Thinking About Irina Ratushinskaya

by Susan Kelly-DeWitt

I’m not quite sure what got me thinking about Irina Ratushinskaya recently but something did, and brought back how closely I followed her work during the eighties; Poets all over the world took her case very personally. Many of us wrote letters protesting her imprisonment and asking for her release. (Here is a link to an appeal in the New York Review of Books on June 30, 1983: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/6168 )

Arrested in 1982 for her involvement with the human rights movement and for writing poems that were considered anti-Soviet propaganda, she was tried and sentenced to seven years hard labor and five years of internal exile; almost immediately she was sent to a labor camp where she lived as a “zek” and continued secretly to write poems by carving them into bars of soap, memorizing them, and then destroying the evidence by washing them away. (She also copied poems in minuscule script onto strips of paper which she managed to smuggle out; a number of these were published in the 1984 collection Poems and later in Pencil Letter.) Reagan and Gorbachev negotiated her release in October, 1986, an agreement timed to warm things for the summit in Reykjavik. Ratushinskaya’s Soviet citizenship was revoked; physically frail after years of harsh camp conditions, she emigrated to the U.S., where she lived for two years (as the poet-in-residence at Northwestern University) before moving to London, and then finally back home to Russia in the late nineties. A book of her poems, Beyond the Limit, came out in 1987, shortly after her release; Gray is the Color of Hope, a memoir, appeared in 1988. If you haven’t read these, you should.

Since then Ratushinskaya has published a number of volumes, including Wind of the Journey, poems in Russian and English from Cornerstone Press (2000), translated by Lydia Razran Stone. Here is poem 35 from that collection:

    The cock has sung
    But angel horns are still.
    We live on a narrow ledge above
    The precipice of time.
    We sense the end is near.
    But, heedless, children run.
    There are no dreams that will
    Assuage their urge to fly.
    What power then is this?
    Drawing them to the abyss?

    (1991)

I also located a number of new poems in the May 2008 issue of The International Literary Quarterly: http://www.interlitq.org/issue3/irina_ratushinskaya/bio.php

Why do I think of her now? Perhaps because we still have so much to learn from the Russian poets—not just Ratushinskaya but also Akhmatova, Pasternak, Mandelstam, Tsvetaeva. In this time of inflammatory talk radio hosts and shows, and of senators who shout “You lie!” to the president in the middle of a congressional address, I say to myself, let us look to the Russian poets and be both heartened and instructed.

A Poet’s Journey

By Laura Schultz

My father was a farmer turned politician. It was from him that I learned about honoring the land coupled with a concomitant social conscience. My mother was both a painter and a sculptor and through her influence, I was drawn to the arts at an early age. She believed that all artistic pursuits were a form of therapy, and did it with gusto, flair and true artistry. On more than one occasion I was told that “We show our love for people in the beauty we create for them both on canvass and in the culinary delights we serve them.” I never forgot her words nor her inspiration and it was in creative pursuits that I found solace throughout the many twists and turns along the path.

Although my teachers encouraged my artistic interests, especially my writing, I lacked the self-confidence to pursue my dream, until as if over night my world was plunged into turmoil and despair. In the course of a series of dramatic, life-changing events that included several near death experiences, I began a healing journey that transformed my life and gave me a new and hopeful perspective on the human condition. I began asking the tough questions of who we are as individuals, how we relate to our culture, the world at large, and more importantly where we as human beings are going. In many ways I felt that I had succumbed to Thoreau’s life of quiet desperation while the human community around me was in dire straits and so I feverishly began to write..and write from the heart.

Right before I entered UCLA, I was diagnosed with a terminal blood disorder and given about a year to live. I suddenly felt alienated and forgotten, the victim of a capricious universe and a society that was suddenly cold. I was now a lost child huddling in the corner. It was then that I realized that fear is our only enemy and if we give into it, we are lost. Fear obscures our vision and alienates us from our lives. It fragments our being and pits our thoughts against each other. So I fought my fears and the ensuing battles, and despite medical predictions, I survived the year and many since. It was a harrowing journey experience but I survived and never forgot the tenuous nature of our lives. It was during this time, when I felt isolated and alone that I always remembered the “therapy of creating” that my mother had referred to, and I learned to process feelings through creative writing and journaling. Through the process of becoming whole again, I realized that the same transformation was the key to our social malaise. I began to prepare the path to come out of isolation and become a real part of my community, making meaningful connections to others in a very conscious way.

