New Poetry by Conway: “City Elegy VI”


I’m pleased to share the next installment of my prison pen pal Conway’s “City Elegy” poetry series below.

This weekend, I’ll be attending the Becoming Church conference, a project of the Church of the Saviour in Washington DC, which will focus on Christian activism for prison reform.

My other purpose in attending is to research models for intentional Christian communities, so that I can create a theology working group for trauma survivors. Church of the Saviour is known for bypassing the standard congregation format in favor of intimate small groups based on 12-Step (AA). Group members commit to mutual spiritual accountability and social justice work. Watch this space for my post-game report. Meanwhile, enjoy the poem.

City Elegy VI
by “Conway”

About two years and counting…
 The city left a window open for me
  a muddy puddle of spiraling sights
  that twist and turn a knife named memory.

This wall presses against my core
  it is a cellblock of scornful spent shells
  hungering to be crushed into a new mold.
The brusharound, or flushed down sound–
of this walk. Every step behind
the moment, looking, mapping.
    On a pathway passing tipsters–
playing a pose (straight incognito).

I pretend to crawl away, from war
untried by the tolling sigh, the taste.
The touch torn, as if I am the thorn.
A beggar swelling to be born.

If I could lift the moon…
  emerge from this strangling forest of metal.
  My goal is not these burial stones under foot,
  lain out before my only path.
On narrow steps, gnashing in silence, I wait.
I kneel before a vanishing door.

Here, in these strange woods
my wounds find refuge. But time
cannot lead me to be seen, over the fence.

Here is the entrance, reason for contrivance
as storm clouds bring a newborn saline.
Another downpour of brilliant jewels.

Shimmering topaz eyes blaze everywhere
 tint the brief shadows in amber.
 batting those lashes like a paramour.
  While the streets still rush and hum. (Conspire.)
   Heavy lyrics that spark like a hotwire.

{Do-do-do walk, march into our fire
No-no don’t talk, cops pay their liar
Hang me from that dirty noose of smog
cut me loose from this frustrating fog}

I ride on, day upon day and night in my mind…
Roads descend behind a false mirror, of others–
not there. I dream of my old shovelhead (Rolling again.)
hidden away like a skeleton.
It has taken twenty plus years to get, from nowhere
to here. Amongst the settling shades of memory.

A good woman waits somewhere else instead;
Some said “for a husband, as if he were’nt dead.”
I palmed her hand on a cold window-visit’s caress.
Ceremony sees us deserving such torment.

I taste a scent of gallows…
  The ink under my skin, folded under my jumpsuit
  burns under scrutiny.
    I stand; Ready to be judged.
      Heard.
    I am what I am, no mask.
    I am not what I was;
      Just ask…

New Poem by Conway: “Indignance of Time”


My prison pen pal “Conway” has made good use of his time to write poetry while he waits for a hearing on his early release petition. Here, he shares a brief intense lyric that he wrote inside a card with his original artwork, inspired by Salvador Dali’s melting clock faces in the painting “Persistence of Memory”. I was struck by the apocalyptic closing image of missiles lined up and waiting. “The day of perpetual consumption” is a uniquely modern American twist on the Last Judgment — the fire that never ceases to consume us, who never cease to consume the world.

Indignance of Time

Dancing on an escalator
   any Blackjack can move
as verse quakes off the sound
   rattling around
This town this shaft going nowhere.

Some shop keep roars.
   From shag deep floors
     But no one keys the door.
   Once done, no’one can come
back out of this inner sanctum
   this Holy glass of need.

We crave to tour the billboard lit night.

   Abundant commerce
      misled souvenir missiles of clay;

Lined up to wake the day
   of perpetual consumption…

New Poem by Conway: “Throwing Strikes”

In this latest poem from my prison pen pal “Conway“, he makes a pun on California’s “three-strikes” sentencing law, which condemned him to 25 years to life for receiving stolen goods. He is still awaiting a court date on his early release petition pursuant to the law’s repeal in 2012.

Throwing Strikes

In this deserted surround
  no voice echoes
   as shards of concrete
    erupt from rusted selves
     just disregarded shells.

Another door slammed shut
  forged considering the score
   blind no more to loose lips
    the silent frame up
     of unlimited mysteries’ damage.

Back when I couldn’t admit
  some small time defeat, even if
   it put me back on the street.

