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.
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.
In 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:
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:
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.
A man in my poetry class recently told me, “Ugh, cocaine is awful. You use some, you’ll want some more, but I hate it. It makes me such a jerk. I mean, I’m not like this, I’m never like this, but if I’m on coke, I’m like, bitch, you best make yourself useful around here.”
Cocaine has a reputation as a fun party drug, but nobody in jail has anything nice to say about it. And it’s not that they’re down on drugs in general – that same man told me:
“Meth? Meth is great – you should never try it.”
And then he explained the social niceties of trying to shoot up in the home of a friend who was recently diagnosed with HIV. This friend was apparently cavalierly sloppy with needles:
“Like, blood was spurting, and I was scooting back thinking, like, god, I wish I was anywhere but here … “
European eels are endangered. They swim huge distances to complete their life cycles – hatching at sea, undertaking a voracious (oft cannibalistic) quest up rivers, then returning to their birthplaces to spawn – and have been thwarted by hydroelectric dams blocking their migration, and the tendency of an insatiable terrestrial ape to catch and consume huge numbers of their kind.
Now these eels face another obstacle: they must complete their voyages while blitzed on cocaine. European governments dump drugs into the sea to “destroy” them, but that’s not how water works. The drugs are still there. The eels get high.
According to popular legend, Robert Louis Stevenson was very sick before he wrote his Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
Stevenson had tried many cures; all had failed. Then his spouse bought cocaine. This worked. Suddenly Stevenson could write again. In three days, he composed his novel.
When he read the first draft to his spouse, she said it didn’t seem sufficiently allegorical. So Stevenson flung the pages into the fire and began again. In three more days, he’d composed the version of the story that we know today.
Dr. Jekyll was a fine man. On drugs, he became a monster.
When our first child was just shy of two years old, she liked to wear a green long-sleeve with a picture of The Incredible Hulk rampaging. She’d pull it from her drawer; I’d say, “Oh, you want to wear your Hulk Smash shirt today?”
One day, I asked her, “N., why does Hulk want to smash?”
She looked down at the picture, then back up to me. First she signed the word hungry.
“Oh, Hulk wants something to eat?”
She shook her head. No, that didn’t sound quite right. She looked down again, then made another sign, banging her hands together for the word shoes.
“Hulk is upset because he has no shoes?”
She bobbed her head yes. No shoes. That would make her rage, too.
Once, some runners on the local high school cross country team asked me who would win in a fight, Superman or the Hulk. They’d reached a detente after one claimed that the Hulk was unstoppable when enraged (“… and nothing calms him down except his girlfriend.”), and the other argued that Superman could turn back time until the moment before Hulk had gotten angry, then smash him.
I demurred. I don’t think Superman is a very interesting hero, and the Hulk is interesting only in campaigns, not battles. I like the idea of a hero who might go berserk and accidentally thwart his own plans, but a single bout of wrestling isn’t like that. I think it’s more compelling to consider his constant risk of hurting the people that he loves.
In Educated, Tara Westover writes beautifully about the horrors of living with the Hulk. Her early years were controlled by a father in the throes of extreme paranoia and delusions of grandeur:
Fourteen years after the incident with the Weavers, I would sit in a university classroom and listen to a professor of psychology describe something called bipolar disorder. Until that moment I had never heard of mental illness. I knew people could go crazy – they’d wear dead cats on their heads or fall in love with a turnip – but the notion that a person could be functional, lucid, persuasive, and something could still be wrong, had never occurred to me.
The professor recited facts in a dull, earthy voice: the average age of onset is twenty-five; there may be no symptoms before then.
The irony was that if Dad was bipolar – or had any of a dozen disorders that might explain his behavior – the same paranoia that was a symptom of the illness would prevent its ever being diagnosed and treated. No one would ever know.
Because her father was at war with the federal government, Westover never went to school. Her birth went undocumented – she didn’t have a certificate that would’ve allowed her to enroll until years later, and even then wound up with a hodgepodge of documents that listed slightly differing names and birthdates.
And her father needed money, because he was frantically stockpiling food and ammunition. He needed solar panels (back when they were much more expensive than today) because the power grid was going to cut out after Y2K.
As one of God’s soldiers, he needed to build an ark. Or tank. Arsenal. Whatever.
This constant hustle for money led Westover’s father to subject his children to incredible dangers. There might be a safe way to do a job, but if the risky way could save two minutes, the man put his kids’ lives on the line. Westover was forced to ride up to a trailer inside a bin filled with two thousand pounds of scrap iron. When her leg got caught and she couldn’t jump out, her father still dumped the bucket. Westover tumbled nearly twenty feet to the ground. And this was lucky. If she’d fallen a few inches to the other side, she would’ve been crushed by all that iron.
