A Prisoner’s Poem for Tolerance

I’ve blogged before about my prison pen pal “Jon”, who is serving a life sentence in California for a burglary-related homicide. A self-taught illustrator and writer, Jon is a Christian with a simple faith that encompasses more tolerant views than one might hear from many American pulpits. In our letters, I’ve told him about my GLBT activism and its expression in my creative writing, and he’s shared stories of gay and lesbian friends who have been special to him. He sent me the poem below in one of his letters this autumn.

For someone in his situation, Jon sounds notably at peace with his punishment, not bitter but regretful of his bad decisions and determined to cultivate more positive spiritual qualities while serving his time. I mention this because when I have tried to submit his poetry to magazines, I have heard from some editors that they refuse to provide a forum for a convicted killer, regardless of the contents of the submission.

Without negating the seriousness of his crime, this seems to me like a mistake. We all benefit from unexpected revelations of the complexity of another human being. Prison reform gets so little traction in America because we enjoy the illusion that criminals are categorically different from you and me. For a so-called Christian nation, we’ve got a slippery grasp on the concept of original sin. I prefer Sister Helen Prejean’s maxim that a person is always more than his worst act.

Expressions of Love
by “Jon”

   1

They’ll say you can’t be that way.
It’s wrong. God won’t like it.
Morality won’t accept it.
So many hide their love,
their kisses, only in the dark,
only behind closed doors.
Don’t tell the neighbors
your family, or even your friends.
Close the curtains
make sure, no one can see in.
They will not understand.
They won’t love you anymore.
Now you’re a freak,
an undesirable, mutant, monster creep.

   2

Hiding at the train tracks,
in the middle of the night.
Under a full moon, bed of stars
so bright it would be romantic
if you didn’t have to worry
about someone else attacking you.
Just for being who you are.
For showing another love,
that beats, that burns
deep within your chest.

   3

Going both directions in your mind.
There must be something wrong with you.
Normal people don’t act that way.
Normal people don’t love?
Are they forced to hide it?
Crouching under a bridge.
Cringing in darkness,
for fears of violence, of hate.
Just like a troll in a horror story.

   4

Can normal people hold hands,
without people laughing as they walk by.
Can they hug at an airport, bus stop, station.
Express their joy finally
being with their loved one again.
Being complete, without worry, without pain.
Without people turning their heads.
Can they kiss in a moment of bliss,
without people shouting out in disgust?

   5

Can normal people be loved,
without soceiety frowning, cursing, hurting,
telling them they’re sick, need help, they’re morbid.
Can normal people realize
that everyone isn’t their way?
That finding love is hard enough
without them crushing, binding, and insulting.
Spitting, slapping, and being repulsive.
Expressing love is hard enough
without everyone else despising you,
without hating and hurting yourself,
for love.

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