In conjunction with this realization, I felt a growing needed to be of service to others and my community. I became involved in social action, working in a variety of programs to facilitate positive outcomes for people with disabilities and others who feel disenfranchised. My greatest success seemed to be in helping to heal personal relationships so I became a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. As such I have been assisting individuals and families in crisis for 25 years both in private practice as a clinician and in the nonprofit arena with expertise in the field of disability, chemical dependency, and childhood trauma. At the same time I began writing again. I worked on a number of projects including a self-help book but none seemed to satisfy or adequately convey those feelings and perceptions that I first nurtured in my youth and which were coming back to me with renewed energy. Throughout this time, I heard the call of the voice of the poet within that became too powerful to ignore.

Since that time of awakening, I have been driven to write poetry of the heart that illuminates the struggles of life and how we may triumph in the end. I am convinced that the growing fusion of my personal experiences and my professional knowledge is paving a path to further pursue my call to write. My resume does not tell the whole story, but because of my path, I feel passionate about sharing my voice with others to both inspire and to empower, through my poetry. My goal is to speak for many of what I consider to be the lost voices of the disenfranchised among us. I ascribe my poetic voice to the feelings expressed in the quote by Anne Sexton “Put your ear down close to your soul and listen hard.”
_____

Jailhouse Journal IV

by Ella Stone 

Today during the men’s class, the teacher asked one of the inmates how his novel was going. He had been having writer’s block for a while, as he didn’t know what to do with the hero’s lady character.

“So, how did you get over that writer’s block, Marcus?”

“I killed her,” he said.

Everyone laughed. It was halfway through the class, and the energy shifted from quiet and unfamiliar to a lively discussion. I watched strangers respond to each other’s writing, watched most of them raise their hands when asked who was serious about being published writers. They want the same things all amateur writers want. They want the same things I want. I felt the anxiety of teaching at a jail slowly lift from my neck and shoulders.

This week I shadowed both the men and women’s creative writing class at the ACJ.  The more I walk through the bleak walls, the less I notice their suffocating boundaries. The classrooms are brightened by the inmates red scrubs, labels that mark them against gray walls with a color that’s hard to avoid. Op-Eds were the topic of discussion and as a class we looked closely at a couple of their pieces. Dashaun, the one with sleepy eyes, who moves his head so slowly when he talks that it seems he’s placing it down for the night to mold his thin pillow, wrote about mandatory drug laws. He wrote about how unjust they were for Black and Latino populations, how 5 grams of crack will get you five years whereas it takes 500 grams of powder cocaine to be sentenced the same jail time. He says it needs to be changed.

In the women’s class, I paced behind them as they typed their Op-Eds into computers. One wrote about domestic violence, the difficult struggle between staying and protecting the children vs. finding the courage to leave whilst putting the children in danger. Another wrote about the judicial system, its unfair process, its power to arrest and charge in a second upon entering a living room without any solid background information.

I started wondering what I was truly going to do to help their writing, where my knowledge would best be applied, to their structure? Their grammar? Their use of language? Marcus already knew that by killing off his protagonist’s lady he’d be allowing for more possibilities, the option to complicate plot and give the hero a reason to keep going, to seek revenge, to find closure, to search for another lover. Dashaun already knew that his Op-Ed needed heart and honesty but also specific examples to make a point. And the women already knew that their voices would be heard by writing down their pain, even if my eyes were the only ones to see it.

I realized I could teach these inmates all the grammar, structure and language in the world, but what they really needed was a reason to keep writing, a hope that their words could be better. And sitting in that classroom with no windows, I was forced to look at each inmate, to study the way they move and talk, to realize that anyone in their lives who might have been there to listen, to support, to encourage, has been “killed off” in one way or another. When they wrote the novel of their lives, before they were in this creative writing class, their words were spontaneous and passionate, wrongly laid out, chosen for instant gratification just like the actions that put them in this place; they were not toiled over and thought about, painstakingly read. I realized my job was going to be simple: I was going to help them revise their words. And I started to believe that new novels could be written.

_____

Waiting for Necessity to Speak II

by Michael Simms

Tradition tells us that muses are angelic creatures who descend from clouds, or drift like smoke through an open window — while my muse is a guy who walks into a bar. But we take what we can get, right? The sources of poetry are too uncertain for me to refuse any gift, no matter how unlikely the messenger. By the same token, a poet usually has to accept the form and scope of the poem as a given. One dare not say to the muse, “Thanks for the epigram, but really I was hoping for an ode…” If we refuse the gift, it may not be offered again.

