Chard DeNiord: Theodore Roethke’s line “I’ll make a broken music or I’ll die” from his poem “In The Evening Air” has served as an abiding credo for you throughout your career, from your first book The Common Wages to your most recent book Spill. In your poem by the same title as Roethke’s line, which appears in your book The Other Lover, you display your complementary registers of both high and low diction, both demotic and diachronic:
Sojourner Truth, this for you
and the residents of you namesake apartments
at 106th Street across from Columbus Ave.,
that we may always have this accompaniment
as our slave-song, God songs, and continue to burn
with the zeal of the internal combustion engine.
What “broken music” specifically would you say has influenced you from your early days growing up in Philadelphia in the late fifties and sixties to the present and has “broken music” always been what Roethke called the “dark theme that keeps me here” and what Lorca called duende–“everything that has black sounds in it… [that] mysterious power which everyone senses and no philosopher explains.”
Bruce Smith: That’s a great question and one, as I think about it, that has cultural and political resonance for me. To make your own music as a poet means to improvise within the traditions, to play the saxophone [or the spoons] or to tune or detune your piano [or guitar- Hendrix] or to sing your songs means naturally pitching your voice against as well as with the prevailing music as you understand it. Talking back. That understanding is aware, faulty, idiosyncratic, determined or overdetermined by what you hear, by what you receive. Lorca heard gypsy songs, Dickinson heard hymns [and her father and brother talking torts], Whitman heard opera and work songs, “The heave’e’yo of stevedores unlading ships” and Langston Hughes heard the blues and spirituals and jazz [and Pound]. The broken music is the music [language] torqued, broken, ruined in a way for it to become your own. It’s “wrong” to the world. Before I ever encountered a poem in school there was WHAT and WDAS, in Philadelphia, two radio stations that broadcast soul music, a “churchy mix of restraint and overwhelming emotion” says Kevin Young in The Grey Album . [Young is the authority on this.] But that was a model for me of “that mysterious power” you reference in Lorca’s duende that was black in both cultural, racial ways and “the dark theme” meaning maybe both the psyche and America.
CD: You write in the proem for your new book Spill that Herodotus
broke my heart with his history:
his rumor/ that begins with living twice and ends
as recompense for loss. Events bent me.
I took the arrow of accuracy in my eye.
The sugary accounts made me votary,
the biographical acids lashed my back.
I gave up songs for facts: those green
squawking parrots, that fire truck,
that earring, that body bound and gagged.
You then write in the second half of the poem:
Then America broke my other heart
with its jails and gerrymandering,
its Emmett Till, its charms
and concussions, its ringing in my ears.
Who’s the president? Who’s your mother?
Who painted the angels? Who bombed
Homs? Repeat after me: comorbid,
torpid, transported. Close one eye. Hum.
Where’s your mother’s nation? Your father’s
sky? Who’s your other? Close the other eye.
You call this double heartbreak “comorbid,” which is a simultaneous double illness. You confess to being “hurt into poetry” in these lines in a similar way Auden claimed “mad Ireland” hurt Yeats into poetry. You create a diachronic arc of your heartbreak that plays out throughout Spill, from your lists and fugues to your riveting biographical hybrid poem, “Lewisburg,” at the center of the book. Your reference to the mental status exams you took following your multiple concussions during your football career at Bucknell serve as a powerful, ironic trope for your sharp memory that recalls horrific “American facts.” At what point exactly did you become aware that your “other” heart had become broken, that you had moved on, if that is the right phrase, from Herodotus to Baraka? And was there a specific event that precipitated this “hurt”?
BS: There is such a profound understanding in your question that I feel I should not try to ruin it with an answer, but maybe I’d add two things. First, the concussive. In the protocols for concussions the injured person is often assessed by asking a series of questions to establish cognition. What’s your name? Who is the president? And often asked to do some simple tasks: Repeat after me …. Close your eyes. Open your eyes. Troubling political and personal questions, Ha. It felt like a traumatic brain injury had occurred after 2016; that we were experiencing confusion, nausea, national dizziness and imbalance, ringing in the ears, loss of vision and memory. Loss of historical memory seems our permanent condition. I conflated that with the experience of concussions I had had.
Second, the heart. Because we speak of being of “two minds” or the dialectic of thought and counter thought, a condition of uncertainty, doubt, if not bewilderment, I felt being of two hearts was similar division. The past [history], the present [frenzy]. The two won’t stay separate, especially after a concussion. And of course the heart break and breaks and lives by breaking, as Stanley Kunitz says. It’s broken by bird song and peaches. It’s broken by Emmett Till and Syria. It’s a brokenness that calls for a broken music, calls for recognition of facts and the something else that poetry can, hmm, mouth.
And the specific event that precipitated this hurt was the prison, the heartbreak of mass incarceration, racial terrorism.
CD: Speaking of prison as the ‘specific event that precipitated this hurt,” you worked for a couple of years at Lewisburg Penitentiary in Pennsylvania after you graduated from college. Although you were an avid reader and majored in English at Bucknell where you studied with Jack Wheatcroft, you hadn’t yet begun to write poetry. You hadn’t yet been “hurt into poetry,” although you had been hurt plenty physically playing football, suffering several concussions. You credit your first post college job as a teacher at Lewisburg where you met your mentor, a black Muslim named S.. “Spill,” he said, a directive that became a sacred charge to you. That was fifty years ago. Although you’ve written prolifically during the past five decades, publishing seven books during this time, two of which were finalists for the National Book Award and one for the Pulitzer, you haven’t published a poem about your “time” at Lewisburg—what you call “the specific event that precipitated this hurt”–until recently. Your tour de force, twenty page hybrid poem “Lewisburg” sits at the center of your new book Spill, published in 2018 by The University of Chicago Press. I would venture to call it a great contemporary American poem that should be required reading in every high school and college in the country. It witnesses to America’s prolonged heartbreak of racial division in language that both celebrates and adopts the deferred “broken music” of black America with “no irritable reaching.” You often quote the following lines from Emily Dickinson’s poem 360 (“The Soul has Bandaged moments-”) as a brilliant conceit that acknowledges the metaphoric codes that penetrate as poetry from the wound of imprisonment, in both the existential and literal sense:
The soul’s retaken moments—
When Felon led along,
With shackles on the plumed feet
And Staples in the song
Did it take you fifty years to write this poem of witness? To find the language that captures the prophetic self-admission you make in the following paragraph that appears near the end of the poem?
