Joan and I were in Raleigh together
for the first time to take the tour
for new vista volunteers
at North Carolina’s Central Prison,

a hundred years old, built by convict labor
along the railroad tracks behind Morgan Street
so new felons could be shipped in by boxcar.
The inmates called it “The Wall”:

thirteen hundred of them locked inside.
Guards with tommy guns
manned the towers twenty-four hours a day.
The fence that crowned the high stone

perimeter was electrified.
We were marched right into the gut of it:
I and J blocks, where the criminally insane,
playing badminton on an asphalt court

wrapped in glittering silver concertina,
screamed obscenities at the girls. A wall
with bullet holes in it. No buttons
in the elevators, just an intercom and a camera.

The Death House, in a grassy side yard
spilling with pink primrose, had to be entered
through a heavy church door. Inside
lurked the gas chamber: an oak chair bolted

to the floor in a glassed-in confessional.
A row of cushioned pews for the witnesses.
Though it was mid-August, Death Row was cold.
Joan wore my green flannel shirt,

her long brown hair still damp from bathing.
I had known her only a week.
In college she’d played piano for prisoners
at the Dekalb County Jail in Atlanta.

The Central condemned wore white: white
beltless trousers, white tucked-in shirts.
They were barefoot and washed in light.
We filed past their cells along a narrow
gunmetal catwalk several stories up.
We could barely see the bottom.
As Joan passed along the block —
her head down —

the men milled to the fronts of their cells
and clenched the bars,
likenesses of one another,
amnesiacs, ghostly in their whites

and that odd gleam pooled about them —
not wholly there, but evanescent
while we hovered as though in midair,
trying not to face them.