Lifeline

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We read poetry this morning. Six men, seated in a circle, each chair with a character of its own. The prison library just around the corner, the fourth floor room was too warm for the box fan to cool. Still, the men chose to turn it to its lowest setting so everyone could be heard. There was an intimacy that seemed to transport us far from the general population. The only reminder of their imprisonment was the shelves of legal books that held out hope to a few for escape or an early release.

The Rilke poem was their favorite – “You See, I Want a Lot”. I read it first and then Billy offered to read it a second time. Billy, who took up with gypsies at an early age and learned the art of “over charging” well enough to make a living at it. Billy, whose soft voice slides over each word, serving his third or fourth prison sentence with charges still pending in Massachusetts.

“You see, I want a lot.
Perhaps I want everything:
the darkness that comes with every infinite fall and the shivering blaze of every step up.
So many live on and want nothing,
and are raised to the rank of prince
by the slippery ease of their light judgments.
But what you love to see are faces
that do work and feel thirst.
You love most of all
those who need you
as they need a crowbar or a hoe.
You have not grown old,
and it is not too late
to dive into your increasing depths
where life calmly gives out its own secret.”

Each of the men discovered a phrase or a sentence to hold on to. Pat, twenty-two years into a murder sentence, spoke of the rise of the working class, informed by years of reading works on social movements and revolutions. Brandon, whose single shot in self defense has left him bitter toward a justice system that failed him, and who wants only to know that he’s loved. Bill, sixty-five and a world class athlete in another life, hopes that it’s true that he’s not grown too old, that it’s not too late.

Poetry is different in prison. At least with these men. It is not a school exercise nor is it a night time ritual just before the light is turned out. For these men it is a spark, a fire, a lifeline to that part of themselves that is nearly impossible to access any other way.