“But I was a witness. For the first time I was needed for my testimony. S. and some other political prisoners [We’re all political prisoners, S. said] would wait for me inside the classroom of Education. Prison waiting: “sweating the fence.” It was a ritual that was both urgent and indifferent, a jolted boredom, a slouching, enervated attention, for the news I could barely carry. “Spill,” S. said, and I spilled my crude account. I made a vow to get articulate, like Malcom X. Or if not articulate, I could aspire toward “curious puffing…whispering heavenly labials in a world of gutturals,” as Wallace Stevens says, in order to undo the powers that be.”
BS: I walk with an inmate beside me, I say in that poem, which explains why I’m never invited [back] to parties.
Prison is a consciousness I’ve carried with me, an echo and chorus and counter- song to my own experience. Nice sunset, I think. Not if you’re doing a twenty year bid, my inmate counters. My inmate politicizes everything. My inmate has a sense of humor, gratitude even, although he is broken in many ways. His songs are stapled. My inmate is a lens through which even the most innocent experiences become rectified from the distortion of innocence.
That’s why Dickinson’s poem haunts me. She imagined herself criminal or convict or felon from its Latin root as evil doer as she was in her way imprisoned and free in her father’s house. The soul’s injuries are witnessed and re-envisioned and sung about not through the Calvinist hymns but in stapled songs.
I think of the poem as a history of my ignorance, my innocence, my bewilderment as a young man.
I think after I served my time, 50 years, I got out and was able to write that poem. I didn’t know the answer to this until you asked. I had to serve my time.
CD: “Lewisburg” presages the transformation of the Black Lives Matter movement into America’s actual Zeitgeist following George Floyd’s brutal murder. You assume the role in “Lewisburg” of humble apprentice to S., even though he has the official title of “teacher’s aide.” He informs you that “you’re wrong about the binaries,” as well as “about who was weak and strong, ruthless and kind, gay and straight.” When the other Black Muslim inmates told you you “were wrong about everything” you “salaamed.” You were reading James Baldwin, Malcolm X, and the I Ching as your new curriculum. You were also reading Amiri Baraka, Emily Dickinson, Wallace Stevens, and George Herbert. In which book did you feel you began to wed these diverse influences into your own work in a way that both salaamed and made new as original “broken music” at the same time?
BS: I’m wrong instead of woke. Wrongness is my little boat rather than a confirming certainty. I have Kathryn Schulz’s 2010 book, Being Wrong, in front of me because you can do that in a virtual interview, the first chapter on “Wrongology” is infinitely instructive including the motto adapted from Augustine, [preceding Descartes], Fallor Ergo Sum, I err therefore I am. Rachel Zucker’s essay, “The Poetics of Wrongness” is a great contribution. Sorry, just one more quote from Anne Carson, the opening lines of her poem, “Essay on What I Think About Most”: “Error/and its emotions.” Wrongness is a state of humility but also surprise, fascination, the good, slippery confusion of art.
I was mistaken about the binaries because I was reductive about them, gay and straight, for instance, do not being to account for the way sexuality is expressed in the condition of punishment and confinement.
My reading was wrong, and my education was wrong. The inmates asked me when I corrected their grammar, “whose grammar?” and that question serves as the daily interrogation of my grammar, my whiteness, my privilege.
“Garvey Radiant”, in my first book, The Common Wages, is an inquiry into Marcus Garvey by way of seeing his work being accomplished by men and women who were carrying those big radios, the boom boxes, of the 1980s, into the buildings in Manhattan after “work hours” [whose work? whose hours?]. Those workers were cleaning the buildings and in my imagination continuing the legacy of Garvey via the pomp and ceremony and music.
CD: This condition of “wrongness” to which you refer as both an existential condition and philosophical conceit has roots in Augustine’s postlapsarian theology, as well as in the legacy of white racism as a political construct that dates back at least a millennium in Western society. Augustine believed in the sacraments of confession and absolution as the answer to “original” wrongness, to erring as an ineluctable human tendency. But such religious practice doesn’t necessarily lead to social change or what Cicero called “radical correction.” You salaamed in “submission” at Lewisburg, which became a kind of ironic antinomian haven for you where you felt freed up intellectually, creatively. Your spiritual life synced with your poetic practice of setting another— S. and the other black prisoners—before you, in an act of alterity that William Blake claimed was “the most sublime act one could commit.” As a white “teacher” you were deemed “wrong” by the black inmates. But you salaamed and your muse welcomed your submission, which inspired you, in turn, to write “broken music.” To transcribe “retaken moments” as you were “led along” by S. as a sympathetic “felon with shackles on [your] plumed feet and staples in [your] song.” You’ve been faithful ever since to S’s lessons on race in America that have sustained your correct “wrongness” as both a poetic praxis in “broken music” and a “negative capability” (Keats) for “being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts” about race. After leaving Lewisburg Penitentiary you commenced your career as a teacher of poetry writing and literature at a host of schools, including Phillips Academy Andover, Tufts University, Providence College, The Putney School, The University of Alabama MFA Program, and finally The Syracuse University MFA Program, where you’ve taught for the past 20 years. How have you gone about teaching your students to salaam as an essential component of your pedagogy? To combine their vocation and avocation inextricably as Robert Frost overhears himself abjuring himself at the conclusion of “Two Trumps in Mud Time” to find that emotional and pragmatic nexus “where love and need are one.”