I knew the situation…
  It would not end, even after
   a meeting of knuckles on skin.

Light lyrics, became heavy lies
  years, as far away as yesterday
   ricochets snatched up so easily
    become the law, the gavel
  as a systematic machine
   takes it in, like a pitcher’s glove…

New Poetry by Conway: “City Elegy V”

I’m pleased to share the latest installment in the “City Elegy” series of prose-poems by my prison pen pal “Conway”. I was particularly struck by the metaphors he uses to describe the Los Angeles streetscape. That’s first-class noir.

As I interpret the line about the “confidential lunatic’s serenade”, he’s alluding to the confidential “evidence” that the state is allowed to use against his petition for early release, which he is not permitted to review. Due process has a different meaning when you’re on the other side of the barbed wire, apparently. For more information, read this 2012 exposé of the prison gang validation system at Mother Jones.

City Elegy V

Stone-cold-dumb, stumbling through this carnival of unforgiveness.

As another dawn rose madly above my city’s turning cog.
You know, that overflowing coffee mug of smog, steaming along the Angeles crest.
Traffic lights still pierce the night, painfully pulsing like a stab wound;
Bleeding colors across cracked back sidewalks. Plus the white lines,
stitches down the separated black hem of asphalt lanes.

Here though, chain links and crossed fingers wish for an open door, or
a crusty-assed crack in the floor, of this rusted-out cage of bars
being played like a harp.
Old bits of things, themes echoing gray-stoned ballads, ground up talk.
Now used up chalk, stalking the thirst of first burst freedoms.

Yesterday, they played a confidential lunatic’s serenade.

But, I recognized his unclaimed tune, by the scatter-brained beat.
In the heat of officially spun, as it raced away, down storm drains
and ditches. Just to dump the remains of life into an ocean of prisoners.

I knew that sound already. It staggers between
two huge exhaust fans, and the steel sectioned dayroom doors.
Those doors clank open or closed when the cops swagger in.
To drag our chained up skin, outside, then back in —
for discipline or another bus trip to no-where…

New Writing by Conway: “City Elegy IV”

Back in August I posted the previous installment of my prison pen pal “Conway’s” series of prose-poems celebrating urban car culture, whose freedom contrasts with the living death of incarceration. He returns with this political lyric that I’m fortunate to share with you. Read it aloud and you’ll hear the cell doors clang.

City Elegy IV

   Do the streetlights still bleed, through the leaves of me? Where my memory remains, in my family tree’s falling shadow.

   A tree grows not here, on the middle of this tier, stone cold center of my universe. In the Heart of America this sanctified cell only records the heartbeat of the meat wrapped in its possession.

   A continuous tape-loop snakes its way through the years — of going nowhere. Except when the transport bus appears, wrapped in freedom’s faffling flag of Hypocrisy.

   Pilgrims transfer daily to more oversourced humidors, stone-n-steel honeycombs of human bondage, buzzing away. As sodium-lamps illuminate this treasure, like a billboard display. Like a halo glowing bright off any highway, wrapped up tight in a crown of barbed wire thorns, or thistled horns.

   Some say that the Lord’s blessing is amongst us. I only see shackles and chains wrapping our pains in the shroud of injustice. Redemption contrived, commercialized for profit.

   Does God Bless the Commerce of Incarcerated America? This Holy shrine of abundance, a multitude of souls of candidates standing on street corners seeking futures, but finding no path. Beware! Don’t get snagged in this trap of the one way bus trip right to here. Here, far away from contact, in the Hall of a million steel doors slammed shut. Locked away tight from another cool September night, no relief in sight.

   Here, where even the strongest arms and minds tire, struggling against this brazen green money machine.

   Here, amidst the husks of what Justice has abandoned.

   Here, where the clamor withers to silence without contact.

   Dulled by neglect, the aftertaste deepens the hunger.

   Harsh sentencing schemes darken the overtones of truth.

   In this tidal wave of injustice that seems to have no end, even at oblivion.

   Again-n-again this massive chain drags another generation down and in. To get slammed down, for being so bold as to remove the unnecessary gold, that decorates the watch dangling from the Liberty master’s pockets…

New Writing by Conway: “City Elegy III”

While my prison pen pal “Conway” waits for news on his petition for early release, he’s been dreaming of returning to work on those motorcycles and racecars he loves. It’s been almost a year since California repealed its harsh “three-strikes” sentencing law for nonviolent offenders, but my friend’s case is languishing due to the usual bureaucracy and the slow and inconsistent work of his public defenders. The prose-poem below comes from his ongoing series of odes to urban car culture.