_______

How Beautiful the Beloved

by Elizabeth Kirschner

     I just came in from my evening seaside walk. Exotic black sand harvested by winter storms, heaps of seaweed with chartreuse and fuchsia tints, low, low tide, sun dousing itself in the marsh among cattails and red-winged blackbirds, moon rising on a quicksilver horizon. Such beauty, at its heart-wrenching heights, can be disarming, even alarming the way sudden love can be. A torrent of gorgeous torture, then, which is the high sublime. I greet this sea twice daily as I am addicted to its stunning power, its absolute unwillingness to back down.

      I was rounding the bend in the road just before my house when I saw, to my utter horror, a homeless black man. There are no African Americans in Kittery Point, ME and to suddenly come upon one, in such ruins, was an instant heartbreak. Immediately the words, “There but for the grace of God go I,” came in to me fully, totally.

      Given that I have a major, at times debilitating, mental illness, I take nothing for granted and o how so many times has the suicidal swan song hummed in my harrowed bones. Far too many times and I hear it now, my stealthy, secret siren. I want to go in a wild fury, to be dashed upon the sea’s boulders by waves that are magnanimously violent. Violence is practically a cult in this country and I became intimately acquainted by it during a childhood that was an evil eternity, my body a killing field.

      Deeply damaged, I understand the myriad ways one can be totally, terrifically ruined and seeing that black man, caked in dirt, was just about devastating. When I came into my house I stood before my favorite painting. It was done by a very dear friend, Flynn Donovan. He is a master, a profoundly deep seer and this painting—I have others by Flynn—is of boat people. Golden silhouettes riding green and turquoise waves. Every time I look at it I can’t help but feel that all of us are a hair away from being boat people. Disaster isn’t picky, it is quite willing to be anyone and everyone’s destiny.

      This took me back to a memory, one that is singed in me. I was in Cambridge, MA attending group therapy called DBT, which I secretly called The Diabolical Training. It was winter, winter in zenith, winter having a heyday with its tip of the whip winds and penetrating, piercing cold. It was so cold I thought my cells might freeze.

     I came out of The Diabolical Training, headed down the alleyway toward the garage where my car was parked. I came upon a homeless man, dead asleep, with an open book in his hands next to the predictable grocery cart that held all his earthly goods. The book broke my heart, but worse, far worse were the cat and dog in his cart. I knew they got fed before this man fed himself. These were homeless, beloved animals loved by a homeless man. I took a twenty out of my purse, put it in his book as a bookmarker and gently closed the book so I wouldn’t wake up this homeless gentleman. I wanted him to find the twenty as though an angel had given it to him.

     Which I most definitely am not. Still, each of us has the capacity to shape-shift into an angel sometimes. Perhaps our humanity depends upon it. The damage, the utter demonic violence visited upon me as a child has only deepened my compassion for others who are damaged and damned.

      Right now I have two books with no homes. Right now Flynn’s work, his profoundly and gravely beautiful paintings are in a warehouse. Artists and poets are not the legislatures of this world, they are its secondhand citizens except for those lucky few whose work is magnetic.

     Of which I am not, nor ever will be. My fourth book, My Life as a Doll, brought out bravely and beautifully by Autumn House Press two years ago has sold less than five hundred copies. My tale of travail, this book chronicles the abuse, abuse so severe it’s a wonder I survived, but I did and there but for the grace of God go I. Nobody or very few really want to know what’s really going on  behind closed doors.

      The homeless, the boat people—let us not forget about them. They are everywhere. They are multiplying like loaves and fishes. Who will save them? Who will save us from our very own souls? As I write this I’m looking at the cover of Gregory Orr’s wondrous book, How Beautiful the Beloved.  All of us are the beloved, most of us have beloved ones, so let us love the beloved fully, whole-heartedly.

     There’s another A.A. expression that I love. It goes: God loves a drunk. That means God loves the legions of demolished ones best. My parents were drunks and I am glad, very glad God loved them in spite of their violence and I believe that when they died they went straight up to heaven. Hopefully I will, too, but not by my own hand. Rather may I breathe that wild fury, tortuous beauty into my poems. In the end, God put a pen in my hand and I will keep using it even if my story, like so, so many others, goes largely unheard.