BS: 50 years? You’d think I’d be better at this. I’ve got gratitude for the time spent in classrooms with MFA students at the beginning of their apprenticeship with poetry. And I love the conversation with undergraduates who are coming to poetry for the first time. It’s both disarming and fructifying. It is a dismantling as well as a construction of a self in the “vale of soul making”[Keats]. And it is not for the timid. My brother is a dock worker, an essential worker, I’m talking about words for a couple of hours. That’s great, the Frost quote, “where need and love are one.” I wish there were more salaaming, not to me, but to the endeavor, the “rare huge mystery taboo” as Baraka says.
CD: I’m fascinated by the range of forms you’ve employed over the years, from blank verse, to sonnets and fourteen liners, to free verse, to apostrophes, to what you like to call “lists and fugues” in deference to Whitman, to a form you invented called “songs for two voices” in which every line follows the previous line sensibly, as well as every other line, so the poems contain antiphonal voices that speak as one and also as other at the same time. You often meld the lyrical slang of felons and radical, outlier voices like Baraka’s with the high, idiosyncratic diction of Herbert, Donne, and Dickinson. In Spill, you include eleven elaborate lineated poems that read more runically than your straight forward 20 page hybrid poem, “Lewisburg.” What was your thinking behind creating this poetic dialectic between the accessible, biographical language of “Lewisburg” and the more discursive, leaping, political language in the eleven other poems?
BS: Change of architecture, change of mind, Chard. Or it’s a mark of desperation or restlessness, both, ha.
Form, that necessary nothing, is a pressure on the language and imagination. I use different forms for architectural reasons to make some place for the demonic and the divine to go, to build a “mercy seat” so that the jinn or Yahweh might inhabit it if they/she/he are so inclined.
So Joy Williams says, “The work of the writer is to keep the story from becoming what it is about.” The same for poetry. And form, received forms, especially the sonnet for me – all that music in a small space – and contrapuntal forms are ways to prevent the poem from becoming what it is about and tricking it out some.
The jail section is more witness, the poem section more song and more immersion in song, trauma arias.
The crisis of making – art, music, love, memory. Ecstasy/ history, song/facts: my notes to myself say at the bottom of page of the lineated poems. Those try to make a “third thing” neither a dump of facts nor a shedding of tears.
CD: Why is “The Tempest” your favorite Shakespearean play?:
BS: A new world drama of single parenting. Prospero gives up magic [mastery] and embraces mystery. He becomes a mother to his daughter. Caliban: “You taught me language and my profit on it is I know how to curse,” the enslaved consciousness. Ariel: the imagination.
CD: What are you working on now and how has the pandemic, as well as this turbulent, dehumanizing era of Trump, made their way into your present work?
BS: Like everyone, I’ve been woodshedding, worrying, marching with a mask, trying on resilience rather than defeat while I Zoom, working at night to throw a rope around the neck of the statue that is our president. Pull it down! A new book of poems, some of them have appeared in Plume.
By June, by muggy, iffy June of 1968 I had received a draft notice [1-A, report to Fort Dix], a degree in English [undistinguished], and six [or more] concussions from playing college football. I was waiting to be seized by the roots of my hair from the roofs of Philadelphia, where I was working mopping hot tar, and dropped into the jungle, Canada, or jail.
Instead, that July I started work as a teacher at the Federal Penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania.
Work: a chance to find yourself, as Conrad said in Heart of Darkness. But by 1968 Conrad and work were already discredited. Look at our fathers in their ironed shirts. Look at our steaming mothers.
I believed in the thaumaturgical, the wonder work like the kind that snatched my father back from the fiery wreck of WWII and dropped him into an elementary school as a teacher. Seedlings in cups, cut-out snowflakes, a rabbit, naps. That summer in Philadelphia I looked into the bubbling cauldron of black pitch in the “Hotmaster” kettle and saw the hell realm black as James Brown’s hair, black as a rice paddy at night. I went to work like a stick-up man, in a hat, sunglasses, long sleeves, and a bandana over my face, but still, like Lou Reed sang in “Coney Island Baby,” a kid playing football for the coach. My tar mop was an extension of my mother’s mop, my father’s mop swabbing the decks. In the chimerical heat like jet exhaust shimmering from the roofs I had visions: I would be rescued or translated into vapors or made dead by the voodoo of the age.
The age: Malcolm El-Shabazz dead, MLK, the drum major for peace, for righteousness, dead, RFK dead, fire in the cities, sex, Tet, destroying the town in order to save it, body bags on the runways, one hit then quit shit, mutual pleasure mutual power the marching women said, music painting a thin black lacquer over everything, Otis Redding dead, the great god Brown screaming Please, Aretha demanding “Respect,”OM vibrating in Coltrane’s skull, Philadelphia’s own Delfonics delivering their blows by falsetto.
Students for a Democratic Society [SDS] seemed like a natural extension of my reading of the Romantic poets [Shelley: “the devotion to something afar/from the sphere of our sorrow”] and rage against the war and the affliction of capital. I joined. It seemed like what you did when you took off your helmet for the last time. Plus they needed a center fielder for the softball team.
