The kind you’re born with, the kind you choose, the kind that teach Catholic school
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Not quite midnight. My candle stutters
under the half-full moon, the frightened stars.
Someday in the future, people will be curious
about these rituals: how
we murdered them in the dead of night, strapped to beds,
poison injections dripping, scientifically timed,
thinking ourselves modern.
And some of us, the lecturer will explain,
dressed up like guards
(two rows of them here, visors
pushed back, batons at the ready),
and some like newsmen, clambering over low rooftops
with their klieg lights and cameras,
and the rest of us drab, weary and defiant protesters,
arm in arm, with our candles and sage
and We Shall Overcome and, in this case, eagle feathers,
as the accused killer
(all right, he really did it)
is a Native American, who
(if you want the whole story)
lured a girl-child to his car,
raped, sodomized — go on, tell it — stripped, and flung
this ten-year-old from a bridge
into a gully, as if she were a beer can he’d just crushed
under his heel, and left for litter.
Say that part. And then, to enact
our rage, to express our unspeakable
horror at the ravage of our daughter,
we’ll carefully poison him.
The candles burn down.
Christians to a man, get on their megaphone:
“Ten minutes to repent! Nine more minutes
or your soul will burn!
Eight minutes and the Lord is your judge!”
Our songs pick up as well: “We shall not,
we shall not be moved,”
“Gonna lay down my sword and shield,”
and a Navajo chant.
The current swells. Inside,
a frightened, fucked-up
man is being prepared for death and burial.
He has requested that a medicine man with sage
accompany him to his death chamber. Request denied.
All right, one eagle feather,
to be pinned to the sheet over his body.
I link arms with the rough wool coat
next to me, bow my head into a friend’s shoulder,
thinking about my own rape
at the hands of a rageful drunk, years ago.
I don’t have words
for what I’m doing here, only the smell and roar
of the ocean going on and on below us:
crash, smash, gotcha.
And the softness of the air on my cheeks,
and the sound of screaming gulls.
Last week the rains finally stopped.
The peach tree is in full pink flower.
Earth seems to have forgiven
our uncountable human sins again
and opened her arms to us in spring. O pure
right and wrong, how I long for you.
Tell the people of the future I came here for confusion
and ignorance and darkness.
For the white lick of flame against the char of ash.
For poison and reason and the old moon,
and a stubborn idea about the innocence of things,
and for the smell of candle wax
dripping silently and slowly.
I am in prison, and any light shed on this dying place is more than just welcome; it is followed around the way a flower follows the sun. A good story here is life, you see.
Alison Luterman [“Another Vigil at San Quentin,” August 2001] not only managed to shed light; she opened doors between inmates that are rarely opened by anything except sports, sex, or complaints.
Getting any of my peers to read a poem is next to impossible, but my next door neighbor — a black man from Virginia who, in over a year, has not said a word to me — heard me reading the poem to a guy downstairs who can’t read, and he asked me if he could read it. Later that night, he asked if he could let one of his brothers a few cells away read it.
It is now a week later, and The Sun has shone in almost every cell.
I’m not saying that Luterman’s poem has been fully read and understood by all, but it did start them talking. In here, where we are locked down seventy-one out of every seventy-two hours, talking to each other is a big step.