Her brothers were injured even more grievously at her father’s hands.
For instance, a brother’s clothes caught fire while he was working with his father. In Westover’s recollection, the father then lifted his burnt son into the cab of a truck and made him drive home alone. Only the ten-year-old Westover was there to help him, so she put her brother’s burnt leg inside a garbage can full of ice water.
If Dad had been with Luke on the mountain, he would have brought him to the house, would have treated the burn. Dad was away on a job somewhere, that’s why Luke had had to get himself down the mountain. Why his leg had been treated by a ten-year-old. Why it had ended up in a garbage can.
Except that she then realizes that her father must have been with her brother. He must have been there in order to put out the fire; otherwise the whole mountainside would’ve burned.
In a footnote, Westover adds:
Since the writing of this story, I have spoken to Luke about the incident. His account differs from both mine and Richard’s. In Luke’s memory, Dad took Luke to the house, administered a homeopathic for shock, then put him in a tub of cold water, where he left him to go fight the fire. This goes against my memory, and against Richard’s. Still, perhaps our memories are in error. Perhaps I found Luke in a tub, alone, rather than on the grass. What everyone agrees upon, strangely, is that somehow Luke ended up on the front lawn, his leg in a garbage can.
Westover’s father was abusive, and he routinely convinced his children that their memories were in error, instead substituting his own (oft-illogical) versions of events, but he isn’t the Hulk in this story. Yup, things get worse. One of Westover’s brothers might suddenly snap and become Hyde.
Westover loved her older brother Shawn, but during an over-hasty job with their father, Shawn fell twelve feet, striking a concrete wall headfirst, and sustained a severe brain injury. Instead of taking the kid to the hospital, their father propped him against a pickup truck and left him to sit in the hot sun.
His pupils were unevenly dilated. His brain was bleeding.
Fifteen minutes later, Shawn wandered back to the worksite and started acting wild. He screamed, flung his father, ran around leaping and howling. The others tackled him – at which point his head again struck the concrete, hard – and called 911 for a helicopter to airlift him to the hospital.
It took some time for me to realize that although Shawn looked the same, he wasn’t. He seemed lucid, but if you listened carefully his stories didn’t make sense. They weren’t really stories at all, just one tangent after another.
Worse, he was violent. But unpredictably so. At one moment, he and Westover might be laughing together. At another moment, he’d twist her arm behind her back so brutally that she worried her wrist would break, call her a slut, and cram her face into a toilet bowl. He hacked at the throat of his son’s pet dog with a five-inch knife blade while the animal howled, dying. He called his sister and placidly explained his plans to visit her university and murder her.
In a lucid moment, he helped Westover install a massive deadbolt in her bedroom door, despite knowing that he was the only person she needed protection from.
And yet, Westover escaped. Although she’d never set foot inside a classroom, she was accepted to Brigham Young University, where the consensus view of reality was much closer to her own.
Of course, she made a few stumbles. Because she didn’t understand what course numbers signified, she enrolled as a freshman in an upper-level art history class. Worse, she raised her hand to ask after the meaning of a word she didn’t recognize: Holocaust.
During one of my own classes, we were discussing poems from Charles Reznikoff’s Testimony when I mentioned that Reznikoff had also written about the Holocaust.
“Holocaust, what’s that?” a man asked.
Unlike Westover, this man had grown up in an urban area. But he’d stopped attending school when he was pretty young, and there’s a lot of cultural knowledge that we tend to take for granted.
I’d like to think that I handled the situation better than Westover’s professor. Westover was shamed. In our poetry class, we instead talked about how the word “holocaust” could be seen as offensive when used to describe the years during which members of the Nazi party murdered at least 6 million people, typically because their victims believed in Judaism. The word “holocaust” originally meant a burnt offering for God, so Jewish leaders instead referred to this period of history with the Hebrew word for “catastrophe.” Although even that phrasing seems off, because “catastrophe” generally evokes natural disaster, whereas the Holocaust was mass murder and torture on a scale comparable only to American slavery. A purely human evil.
Westover became a historian. After experiencing firsthand the nightmare of having her own account of reality constantly replaced by someone else’s version, she understood how powerful storytelling can be. Educated is a beautiful book. And, to my mind, a much more sensible depiction of unequal opportunity in the United States than J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy.
Westover recognizes how lucky she was to escape, and how narrowly she avoided the fate of her sister-in-law. And Westover gives a powerful endorsement of government aid:
I began to experience the most powerful advantage of money: the ability to think of things besides money. My professors came into focus, suddenly and sharply; it was as if before the grant I’d been looking at them through a blurred lens. My textbooks began to make sense, and I found myself doing more than the required reading.