My first week at the Penitentiary I took a blow to the back of my head and was kicked in the ribs by one tense individual who didn’t make parole. I had witnessed his hearing as part of my [dis]orientation. I let go of the notion of the innocent criminal, although I held onto the notion of my own innocence. I resisted the romance of the prison, which was another kind romance. Disoriented: I lost my East. I lost my West too.
The guards must have looked at me and thought buffoon, a young punk pretending to be a radical priest, and so, fuck him on general principles. To the inmates, to whom style in its condition of deprivation – the rolled cuff, the Converse high tops, the collar – was everything — a survival tool, sympathetic magic, and a costume — I must have looked like someone fallen from the Platonic ideal of style into the exigencies of Shirt City. I was compliant and defiant in my costume. I wore my sport coat and tie to satisfy the warden’s edict. I died a little and was reborn in a houndstooth coat and a pocket silk. But I strutted like an NBA point guard and paraded about in the late 60s paisley or magenta shirt/tie ensemble. The response from inmates included some pity for the hot mess that I was, and some “slip me some skin” [no other contact was permitted]. The guards squinted and said, “Go ahead.”
Processed, “re-educated through labor” [Mao Zedong], intimidated, I signed a release, signed away my life in case I was held hostage [although the language much more convoluted]. With other intakes I was photographed in a photo booth, like at a boardwalk amusement park – half banquette, half curtain, three beeps, four flashes. Instead of my terrified, thick-necked white face, a strip of 4 black faces dropped in the slot. Two profiles, two toothy smiles, subtitled with numbers of the last guy — mon semblable, — mon frère! My first identity disorder. My first fiction.
Years go by. I mean that as a question. Storage of memory is not retrieval of memory — retrieval is part will and part unwilling neural tide. Memory of ratting my way through the corridors comes back, unbidden, like a particular smell — only a fraction of a fraction of a micro-particle will set off an olfactory memory, and then I am revisiting a taste of blood from a human sacrifice at Ur. Retrieval is a time snatch, requires a deft athletic maneuver or a stumbling fall, or some of both.
It is like retrying a case, bringing the experience back into a courtroom full of sensationalizing reporters and grieving spectators, family members, ex-lovers. Everybody has a stake in the outcome. Everyone has a version or what happened and an opinion and a plea. Most of them wrong about everything. There are prosecutors and defendants, a judge and a jury selected from your high school teachers all loud in your head and struggling to be heard. And the entire proceedings are conducted using lines of poems from Emily Dickinson. My life had stood – a Loaded Gun. Or Before I got my eye put out.
Was I hired at the jail because I was the young collegiate altruist with some Spanish? No, I was there because I ran recklessly and with abandon as a halfback [Coach Huntress, I am your boy] and collided with other thick-necked individuals and so they thought, those administrators in Prison Education, that I could protect myself.
To get there I drove William Penn Drive, or Pen Drive, in the nomenclature of the joint. Heartbreak Ridge Road slanted off to the left. It led the back way to Big House Circle and Dairy Barn Road as if this were a parody of a suburban development. My route was down a road visible in its entirety from the tower. Guards and inmates alike could see me coming a mile away in my convertible as I performed free, white, and 21.
I walked through seven hot electric locks from the fake Florentine tower where guards surveyed everything to my place in Education. “When I hear the word culture… I release the safety on my Browning!” says a character in the play, Schlageter, by Nazi poet laureate, Hans Johst. Enter, stage left, me, as uneasy emissary of Culture.
Class, race, and gender as I knew them in their safe ratios were shattered in the cauldron of the joint. [Shattered too was Light, Space, Time.] Class: under, mixed with radical other. Race: 70% Black and Hispanic. Gender: all male cast, violently heterosexual, violently homosexual. A vocal brown majority replaced Nixon’s silent white majority. Inmates looked at the warden’s picture of the president on top of the business deployment flowchart with amused hatred. Class was broken down into the dream of American classlessness [everyone wearing the same Navy fatigues], and then reorganized into gangs of color, power, and gender not unlike the culture at large. Things got unzipped. Overturned, tore up, or stood on their heads.
Or stood facing the wall with an instrument, as if by some Orphic power of lung and reed and fingering, the wall would fall down. The myth was if you got good enough with your horn, the wall would crumble and you would walk out into the promised land. In the same vein: the mock presidential election held inside for those who couldn’t vote yielded Alabama Governor George Wallace as the winner. Why? I asked an inmate. “Wallace win and the wall come down.” The place had its grandiloquent ways.
The prison was lit like an operating room, like a train station, the back of a high school physics classroom, a monastery, the barracks at Fort Dix. How could it be dim and dazzling at the same time? I had no Foucault to describe the light. “Of course you know the work of Frantz Fanon?” my teacher’s aide said. Had I known Fanon I would have been able to speak of the blackness: a drop of sun under the earth.
My teacher’s aide, S, an inmate, spoke three languages and studied with Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert [now Baba Ram Das] at Harvard in the League of Spiritual Discovery. S’s advanced degree in psychology was trumped by an honorary doctorate in insouciance he earned in jail. He got busted in Texas crossing the border in his Volkswagen beetle, a first offense for possession of pot [which sounds like the synopsis of a Janis Joplin song]. I imagined him being held upside down on a pole. “Bring that boy on in here,” he said the judge said. A light skinned African-American from Boston; S became my mentor, my jazz rabbi, my alma mater.
S stole books for me from the prison library and stamped the edges with “Property of the Catholic Chaplain” so when my person and possessions were inspected by the guards on my way out I was guaranteed a safe passage.
The Tibetan Book of Dead; Notes from the Underground; Kafka; Wilde; The Wretched of the Earth and Black Skin, White Masks by Fanon; Alan Watts; The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test; McLuhan; Black Elk Speaks; The Portable Nietzsche, publishers’ overstocks sent to the Federal Penitentiary as humanitarian [tax deductible] gifts to reform the incarcerated. No poems. Books by men, yes, but not manly man books. Books by men destabilized by time, as was I.