__________

Jailhouse Journal III

by Ella Stone 
 

They call it toilet talk. She kneels in front of the porcelain bowl, hands cupping the base like a man grabbing his lover’s hips on a dance floor. Her face dips down into the oval hole, calling his name, Marco. His name travels through pipe past grit and grime, coiling through the loops and turns of sewer systems, searching through dark walls for waiting ears. He kneels one floor below her, separated by a two-foot concrete slab, leaning his leathered face down into the cold bowl. Lydia, he replies, holding the “a” long and lovingly despite the rank stench of feces and urine that suffuses the air at his mouth. It is their only way to talk, their only way to pass hours without face-to-face communication. It’s their only choice, behind bars.

It was through these two toilets that a wedding ceremony occurred. Each inmate scooped water out of the bowls and dumped it down the nearby sinks, ladled out its murky liquid until only a thin coating settled below. Each brought in a friend, a witness to the act. They exchanged vows through rusty pipes, a union of two souls coveted by dirty porcelain. When they told the warden they were now married, he looked at them preposterously. It was a Muslim marriage, sir. All we needed was words and witnesses. Neither of them was Muslim, but one of the witnesses was and told them this “toilet ceremony” was official. And that’s all it took for Marco and Lydia to feel victorious behind limiting walls.

This is just one of the stories the man in charge tells us when we go for “security orientation” at the ACJ. He hands out a single-sheet booklet, photocopied in faint ink, rules to follow when you enter the prison community. He tells us it’s all about respect. It’s about giving the inmates a decent “Hey, how’s it goin?” He tells us not to let them manipulate us, that they will try, and that they’re good at it. One of the head security guard shows us a beeper that we’ll each wear, connected to the belt loops of our pants. “Just pull the pin whenever you feel in danger, like a fights goin’ on in the middle of the room,” he says. When the pin releases, it sets off a silent alarm and a swarm of officers follow the beeper signal to where we are located, in case we’re in a situation where an inmate has taken us hostage. No problem, I think. No problem.

“I’d say you’re safer here than if you were to walk into a public high school,” the man in charge says when he senses our dis-ease and anxiety. “I’ve worked here twenty-five years, and I know I’ve got guys that’d back me up should anything go down.” I wonder what a few weeks will get me. “They govern themselves between these walls, you’ll see” he says. “Once they know you’re here to help them, they won’t mess with you.”

I ponder the range of souls sitting in concrete blocks. The Lydia’s and Marco’s who just want to be able to love, the manipulative ones that want to see what I can offer them, the ones that give reason to hand out beepers should something dangerous happen. I’m scared. I can’t deny it. And I keep looking around me at all the people that work here, trying to tell if there’s anyone with fear in their eyes. I haven’t found one yet. They seem at ease and as comfortable as they’d be working at a corporate office or a department store. But the moment I walk into the classroom of inmates, the moment I allow myself to look them straight in the face with conviction, I find that fear where I least expect in, lingering in their eyes like the putrid stench that hovers inside toilets.

_____

Waiting for Necessity to Speak

 Notes toward an understanding of poetic imagination

by Michael Simms

When I was a student in Iowa City, Stanley Bomgarten and I used to drink at a place called George’s a few blocks from campus. One morning we were celebrating Stanley getting fired from his job as assistant pastor at the local Baptist Church when a young man walked in and sat at the bar. He was tall and thin with short greasy hair. His eyes shone with wild intensity behind thick black-rimmed lenses. His cheeks were flushed as if he had a fever.

“Is your name Mark?” he asked. “No it’s Mike,” I said.

“Whatever,” he said, “God gave me a poem to give to you. You can publish it under your own name if you want.”

From memory he wrote these lines on a paper napkin:

When a man has tried his soul
as if it were open to loss or win
and felt the better for his trial
or felt he has traveled far
from accustomed ways

Cricket chirping
becomes a source of joy, concrete
is comforting to walk upon and churches
have their stained glass lighted.

Then he acquires acquiescence
and the wind is cool on his cheek
and he neither laughs nor cries
but looks upon things about him.

He is in the infinite heart
where the air is cool numinescence
in the sky. He begins to think
of the face he has seen
and his eyes begin searching
for the stars.

He handed me the napkin, got up, and walked out of the bar without ordering anything.