Meanwhile, in prison reform news, the FCC finally capped the exorbitant phone rates that were preventing many prisoners from maintaining contact with their families on the outside. Such connections are crucial to keep them from re-offending. Donate to the Campaign for Prison Phone Justice at Nation Inside to thank them for their decade of work on this issue. (Don’t be put off by their unfinished website.)

City Elegy III
by “Conway”

No musical sound true as traffic, has moved these senses so strongly.

Lost songs echo endlessly in this ear’s memory.

Low rumble at idle, or burn-out then roar away.

How can one hand, or foot, hold back the temptation of acceleration, without testing all limits?

I have dared to invoke those hidden horsepowered reins just straining to be released.

*

What does anyone know. Anyone who has not conspired to call upon an unstrained throttle. Especially the song. A mechanical throat that’s been closed for too long sings. (A reborn derelict.)

Oh to behold the hollow night growling. Deep as an empty stomach. As another restored machine announces its hunger.

An ancient frame vibrates in anticipation, twists as it shakes off the crusted rust of ages. Then unleashes the force of factory-born flame harnessed free-wheelin’ thunders voice, as it bellows out loud a groundpounding — Move!

*

Momentum begins, as adrenaline purges each driver to quicken forward movement. Pushing gravity beyond simple attraction. Like: an ancient call into battle.

A charge on horseback towards the final clash of combat, or competition. When Hannibal’s men came tramplin’ in on elephants. To crush all those who dared to oppose.

But, even those beasts proved their flesh, to be almost as weak as man.

So, man made machines, cherished steeds became formed from metal. Each iron horse or motorized chariot was forged of stronger stranger magic.

One machine can release the sound of a thousand horses, hooves pounding at full charge.

Or, cruise by slow with the rhythmic thump of drumbeats parading by, like armored knights in their glory, celebrating a victorious return.

*

This is what I imagine; This is what I hear.

During another power-filled night of hot rods and motorcycles.

The music of oil pans dragging down hard streets and avenues.

*

I salute all those passengers, who have lost their lives, in the ultimate pursuit of velocity. Those who have sacrificed their flesh to a crush of twisted mangled metal.

I do not count your sacrifice in vain. You! Who knew the danger and felt the pure rush of living unstrained.

You, who attained the last great flash of life without regret.

You, whose headlights form a constellation of stars, up above the Earth and everywhere else.

*

I cannot see your vehicle, you’re now too far to recognize.

But your light shines down, like the traffic I still hear.

*

I wonder; Are you still racing up there? Is this the sound the Cosmos creates. Is that just one huge Avenue of cars, trucks and motorcycles?

Are all those demolished vehicles polished and rollin’ again — Rolling into view, down the Avenue. Cruising with the Gods…

 

Poetry from Inside: “Of Father, From Prison”

My prison pen pal “Jon“, who is serving a life sentence in California for a burglary-related homicide, continues his efforts to grow in self-awareness and spiritual maturity through writing. I thought this recent poem was one of his finest, expressing compassion for his child-self alongside remorse for the flawed path he took as an adult. It’s a simple but deep story that I imagine many troubled young men will recognize as their own.

Of Father, From Prison

I used to smile in wonder
at the barb of the fish hook
and however you managed to get worms
so delicately placed and pierced.
Then even when you showed me how
I still couldn’t do it on my own
and sometimes couldn’t bear to look.

I used to sit and wander
as the landscapes became cities
with people beneath the lights of day.
Drifting by in gusts of winds
of mountaintops and Mayberrys
and cow filled fields and stars.
Watching from the passenger seat
while you drove your precious truck
and I waited for my turn
that had finally never come.

I used to be amazed
at all the grand and well told stories
of the life you really never led.
I realized I never even knew you
when I noticed they were lies.
You were gentle, very quiet
always private and reclusive.
You could fix anything inanimate
yet never repair the troubled minds
of yourself or those around you.
And I can think of all the places
you would take me as I grew.
Leaving us with memories
of decaying and joyless days,
of worms, fish hooks and barbs.
And I would be amazed
if you ever came to know
how very much alike
we’ve finally become.