I was wrong about everything, the Muslims told me, and I salaamed.
The Aryans wanted signs of solidarity. They offered unconditional hatred for everybody else. The protection they offered was they said, “bumper to bumper.”
War resisters, drug lords, drug mules, addicts, atomic spies, counterfeiters, bootleggers, pimps, distillers of moonshine, killers of your mother, your sister, your brother, white power brokers, black panthers, white collar administrators doing what they were told, hammers and the nailed, extorters, innocents, crossers of state lines, tax evaders, peckerwoods, jury tamperers, what did I know, really, about who they were? Who was I? I was wrong about everything. I was too shy to ask about the crime, the time, “the bid.” No one told me about snapping someone’s neck. No one told me about the stabbing. In class we solved math problems about time and space and corrected mistakes in grammar. “Whose grammar?” the Muslims asked.
“Hey, Mr. SDS, come over here a minute. See this? This is what they can do with a pen. If you’ve got enough time anything can be sharpened. This is what we found in a cell. One cell. So you can multiply this by ten or a hundred and ten. Can you multiply? Homemade piece of mayhem with a purpose. Or maybe someone smuggled something in in someone’s rectum. This here could go into your heart up to here between your ribs. Look at the rest of this stuff we shook down. Don’t get too close, SDS. Don’t get too smoochy.”
I ate lunch at the officers’ mess, not with the general population. I ate well through the largess of the underground economy. I was fed desserts denied to the officers: blueberry cobblers, some peach thing, snicker doodles, strudel, crisps. An Aryan left a pudding on my table. The inmates waited on me like indulgent grandmothers. The phrase stick it to the man was in current usage. Was I not the man?
Premise: All inmates get an 8th grade education. Premise: To get paroled inmates need a job which means a 12th grade education. Therefore: I get a job teaching GED classes to bridge the gap. The best students devoted themselves in a way I have not seen since, a year’s work of high school math would be completed in a week. The worst slept face down on the desk, inert, wronged, drooling, unable to be roused, with darkness behind the eyes, in the blue room of their depression like their collegiate others.
The dance of my freedom went like this: jail, not-jail – a two-step that included evenings at the bar, Dunkle’s [German for dark]. In not-jail I squirmed under the hot blanket of my draft notice, dreaming of a hand clamped on my shoulder that would escort me to a jeep that drove me to the head of the Ho Chi Minh trail. I read the stolen books and Baraka, Lao Tzu, the Gita, The Koran. I dropped 30 pounds in not-jail. I was the metaphor, the aperture into our symptoms, carrying across the news of the extremity and pornography, the thin membrane between the forbidden and permitted. I spun tales as foamy and insipid as the beer, stories in which I was the hero who survived another day of mayhem in this fucked-up world. Fucked-up: it elected Nixon and put the Berrigans behind bars. A woman I met was writing a thesis on conspiracy theories and the Kennedy assassination.
Cigarettes were currency. Dental floss, a photograph, a sock. A tin of mackerel, a palm frond, pills. A taste of an envelope someone had laced with acid could be traded on the commodities market like Sumerians trading coins and barley. Anything in foil. Anything sharp. A lipstick, a lick of something, cum. I brought in a roll of tropical fruit Life Savers — fruit punch, piña colada, tangerine, banana, and mango melon — and gave them to S who told me they could buy almost a life and did I have more?
I read about Saint Genet, but I had no Antonio Gramsci and his letters from prison to help me read the cultural dominion. No Dietrich Bonhoeffer to offer me a Christian resistance. No Eldridge Cleaver, Soul on Ice [confiscated at the gate with my pen]. No James Baldwin, Fire Next Time. Really? James Baldwin? I was wrong about everything, the guards told me. “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons,” Dostoevsky said. Come back again to the jail, Oscar Wilde, honey.
I had no poetry in my life. I had read some poetry in college, but it had not yet entered my heart or been stuck between my ribs.
Buffalo Township, Union County, where the guards and caseworkers lived, voted overwhelmingly for Barry Goldwater in 1964. “In Your Heart You Know He’s Right,” the billboard said. “Yeah, far right,” my leaning left mother said, echoing the joke.
“Of course you’re familiar with the work of Miles Davis,” S said. He said to go get “Sketches of Spain” and “ESP”. “Or are you listening to Streisand?” I tried to buy vinyl at the Woolworth’s in Lewisburg where they did sell Streisand but no Miles. I felt the accretion of my ignorance as a form of whiteness. And I felt my whiteness as a terminal sentence. I wanted to hear Miles. I felt insulted [by whom I didn’t know] but sharpened enough by my jail time to slash my way, with a mind-forged knife, through the pitiful accumulation of American commodities and oil excrescences and non-prison capital and storefronts with no Miles and Barry Goldwater and the Pennsylvania Dutch cuisine and the buttery white light and rows of corn until I got to Big House Circle via Heartbreak Ridge Road and from the outside blew my horn against the wall.
“Hey, SDS, is that a matching shirt, tie, and pocket square? I have my eye on you, meat.”
I was asked to direct a play, 12 Angry Men, a TV drama that was made into a film in 1957 about a homicide trial in which 11 of 12 men are wrong about everything. Unlike the original, I had a cast of seven black actors to work with. “How can you be positive about anything?” Lee J. Cobb asks in the movie. When that line was delivered by a brother in the prison production, it brought down the house. [And still the walls were unmoved.]