I asked Stanley what he thought of the guy. Stanley said he believed God really had given him the poem. I laughed, but when I realized Stanley was serious, I ordered another beer. We sat for a long time without saying anything. Then Stanley said his life was going to Hell.

It’s been thirty years since I heard Stanley moved back to his parents’ farm. Thirty years since I finished my degree and began wandering in my self-made wilderness. As for the odd young man with the poem, I never learned his name and I never saw him again.

___________

Jailhouse Journal II

by Ella Stone

“How was your writing week?” the teacher asks from the front of the classroom.

We’re in a small circle, a ring of warm bodies surrounded by cold concrete walls. All women, all eager to share what’s resting inside. They do this at the beginning of every class. Talk about their writing weeks. The good. The bad. The writer’s block. I’m back at the Allegheny County Jail, or ACJ as the employees call it, observing the women’s class this time.

“Sucked. Mine sucked,” says one of the inmates. Her face shifts from the teacher to the floor when she speaks, as though her eyes are being pulled by a string. She goes on to express how her writing week was tough since her sister had been killed the previous month during a big snow storm, a hit-and-run on an icy street in Homewood.

I think of tragedy. The tragedy of these women locked up in here with red suits and thin slippers. She talks about pain, about “losing it” every time she sits down in her cell to write about her sister’s death. We listen. I think about how this writing class could easily be a three-hour therapy session should the lesson plan veer off track. But I realize this opportunity I have to teach at a jail is my chance to show these inmates how writing is therapy, how it can heal. I could give them excerpts from prison writers like Jimmy Santiago Baca or Ken Lamberton so they could read for themselves how writing preserves parts of our lives. Or I could give them a memoir, an essay, a poem.

We continue our circle of discussion. The woman sitting next to me raises her hand: “I’ve got a story to tell. I’ve got a story to tell. I just need someone to help me write it down,” she says gripping the pages of her notebook with clutched fingers, lifting the sheets in the air. I see words scribbled in pencil filling each page to the edge. The writing is illegible from my angle, but I know there’s something powerful in between those sheets just by the look in her eyes. They’re hazel and youthful, despite a few surrounding wrinkles, and they turn to me in the middle of class, glancing down at a poem as she slides it onto my desk. “Will you read this?” she whispers, like the plea of a child in middle school passing a note to her best friend. I read it slowly, making sure to take in every single word and space so she knows I’m really trying. The verbs have power and the images linger, but the syntax is off. And I’m eager to show her how to improve that. But the subject needs no improvement. The poem is about memories that are locked up and dusty in the cellar of a basement, grayed and forgotten in darkness, stifled by walls, and untouched by the living.

“You had a good writing week,” I whisper.

______

Capturing the Rapture of Happiness

by Elizabeth Kirschner 

It can be done. We can capture the rapture of happiness, bring it home, feed it, love it like a stray animal till it’s named and tamed. Try this—think of the soul as a butterfly net, feel the wild flutterings within. When pregnant some seventeen years ago, my son’s first movements felt like a dancing butterfly, my womb, a cocoon.

These days, happiness is my only forecast. I practice it with the same fidelity I devote to my art. I’m perpetuating spring, harvesting spring, bearing spring even though winter is not yet over and here, in Southeastern Maine, spring is fickle, flighty, here again, gone again till summer rushes in with its dressy breezes.

I came across some lines the other day in a long forgotten poem of mine. In it I assert that I write like a dancer who’s better at falling than leaping. Debilitated by serious illness for a solid decade, I did fall, I fell often, first in seizures, then in bouts of madness. I realized, in an instant, that the deeper the fall, the higher the leap. Fall down ten times, get up eleven was the law I lived by.

This has taught me range. For far too long a time, I struck all the low notes, the minor keys, the bottom notes, but now I’m hitting the trills, the grace notes, running up the scale into the callings of crescendos rather than going down into the despair of decrescendo. I’m light on my feet—both my dancing feet and iambic ones.

Well into my middle years, I’m growing younger day by day. One friend noted that my brow is no longer deeply furrowed and there’s a spring in my step, a spring in my poems. I lay out for them the way my son does for the Frisbee during a game or tournament. He soars for the disc, defies gravity, and is totally, totally in the moment. That happens while I’m writing, the world disappears and fertile words, earthy, herbal words move from compost into composition.