I do not wander in wonders anymore
but sometimes think of who you are.
You living in your solitude
and me stuck within my own.
Where computers are your company,
while books become my best of friends.
Your prison is in a house
and mine within a cell.
Inside the worlds of our own making,
trapped within our mortal shells.

Counties Hoard Prison Rehab Funding, Few Inmates Helped

Two years ago the US Supreme Court ordered California to reduce its prison overcrowding, which had reached the point of unconstitutional “cruel and unusual punishment”. The state then released numerous low-level offenders and granted funding to county officials to run rehab programs for the probationers. The only problem, according to this article in the Sacramento News & Review, is that the counties actually hoard the state dollars instead of directing it toward non-state-sponsored rehab programs with a proven track record. Probationers wind up in a revolving door of re-arrests for petty offenses, because the high recidivism rate helps the county argue that it needs more state funding for probation officers and jails. From the article:

Tim Gene Sanders is about to get busted for possessing a saltshaker.

It’s February 2011, and Sanders is on his way home from a community center in Citrus Heights. He hangs a left on Auburn Boulevard when a patrol cruiser pulls him up short for making an unsafe lane change. The hangdog ex-con with the rebel-cool hair knows the drill. He’s on probation, so the cops get to toss his vehicle. Inside, they find a saltshaker and an empty sandwich bag. Sanders was snacking on hard-boiled eggs, but Citrus Heights’ finest assume the white granules at the bottom of the shaker are meth.

By the time the charges are dropped, the damage is done. Sanders spends 19 days in county jail and loses his car to a prohibitive impound fee. His house goes next.

“That’s the system,” Sanders says. “That’s how the system works.”

He would know. He got out of Sacramento County Main Jail only days ago for taking Tylenol with codeine No. 3. The pain meds—prescribed by a doctor after Sanders got out of the clink and hoofed it 10 miles on arthritic hips to his car—made it appear there was heroin in his system. Before that, Sanders went to jail for seeing the doctor instead of his parole officer.

Read the full story here.

Conway Imagines Freedom After Prop 36 Sentencing Reform


My prison pen pal “Conway’s” most recent letter to me was written just before Election Day, as he waited to see whether California voters would pass Proposition 36. This ballot measure, which was successful at the polls, would finally exempt nonviolent offenders from the state’s harsh “three-strikes” sentencing. Prisoners like Conway, who were sentenced under the old law, can apply for early release. Let’s hope that the dream he expressed in this letter will soon become a reality:

My vision:

The gooners come to the door; hand me a clear plastic trash bag. Tell me to put whatever I intend to take with me. I choose, just my letters, my writings and Dag… [his copy of Dag Hammarskjold’s “Markings”]

The last gate cracks. I step out onto the pavement, and start putting one foot in front of the other, as the last images of barbed wire and gun towers slowly fade away on the horizon at my back.

I no longer require someone to tell me where to be. What to see.

I have the power to be free
to be me  to be absolutely.

Another vision: I walk out to the parking lot. Find a ’59 Panhead idling with a Circle-A on the gas tank.

The person standing next to the scooter says, “This is your last shot, take this bike and get out of Hell as fast as you can.”

I don’t hesitate. I jump on, pull the clutch, drop it in gear and turn the throttle full, pop the clutch as the back tire kicks rocks on the tower like a dog pissing on a fire hydrant.

10 Thousand sounds scream from the fishtail pipes as I hit the highway passing cars and trucks like they’re parked.

A song begins to form in my mind as I blast down a road that starts to push buttons in my mind.

It becomes familiar.

The motor sputters, I reach down and twist the petcock to reserve. The motor smooths out and I hear Lita Ford, singing “Let’s get back to the cave”.

I pull off the freeway and refuel. Grab a Mars bar and a Mountain Dew.

I pull back onto the highway. Pantera begins to play “Cemetery Gates” in my head. Slowly my speed begins to crawl back up to the velocity that brings tears to my eyes.

The rim of the Valley comes into view. I see a blanket of jewels glittering below me as the lights of Los Angeles invite me back home.

This time, things will shine.

“In a dream I walked with God through the deep places of creation; past walls that receded and gates that opened, through hall after hall of silence, darkness and refreshment — the dwelling place of souls acquainted with light and warmth — until, around me, was an infinity into which we all flowed together and lived anew, like the rings made by raindrops falling upon wide expanses of calm dark waters.” — Dag Hammarskjold

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.