Fridays in Education there was sometimes a film, although the administration didn’t like the idea of darkening down a room. Most were stultifying advertisements, made for white America, about timber and the telephone. One was from the National Film Board of Canada: Oscar Peterson playing piano over a slow pan of women on beaches in the Maritime Provinces and we held ourselves for an hour and thought of Canada and the female form.
Muhammad Speaks, The Village Voice, The Berkeley Barb, The Evergreen Review were in circulation in the prison. And I couldn’t bring in James Baldwin?
I distributed the programmed GED books in language arts and math. Could I multiply? Eleven times eleven equals what? Nice pentameter S said. This is how the hours went in Education. I tried to explain the subjective and objective cases: Let’s you and I or you and me go to the concert? The books still reeked of post-war GI workforce sweat and illustrated math problems with tow-headed kids in sweaters gathering apples in bushels. I devised my own problems: If three gallons of gasoline can burn four city blocks…S taught me how to consult the oracle of the I Ching. “Let’s give the Ching a ring,” he said. We used the Bolligen edition translated by Wilhelm and Baynes, with an introduction by Carl Jung. In place of ancient coins or yarrow stalks we ripped up paper and tossed them heads, tails to divine our future. S read the hexagram: Straight line, straight line, straight line, broken line, straight line, straight line:
Hsiao Ch’u – The Taming Power of the Small
If you are sincere, blood vanishes and fear gives way.
I witnessed the death of an inmate after he drank most of a tin of duplicating fluid meant for the mimeograph machine. He thrashed like a mackerel on the floor of Education. Whatever prison status I earned by taking a beating, I lost when I fainted.
“Prison” as an adjective meant parochial, narrow, concocted with inadequate resource, with limited vision and effect. Prison tattoos, prison liquor. It meant broke-dick, jury-rigged, ghetto. Prison lawyers, prison air conditioning, prison logic. Prison light, prison space, prison time. Insufficient in knowledge and power and yet admirable, a non-style that earns begrudging, righteous respect for its style. I was a prison teacher.
“Get poor,” Father Philip Berrigan said. He arrived at Lewisburg at the end of the year. I never met him although he too taught in Education before he transferred to the minimum-security facility at Allenwood. “In such a war,” he said about Vietnam, though he could have meant prison, too, “man stands outside the blessings of God.”
It was a place of overwhelming materiality. [It was a fucking rock.] A 1932 Popular Science article about the new Lewisburg prison under construction illustrates the obvious: the masonry of “block and bar” walls and the “carbon steel bars with tool-proof steel cases.” Against the weight of the corporal came an opposing push from the metaphysical, not just from the Office of the Catholic Chaplain or the Nation of Islam. [“The material/spiritualizes and lock stone and air meet/cordially with a high lust clamping one to the other,” A.R. Ammons says in Garbage. “Finite to fail, but infinite to venture,” says Emily Dickinson]. The real got tested everyday by its opposite. The obvious and opaque became porous. There is vacuity in things, as Lucretius said, even stone, concrete, carbon steel. Hurt was a lever to pry open the cover to the real. Skin, too, was a micro-thickness that could be cut, it was a sign of your tribe, your fleshy sentence and, when pressed, your ticket to ride. A pigeon flying by the window, a cloud, a cuff, a sigh could be the vehicle for the transcendental. Things scarred over or got subtle. It was possible for everyone to be a bodhisattva. Or at least a surrealist or a fetishist.
Baba Ram Das handled S’s parole. He wrote from India to say, “The bars are in your mind.”
“We who live in prison, and in whose lives there is no event but sorrow, have to measure time by throbs of pain, and the record of bitter moments.” — Oscar Wilde
“I talked to ‘em,” Richard Pryor said when he spent six weeks on location at the Arizona State Penitentiary making the 1980 film “Stir Crazy”, “and thank God we got penitentiaries.”
There’s no such thing as silence composer John Cage called his 1952 work. And in the jail the same: a duration with coughs, screams, snores, the percussion and amplified metal on metal. The stamp, pat, thigh-slap, clap of someone doing his hambone. Nocturne for things sharpened over time.
I was wrong about the categories, the binaries, S told me. I was wrong about who was weak and who was strong, ruthless and kind, gay and straight.
Prison radio had three modes: country, jazz, and rhythm and blues. All dedicated in their way to bringing the wall down. A point of honor to be true to your school. Prison honor. No crossovers. No defectors.
Inmates in my class insisted, then posted, then consulted daily, like they would results at OTB, what they called The Hall of Shame/Hall of Fame, a lined sheet of paper as in grade school to which they added, justly or unjustly, the names of their friends and enemies.
“I do not doubt interiors have their interiors, and exteriors have their exteriors — and that the eye-sight has another eye-sight, and the hearing another hearing, and the voice another voice,” — Walt Whitman, “Assurances.”
I was ordered [you could do that in jail] to discontinue the Hall of Shame/Hall of Fame by the head of Education, a small groundhog of a man who seemed to have dug under a posthole in the New Hampshire woods then surfaced inside the wall in Pennsylvania. Too much agitation, he said, which meant there was taunting and retaliation and a beatdown over the rankings and someone was spending some time in the hole.
The prison shrink befriended me, asked if I’d be willing to sit in with his group, a therapy group, or T group, where inmates were encouraged to express their feelings. I told S there was only one feeling, which was expressed each week: somebody on his knees pounding on the chair with his fists.
Sung – Conflict
Conflict. You are sincere
And are being obstructed.
A cautious halt halfway brings good fortune.
Going through to the end brings misfortune.
It furthers one to see the great man.
It does not further one to cross the great water.
