I pull the plunger back, I hear / his joy as he yells, I’m superman. / I do the shot”) agreed.  They could keep sober if the stuff wasn’t there, he said.

“Last time I got out, I’d been three years clean.  I didn’t want it!  Wasn’t even thinking about it.  But I’d made it two blocks, and right there in the Taco Bell parking lot, somebody handed me a loaded rig and said, like, hey, dude, wanna hit this?”

(“I was so terrified of being like my stepdad,” this guy told me once. “He beat me all the time.  But all I managed … I mean … it’s like, I just turned into my real dad.  Never there.”)

“Taco bell … ” I said.

“It’s like right there,” he said, pointing.  Indeed, I walk past that place each week on my way in.

taco.JPG
Jail (gray building, far left) and Taco Bell.

“But it’s not like your time here is gonna make you want it less,” said the programmer.  “First time I got busted, they sent me to this juvenile facility.  That’s honestly the most horrible place I’ve ever been.  You’re by yourself, you have to just sit on a stool in this classroom kinda space all day.  The only book you’re allowed in there is a Bible, but for my first three days, they didn’t give one to me.  So I just had to sit there with nothing on that stool.  And you’re not allowed to sleep during the day.  They try to catch you sleeping.  Like a guard might come to check on you, then open and close the door so you think he’s left, but then come sneaking back.”

A lot of his anecdotes involved sleeping.  It must be awful trying to re-establish a regular sleep cycle after months on methamphetamine.  Living inside a jail or prison  – with schizophrenics in solitary kicking their doors and hollering through the night, minimal access to natural light, overhead fluorescents turned off for only four and a half hours each day – probably makes it harder.  He once told me that a particular state prison wasn’t so bad – everyone felt pretty safe there – except that there were so many little rules that you were constantly worried about being written up and docked good time for an infraction.

“My job there, they had me delivering ice in the middle of the night.  Either you’d load the cart too heavy and struggle to push it around, or else it took hours to finish … and they still expected us to wake up at the regular time.  So I’d practice hiding, like rumple my blankets or whatever so I could still be in my bunk sleeping but the guards wouldn’t see me.”

These men cycle in and out of jail.  Sometimes people outside offer them drugs at the Taco Bell, sending them spiraling right back in.  Sometimes, people outside try to help instead.  But the help often falls short.

Diaz writes,

                                                you have come

to take him to dinner – because he is your brother,

because you heard he was cleaning up,

because dinner is a thing with a clear beginning

and end, a measured amount of time,

a ritual everyone knows, even your brother.

Sit down. Eat. Get up. Go home.

She will try to help him, and she will fail.  And he will also fail himself.  The drugs will make Judas of them all – safe only when locked up, “happy” only when fucked up (the guys told me, “When you’re on meth, it can feel like ecstasy.  But, man, coming down … ”  Another finished his thought: “That’s why you gotta have more, to make sure you don’t come down.”), her brother can only be betrayed.

You will pour your thirty pieces of silver

onto the table and ask, What can I get for this?

On writing poetry in English.

On writing poetry in English.

Throughout the month of November, in “celebration” of betrayals both past and present (Thanksgiving, land grants, sovereignty, smallpox, Christianity, Standing Rock), my co-teacher and I brought poetry by contemporary Native American writers into the jail.  One week, my co-teacher (JM) began class with an impromptu riff about the fact that, although English-speaking people had betrayed the Native Americans, it wasn’t so bad that many contemporary Native American writers composed their work in English.

JM: It might seem strange that we’re discussing poetry against oppression when all these poems were written in English.  But English was originally a language of the oppressed.  After the Norman invasion, English was a language spoken primarily by servants.  The “courtly” language, then, was French, and even now our language’s most courtly-seeming words are Latinate…

F: Which you can also see the legacy of if you consider our words for meats.  The names of the animals, which were taken care of by poor people, are all based on the original English.  But the names of the foods, that rich people were served, are all based on French.  You raise a “cow,” English, but eat “beef,” French.  You raise “sheep” but eat “mutton.”  You raise “swine” but eat “pork.”  (Although I suppose a linguist listening to me at mealtime might come to the mistaken impression that England was conquered by invaders from East Asia – you grow “beans” but eat “tofu,” “tempeh,” and “edamame.”)

JM: And English was used primarily as a language of commerce.  It has the largest vocabulary of any language because it absorbs words from trading partners.  There’s a simple grammar, and words can be used almost any way you want …

F: And it’s a good language for rude people.  If we were speaking German and I kept interrupting JM this way, you might not have any idea what he was talking about.  Essential parts of the sentence don’t come until the very end.  But in English the essential information is front-loaded, so, if you’re in a hurry, or if someone cuts you off, you still basically understand …

JM: It’s very likely that the U.S. reign as superpower of the world is coming to an end.  But English, the language, will still be used.  And the English of the future will be different from the English we use today, and that’s one of its virtues, that mutability …

That said, one of my favorite poems we read that month was Orlando White’s “Quietus,” which you can read here.  He writes of the destructive aspect of the English language: “… the c stuck between the b and d eats itself and the page will taste how desperate language is.  If you peel a sheet of paper, you will find letters who have eaten themselves…”  Which is dark, and surreal, and reminded the men of the way each sheet of paper is used and re-used, letters piling up atop each other because they can afford no clean sheets.  Poems have been given to me on the backs or in the margins of all sorts of legal documents, including a few that I was not supposed to look at “under penalty of law.”

I read the handwritten poetry and dutifully ignored the printed legalese.

I love the way Orlando White imbues the English language with an aura of mystical power: if the letters can come to life and cannibalize each other, what else might they do?  This hints at the false potency attributed to our language long ago, belligerent white men waving sheets of paper with English writing on them and claiming that those pages gave them the right to own land.  If that isn’t an evil magic, I don’t know what is.

And then, of course, there is the fact that English is eating other languages; around the world many indigenous languages teeter at the brink of extinction, buried by our burgeoning monoculture.  There is a very real worry that the spread of English will cause the words of White’s ancestors to be forever lost, “their bones scattered like dry grains of ink on a white sheet.

I speak a Smaug-like tongue; it plunders the world, hordes discourse, devastates fragile languages.  At least I try not to use it for ill.  Here: a poem (in English) inspired by the election / inauguration / infestation.

makegreat-poem

p.s.  The first two lines, which I think are the poem’s best, aren’t mine.  They are by Starlin, an excellent writer whom I had the privilege of collaborating with for about two months.