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.
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.
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.
Then 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
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.
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 …
Carver 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.
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.”
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.”
In the King James version of Genesis, Adam and Eve began their lives as vegans. They ate nuts and fruit.
Then they ate Yahweh’s special fruit, so he expelled them from Eden. Yahweh said, “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground.” Adam and Eve would no longer live in a land of such abundance that they could survive on the raw produce of trees – instead, they’d have to cook bread.
And Yahweh rubs it in – even if you work hard, and procure food, and survive a while, still you will die. You humans are mortal.
(To the other deities, Yahweh offers an aside: “Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever: Therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken.” Yahweh does not mention to the humans that their mortality was curable, His own doing, and His plan all along.)
In the beginning, bread was a curse.
Soon, however, the Western world treated bread as a mark of civilization.
In The Odyssey, Odysseus and his crew sail to Laestrygonia. Not knowing that the island is overrun by voracious giants who might slay and eat them, he asks who eats bread there. In Emily Wilson’s new translation, he says:
I picked two men, and one slave as the third,
and sent them to find out what people lived
and ate bread in this land.
Bread is alchemy. Flour and water and a speck of yeast aren’t enough to support a human life, but if you let yeast eat the flour, then bake it, suddenly you have a food that could nourish you for weeks.
In jail, meals are served with flimsy slices of airy white bread. I’ve eaten one meal at our local jail – the guards let us stay for dinner with the men after class one week, just after one man’s partner was murdered.
(The trio charged with murder – a woman and two men – were incarcerated in that same jail. The woman was placed into a holding cell adjacent to the dorm where the murdered woman’s partner lived. He stayed up all night, shouting to her through the wall. He was telling her to forgive herself.)
We received green beans, spaghetti, a slice of white bread, a cookie. To drink, our choice of milk or sweet tea. I’ve been told that our jail has better food than almost any other.
If you fold your spaghetti into the bread, they told me, you get to have a taco.
At the end of our poetry class recently, a man showed me his ear gauge, a round disc of purple and green.
“I’m surprised they let you keep it,” I said.
“They didn’t. It’s bread.”
“Bread. I made it here.” He popped it out to show me – it wasn’t quite as shiny as the stuff you’d see on Etsy, but otherwise looked just as nice. “While I been in, I must’ve went from a quarter inch to, what’s this, over an inch?”
“Bread,” I said, shaking my head. I felt hesitant to touch it.
“I been making all sorts of things. You need bread, and some pencil shavings, colored pencil, you know? I been making flowers, little sea turtles. I made a whole lot of flowers. Gifts for people, when I get out. It’s like therapy. While I’m making them, gives me something to think about, you know? It helps. Keeps the mind busy.”
The next week he brought a few of his sculptures to class. The flowers were incredible, each an inch or two tall, with green stem and leaves, petals in blue and purple. His sea turtle was only a quarter inch across and intricately detailed. Like netsuke, except …
“Bread?” I asked him again.
“Yup,” he said, leaning back in his chair.
I’d previously read about Robert Martinson making a chess set from bread, but I’d assumed the pieces would look gross. In “Solidarity under Close Confinement,” Martinson wrote about his experience being incarcerated for 40 days with the Freedom Riders in the 1960s. He reported that “chess sets and objets d’art could be molded from paste made from chewed bread and dried in the ventilator … I gloated over a tiny nest of buttons, string, chicken bones, and chess pieces – an affection I now find difficult to remember.”
Martinson was appalled by what incarceration does to people: “Of course, the persons we had become in our cells were difficult, boring things.” After his release, he studied prisons, hoping that the way we punish people could be made less awful. He was hired by the state of New York to address recidivism: did any type of programming reduce criminal behavior by ex-felons?
A turning point occurred with the publication of Robert Martinson’s 1974 essay, “What Works? Questions and Answers about Prison Reform.” Martinson ran some numbers and announced that rehabilitation programs have no positive effect on recidivism rates. This was the research that conservative pundits and politicians had been waiting for, and they made Martinson famous as they legislated a drastic turn from rehabilitation to harsher punishments.
With calls to “stop coddling” prisoners, prison education programs were slashed, weights were removed from the yards, the quality of prison food declined, prisoners were deprived of materials for arts and crafts, and so forth.
Even though Martinson really should have realized that this would be the consequence of his publication (and subsequent speaking tour), he was devastated. After all, he was a firm believer in social justice. He had risked his life to join the Freedom Riders. He began to study incarceration because he hoped to improve prisoners lives. As a result of his research, he’d written that prisons “cannot be reformed and must be gradually torn down.”