My mother, my beautiful mother, the ex-marine, called me to say, “Sit down. Are you sitting down?” I sat to hear I was to report for my Army physical. I packed for Canada. I ran down the hallway of my apartment in the hope I could throw myself against the wall and induce a final, army-disqualifying injury. Another concussion, a separation. I reported for my exam with my ex-rays from football and letters from doctors to prove I had had at least 6 traumatic brain injuries. “You’re a specimen, son. You passed. Tell your mother the good news.”
On the stairs to Education someone said, “Blood the fuck up.”
On the stairs to Education some scuffling or buttoning up or down [were zippers permitted?] some cloth rustling. I saw a black hand, supine, brush fingertips with a white hand, prone, passing some powder maybe or a Life Saver or just a forbidden touch.
S told me he spent the weekend licking some stamps that had been franked, read by his caseworker, and passed on to him. The stamps were steeped in acid.
At the end of August I would watch on television the four nights of coverage of the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. [On a borrowed black and white Westinghouse portable with a “See-Matic” chassis and a wide range 4-inch speaker.] I knew that the general population could only watch television up to 9 o’clock, so it was up to me to report what I witnessed the next day: I saw Mayor Daley swearing at Senator Abe Ribicoff of Connecticut. [I couldn’t hear him say, “Fuck you, you Jew son of a bitch.”]. I saw tear gas and schools of anti-war protestors like fish in underwater shades of gray in Grant Park. [I couldn’t see the Yippie Festival of Life or the Police Riot of the Walker Report.] I saw turmoil on the floor of the convention. [I couldn’t see Dan Rather getting punched in the stomach.] I saw kids my age being clubbed and Maced and arrested and bandaged. I saw cops in helmets swinging their nightsticks. I saw tanks and the National Guard like in Philadelphia. [I wouldn’t hear until later, “The whole world is watching.”] I could see the rough beast. [I couldn’t see Bethlehem]. I could see there was one feeling being expressed and a reaction to that feeling by the police. But I was seized. I tried to convey to S and others in Education what it was, what it was like. It was some fucked up shit, man was the best I could do. It was the “flabby, pretending, weak-eyed devil of a rapacious and pitiless folly.” But S told me Heart of Darkness was racist, man.
But I was a witness. For the first time I was needed for my testimony. S and some other political prisoners [We’re all political prisoners, S said.] would wait for me inside the classroom of Education. Prison waiting: “sweating the fence.” It was a ritual that was both urgent and indifferent, a jolted boredom, a slouching, enervated attention, for the news I could barely carry. “Spill,” S said and I spilled my crude account. I made a vow to get articulate, like Malcolm X. Or if not articulate I could aspire towards a “curious puffing …whispering heavenly labials in a world of gutturals,” as Wallace Stevens says, in order to undo the powers that be.
T’ung Jên – Fellowship with Men
Nine in the fifth place means:
Men bound in fellowship first weep and lament,
But afterward they laugh.
After great struggles they succeed in meeting.
Vietnam was my demon. Part exotic nature show, part Hollywood blowin’ stuff up, part crime drama, part elegy. It was a naked girl running from her napalmed village. It was a black and white shadow show that depicted the signal grasses being bent severely down by the rotors of a helicopter while young men my age were carrying stretchers with fubared young men my age. I watched it every night. It was my destination.
My mother called. “Are you sitting down? You got a letter. I opened it. You’ve got a date to report to Fort Dix.”
I put in 8-hour days, but sometimes I would leave to eat and come back for a T-group or play practice. I did my time. My friend, the prison shrink, invited me to join his NA [Narcotic Anonymous] group. We need somebody who is neither an inmate nor a guard, a sort of layperson.
Two white men with prison muscles and brilliantly brilliantined hair waited for the electric locks to buzz at the end of 50 minutes and entered the classroom. S retreated to a neutral corner and looked out the window, fascinated by a pigeon. “Mr. Hoffa has a birthday comin’ up,” one said. They left and returned two weeks later. “Mr. Hoffa likes Cuban cigars.” A week later I said to them, “Even if I would, where could I get Cuban cigars in Central Pennsylvania?” Three days later, “A nice young fella like yourself would do well to remember Mr. Hoffa’s birthday.” They spoke to each other as if I wasn’t there. “Mr. Hoffa’s birthday, four days away.” I taped a sixpack of Phillies cheroots inside The Portable Nietzsche that the Catholic Chaplain’s office had stamped. They came back in a week, “Ever think about law school? The freight could be paid. A nice young fella like yourself.”
I took some “substance abuse” training with guards and FBI and other serious men in suits. The legal, psychological, sociological, medical aspects of drugs. Drugs and law enforcement. To start we saw a film about fetal drug addiction and I threw up a little in my mouth. There were lectures by police and lawyers about the production, distribution, and consumption of drugs, very lugubrious and chilling, after which I got to see and sniff various white and black and brown compounds laid out on tables like at a junior high science fair. I learned bonita, poor quality heroin cut with lactose, and I learned about black tar heroin. I loved saying black tar heroin as much as I could in my civilian life [“Could I have a quart of orange juice and some black tar heroin?”]. I loved the lexis I learned in that room. Fu, fuel, gauge, gangster, gash, giggle, grunt. I got to smoke, well not smoke, but pass around a lit cigarette of marijuana with FBI during which there wasn’t even a smirk. Don’t Bogart that joint, my friend. The other men looked like my college football teammates.
Text and countertext: Philip Roth in his autobiographical essay, “Joe College” writes about his time at Bucknell, about the cultural schism set in motion by his exile from Jewish Newark in goyishe central Pennsylvania. I was his “Secret Sharer,” his part-Jewish Joe College alter ego, injected into mainstream football/campus culture fifteen years later. Then, four years later, Joe Jail.