My happiness is not just manifesting in my work. It has many chapters recorded in the illuminated manuscript I’m now scripting, minute by minute. I always loved Pinsky’s title for his anthology, brought out some years ago, called The Handbook of Heartbreak. It is no longer my guidebook and my want bone, another Pinsky creation, has turned into wishbone.

Myriad forms of happiness then—in the work, in my seaside community of what I call the Amazing People, in the beautiful environs I live in. Darkness, darkness everywhere has transformed into light, light everywhere with plenty of it to drink. In this land of light and water, the hard shard in my heart has softened, shape-shifted. The only thing I’m burdened with is the bird of my being and o my God does she love to sing.

Outside my kitchen window is a hand painted bird box, meant as ornament, but just yesterday, a pair of sparrows are making a nest there and that’s what I’m doing, lining my nest with strands of happiness. There’s also some daffodil shoots pushing up from hard soil and gravel, a seemingly impossible feat, but I’m doing the same and maybe, just maybe, I’ll produce a bloom or two.

A great blue heron has alighted in the eel grass down at the water’s edge. She has mastered the stillness in the dancing, and in the hierarchy of poets, she is the supreme mistress. May I follow her example, leave behind dirge and lamentation, fly right into my irreducible, inimitable song.

I have a friend who died a year ago, far before his time, and in the card his wife, now widow, sent to me are these words by Abraham Lincoln: “And in the end, it’s not the years in your life that count. It’s the life in your years.” May we all live it up, really live it up, as though our very lives depended upon it, which of course they do.

_____

Read Elizabeth Kirschner’s interview about poetry as healing: http://healmyptsd.com/

 

 

What is Poetry For?

by Michael Simms

A few days ago, an old priest who was a colleague of my wife’s passed away, and my wife came home from work angry at the world. I was worried; Eva doesn’t anger often, and her grief seemed huge and unbearable. I couldn’t console her, so I asked Scott Staples, a friend who knew and admired the old man, to stop by our house. The three of us sat in the kitchen, Eva sipping milk, Scott and I icewater, toasting the old priest’s life, remembering picnics at his farm, his love of poetry, his kindness to Scott during a painful divorce, the old man’s struggle with homosexuality, his coming to peace with desire in his final years. His last weeks were spent in a hospital bed, ranting fragments of Shelley and Yeats, mumbling worries about his fall classes, ripping at his clothes full of bees, he said.

In the long shadows of the kitchen, we lifted glasses to the old man, his love, his fear, the final blessing of death, and as William Stafford says, we thought hard for us all.

***

For ten years I didn’t write. Other ambitions that seemed more important at the time called to me. I raised kids, taught school, built a business, and learned how to be a grown-up. Although I wasn’t writing, I did feel the pull of the spirit toward a life of the imagination. I prayed, I read philosophy, I took my kids to the art museum. I had long conversations with friends that lasted well into the night. I felt love and fear, and I experienced an occasional insight into larger patterns that inspired awe, but these feelings and insights disappeared without my recording them. A stone falls into the water and the ripples push out to the edges until the surface is smooth again, leaving no mark.

What I missed most was a sense of completion. When I write a poem, the desire for a pleasing aesthetic experience compels me to fill in the details, to continue the rhythms, to find closure. Without artistic ambition, the reverie stays half-completed, unsatisfied.

The last six months I’ve been writing like a madman, poems tumbling out one after another like a family of circus acrobats. Every poem I haven’t written over the last ten years is standing in line at the door, waiting for its name to be spoken.

***

So we write poems in order to give form to our imaginings, to make discoveries in our emotional terrain, to understand life in a way that nothing else makes quite as clear. And poems live in the vital center, made of the raw stuff of life. They reside in every small important thing we do: holding a newborn baby, teaching a child to read, consoling a friend in grief.

But why read poetry? What can these exploratory images and extended rhythms mean to someone other than the writer?

During my ten years of silence, I often read poetry for pleasure. Many poems delighted me with their music, wit, and color, but a few I kept returning to because they gave me something more than merely postcards from the poet’s inner travels. Epiphanic narratives such as James Wright’s Northern Pike, Naomi Shihab Nye’s Coming to Cuzco, and Jack Myers’ Jake Addresses the World from the Garden gave form to my own awakenings. I need these poems the way a vine needs a trellis. We might say that poets, in devoting their lives to the act of imagination, engineer the soul of our culture, designing and building the spiritual scaffold we must all climb as we struggle toward the light.