That’s not what happened. Instead, we started sending more people to prison, and made the prisons worse.
Which is why Martinson soon recanted his findings. It was true that the education and counseling offered in prisons weren’t very effective at staving off future crime. It was also true that the education and counseling offered in prisons were terrible.
If the available “education” is just a guard and some textbooks, is it surprising that few people are rehabilitated by it? What about counseling – with untrained counselors told to do “whatever they thought best” during five or so short meetings with their patients each year?
Nobody cared about Martinson’s 1979 publication, “A Note of Caution Regarding Sentencing Reform,” in which he apologized for flaws in his earlier work. By then, the punitive reformers had already gotten what they wanted: a lefty intellectual arguing that nothing works and so prisons should be cheap and miserable.
Martinson was horrified by the damage he’d wrought. That same year, he committed suicide – in front of his teenage son, he leapt from the window of their ninth story apartment.
His eyes are closed, the thin jail blanket covers his head, but with bright fluorescent lights shining just a few feet from his face, he can’t fall back asleep. He begins to ruminate: “what have I done?” His mind is tormented by “visions of the outside that I don’tsee anymore.” This will be another hard day.
In Why We Sleep, Matthew Walker describes numerous research studies showing the ways that we’re impaired when our sleep is disrupted. The vast majority of people need at least 7.5 hours of sleep each night. When sleep deprived – either by missing an entire night’s sleep in one go, or sleeping six or fewer hours a night for several days in a row – people have difficulty regulating their emotions, miss social cues, and struggle to learn new information.
Prolonged sleep deprivation is widely recognized as torture. All animals will die if sleep deprived for too long, typically done in by sepsis: otherwise innocuous bacteria proliferate uncontrollably and poison the blood. Less acute forms of sleep loss – consistently getting fewer than 7.5 hours per night – will ravage a person’s immune system and increase the risk of cancer.
When interrogators deprive people of sleep (yup, the United States is a member of the illustrious group of nations that still tortures people this way, alongside regimes in Iran, Iraq, Libya, Saudia Arabia, and the like) it becomes very easy to elicit false confessions.
In the former Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin’s memoir, White Nights: The Story of a Prisoner in Russia (which is quoted in Why We Sleep), he writes that when the KGB denied him and his fellow prisoners the opportunity to sleep,
I came across prisoners who signed what they were ordered to sign, only to get what their interrogator promised them. He did not promise them their liberty. He promised them – if they signed – uninterrupted sleep.
Inside the jail, the overhead fluorescent lights are not turned off until midnight. At that time, it becomes easier – not easy, but easier – to fall asleep. But the inmates will be jarred awake four hours later for breakfast.
Despite their chronic sleep deprivation, people in jail are expected to learn new habits; people who have self-medicated for the entirety of their adult lives with opiates or amphetamines are expected to find all new ways of living. Sometimes their behaviors really were undesirable – robbery, domestic violence, neglecting children while blinkered on drugs.
But people struggle to learn new skills – sober living among them, although this was not directly assessed in the studies Walker cites – if their brains don’t undergo a large number of electroencephalogram-visible waves called “sleep spindles” during the final hours of sleep. If a person sleeps for six or fewer hours each night, the brain never reaches this stage of sleep.
Wake someone up too early day after day, you stifle learning.
Wrest them into fluorescent wakefulness each morning for a four a.m. breakfast, keep them basically sedentary because a dozen people are packed into a small cement room and the facility is too understaffed to give them “rec time,” constantly elevate their stress hormones by surrounding them with angry, potentially dangerous compatriots, and you ensure that they won’t sleep well. In addition, chemical withdrawal wrecks havoc on people’s sleep cycles. They stagger bleary-eyed through months or years inside. They chug “cocoffala” – commissary instant coffee stirred into Coca-cola – hoping to feel some semblance of normalcy. Instead, they get the jitters.
And then, finally, they’re set free – usually to probation, expected to follow more rules than the average citizen.
“I’m gonna be out next week,” a dude told me.
“Congratulations! You’ll get family Christmas after all.”
“Eh, it’s not so great. I’ll be back before New Years.”
“They say I gotta do probation two years. I slip, they’re sending me to prison.”
“Can you do it?”
“Two years? I’m not gonna make it two weeks. Way I see it, I get out, I gotta call up Judge Diekhoff, tell her it’s been real and all, but we gotta start seeing other people.”
He would’ve struggled to change his life in the best of circumstances. But he certainly couldn’t do it sleep deprived.