I knew it as “woofing,” two men in the yard toe to toe fighting, but at a lover’s distance, a boxer’s distance, more of an aggressive singing – an unarmed battle to subdue your opponent by words that summoned all the caged cleverness, metaphysical conceit, repressed homoeroticism, overt homoeroticism, street wit and prison vernacular. It probably duplicated the daily condition of inmates: wanting to erupt in violence but against whom or what and with what? So woofing. This verbal fighting demanded an audience, and it wasn’t over until the loser went speechless or the circle proclaimed a winner after a slander about mother fucking, hygiene, intellectual acumen, and shit eating. S called it signifying. The Muslims said, “Woofin’? That’s the dozens. But we don’t encourage disparaging our African-American brothers and sisters, Sir.” “You don’t have to call me Sir,” I said. “It’s our way to show respect for all persons.”
My mother called, where was I and what and how? I was spending all my time in jail. What more could the Selective Service do to me?
I don’t remember breathing, but I must have taken a breath. I remember the diving bell pressure and oceanic noise broken by slams and howls. I don’t remember the seasons, but I remember putting up the top of the car and turning the heater on giving a ride to an “inmate” who turned out to be a government informer on anti-war activities.
I never could identify the smell: ozone, mercurochrome, male oils, venison, spills of guilt [I imagined] mopped up by bleach, disinfected rage. I remember the first time I witnessed a “count”: the black and brown men obediently rendering their numbers to the jailors. I was unaccountably terrified. To be white is to do the counting.
“It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.” James Baldwin. They were right, the guards, those astute literary critics, about The Fire Next Time. It was incendiary, accusatory, true.
I remember trying to articulate the inside/outside paradigm: Crooks outside/Saints inside became Some Crooks, some Saints inside/indifferent assholes outside became Crooks inside so violently anti-authoritarian they won’t accept help from anybody/Crooks outside so violently authoritarian that Nixon would be elected [and reelected] and the war would go on. The only thing I was sure of was the virgules.
One student would answer only if the sum of the problem were 2, as in “Deuce, cut her loose.” He answered only in rhyme, clanging. “Make that 2, Yabba Dabba Doo.”
Another student showed me his scrapbook. A picture of him in a burgundy sheath, a bare-midriff piece in emerald, a red peplum with a blouse, a strapless white, that’s champagne, gown. He told me about the tuck. And tape. But what I remember most is the photo of the family at Thanksgiving fanned out behind the bounty: turkey, stuffing, cranberry, mashed potatoes, and tax stamps proudly on all the liquor bottles. You and me.
Chieh – Limitation
Galling limitation must not be persevered in.
Nine in the fifth place means:
Sweet limitation brings good fortune.
Going brings esteem.
My mother, the marine, was crying. “Sit down. Are you sitting down? You’ve been reclassified.” The drop in the alphabet from 1-A to 1-Y meant: Registrant available for military service, but qualified only in case of war or national emergency. As far as she knew it went something like this: Files from my trip to West Point as a high-school football recruit and subsequent disqualification [shoulder separation] were sent to my draft board who added them to the x-rays and transcripts of injuries sustained playing college football and the draft board thought better of me as a specimen. “The US Military Academy got you out of the military,” she said.
I would not have to go to war, but I would serve.
I drove around and played Miles.
It seems now a cheap, absurdly theatrical, backwards and shitty kind of resistance. Kids my age, friends, were coming home in body bags: I wasn’t oblivious to this. It wasn’t just TV. Kids I went to school with, the skinny red-haired kid in the corner, was a gunner on a helicopter. Kids I slammed my head into in football games were a flag folded over and over into a starry blue triangle. I wasn’t any less bewildered by this outcome than I was by living out of my car and plotting escapes or self-mutilation. Or by teaching in, being in, jail.
Identity formation: Whoever I was when I arrived [Joe College? Mr. SDS?] I was not that person now. That person had a blanket thrown over him and was taken down. That person got cut up and bled out. I would do my time in the company of men and be released to my own recognizance. I wouldn’t see white and free without seeing a boundary, a concussion, a lockdown, a count. And a black man in a jean jacket in the rain playing a saxophone against the wall, the walls holding but shaking slightly.
I left shaking slightly, being wrong, speaking a different language: prison language. The private, circumscribed, contraband smuggled in and out under the tongue, subject to punishment, woofing, capable of offending, defending, silencing, inducing a trance, whispering, breaking, signifying, wall-echoed, racial, coded tribal belonging. Language capable of checking, abashing and undoing the giant. The warden, the parole board, the Catholic chaplain spoke one [white] language; the inmates, the jazz broadcasts, the I Ching spoke another. Whose grammar? Whose music? Whose nation?
I got out and turned to words, “the taming power of the small”. I would practice a curious puffing. I would begin my apprenticeship, a twenty-year bid. I would become a woman in the eyes of the world.
Prison narratives, captivity narratives, slave narratives, Puritan conversion narratives share similar duress, small spaces, the soul under pressure, the construction and question of the “other,” hall of shame/hall of fame, the hidden coming into view, the articulation of a struggle and survival.
What I couldn’t see were the fire hoses trained on S and the young black men that blasted them into Lewisburg and the snarling dogs that took bites out of them through the court system and the new black and brown plantation built to house the casualties of the early assaults of Nixon’s drug war.
Most days I walk with an inmate beside me.
“Spill,” S. said and I spilled.
Poetry is the spill [excess and witness].
Straight line, broken line, straight line.
Bruce Smith is the author of seven books of poems, most recently, Spill. He has twice been a finalist for the National Book Award and once for the Pulitzer Prize. His previous book, Devotions, was a finalist for the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the LA Times Book Award, and the winner of the William Carlos Williams Prize. He’s been a fellow at the American Academy in Rome. He teaches at Syracuse University.