_______

Jail House Journal

by Ella Stone

It takes forever to get into the Allegheny County Jail. Between the four of us, we only have two quarters, which we stick in the parking meter out front. Once past the first set of doors, a police officer approaches us: “Ladies, you need to lock up all your stuff in the lockers, no keys, no sunglasses, no phones.” “We don’t have any quarters,” we say rummaging through pockets. We bump into each other, unsure of what to do next: four free women voluntarily coming to jail, eager and excited to get inside its walls. A woman standing by the lockers turns towards our frazzled mess, “Here, I have a quarter.” “Oh thank you, thank you.” We feed the borrowed quarter to the small locker, lock up our things, and pass through a metal detector.

The guy in charge leads us through metal detector number two and a woman officer scans us up and down. Daylight peers in through the main glass doors, and as we pass through each stage of security, the light slowly fades behind concrete walls. My eyes adjust to fluorescent, revealing bleak, cream hallways. I’ve never been in a jail, but imagined this was how it might be. Behind glass panels sits a large group of prisoners listening to a pastor. One eyes me, locking to my ponytail and earrings; I feel his stare until we close a two-inch steel door behind us.

It feels like many classrooms I’ve been in before–chalkboards, computers, desks, and a book shelf–but rather than filled with energetic children, difficult teenagers, or nicely dressed college students, this classroom is full of prisoners. Twelve men dressed in thin red pants and v-neck shirts sit at computers, shifting big legs in their seats. They give us a nod, a quiet “hello” or a mere look in our direction. My heart thuds like it used to before my ballet performances, but I’m more worried about how I’ll see the audience, rather than how they’ll see me. I’m expecting criminals, and I’m worried about how uncomfortable, unsafe I might feel. I try not to think about why each one’s here. I try not to care.

I’m observing a creative writing class at the county jail, one that I’ll soon be teaching with fellow grad students. I sit in a chair in the middle of the room, facing my back to a prisoner. I hear him breathe in and out, long steady blows behind me. My fear lessens as the teacher continues her lesson. Some men talk quietly to neighbors, others sit in silence at their computers, and some call out words for the teacher to put up on the board. They’re writing a haiku together.

After class, the heavy breather comes up to me and tells me he’s a rapper, so he wants “to write poetry but it ain’t right ‘cuz all the rappers have been goin’ to jail recently.” One asks me how long I’ve been in school. “Damn” is his response and he tells me he wants to go back to school, “down south where it’s warm, so [he] can get into business.” One talks about how he “just wants to write, man” how he “just wants to learn, man.” Men write on notepads in their empty cells and bring them to class every week, hoping their words and my guidance can provide the air they need to lift up their heels, to imagine themselves beyond walls. Or maybe just the sanity to wait between them.

They ask when we’re coming back. “Soon,” we say, “soon.” We head out through the same doors, the same hallways, the same detectors, but this time we walk around the laser beams. I remember our awkward entrance and think about how long it took for us to pass through these doors, how badly we wanted to get in, and how easy it is for us to get out.

____

Lyn Lifshin: an Appreciation

by Michael Simms

For thirty years, I’ve been reading Lyn Lifshin’s poems in independent literary magazines across the country.  I admire her integrity as a poet — she’s always true to her voice and vision — she never sounds like anyone else.  Here are three of her recent poems:

Salsa

it’s the moves

not the man. He

could be the size

of a 12 year old

but he’s got the

beat in his body.

Who cares if he

is hardly up to

your nose. He

was shaking his

booty.  He can get

you to shake

yours too so any

black tulips

pulling you

down go dust

and vanish and

if they try to

return, he’ll

luga palooga

them, slam them

north with a

wild hip

 

The Man In Front of Me Has Run Out Of The Metro Station

He had just the right

look and carreid the

same book I’m reading.

He might have just

left his wife.  He might

have never wanted

a woman. Or wanted

a woman like me. But

he got off at Union

Station, vanished into

a cab. I didn’t see his

face, only his fingers

but he’ll come to me

in dreams where

he won’t slip away

 

In Virginia, Hardly A Leaf Gone Red

as ice blasts, cold

reels up the ropes of

summer. No hazy

moon this morning.

Leaf scent, cold

wool. Some mornings,

like today, I can’t

read any more bad

news. “Joy,” my

mother’s favorite

perfume on my wrist.

All that remains of

her above earth 

_____