A Letter to Franz Wright, Who I Did Not Know,
& Who Died Last Night
Admittedly, a letter to you now is a kind of prayer.
A monologue addressed to an unsuitable god.
Remind me: a poem in the guise of a letter is just a poem.
You’ve escaped. You’re as innocuous as a pole dubbed safe.
I, however, have been deemed a danger when I drive,
And so will spend June and July
In County Jail, waiting to say Monongahela out loud,
To wade the Charles, float the Ocoee, dip a dry hand
In the Grand, the Ohio, the Adige.
All last week I sat with my father, confessing nothing.
Destruction junkies, we drank, smoked, and discussed
The crimes of the century scene by scene: how the mother
Drowned her children in the tub then laid them out
One by one on the bed—the unbelievable tenderness of that
Last gesture. All of the excess and shame
Mitigated. It’s time now to put my pen down
And begin making arrangements for confinement.
Adiós. I intend to read well into every night.
What I like so far about the Aeneid is how night always rises
Out of the ocean: the stars, the dark, all of it.
We are created by being. I am happy to be alive.
After the Third D.U.I.
We dreamed ourselves into the spirit of the place.
From the barred windows in a far wing of the House
Of Corrections, I studied the green equipoise
Of orchard trees. I could smell weeds and gas
From a mower—hear robins, a nuthatch, chickadees—
I could fall gently asleep reading of a slaughter
In a mountain pass—and I could even find my pulse
Racing in panic in the pre-dawn dark: I once
Woke to the phrase Allahu Akbar invoked
In unison behind my head; dazed, I sensed
Some kind of siege. Without my glasses, bodies
Looked like corpses flung from bunkers to bunks—
But then I heard snoring and saw these men—
The few awake—kneeling on the concrete floor
Muttering Ramadan’s dawn prayer at the east
Wall of our cell. Did they know what they said?
Those native Milwaukeeans, sons of the core, bowing
Before the day in chains, not angry, maybe a little
Hungry. It was horrifying, then briefly serene.
At night, I tried rhyming silently
In stifled thought until thought got loose, grew
Wild, and I was traveling again to Terezin,
Kissing a girl again against the wall of a club—
The mud of a Nazi camp still stuck to my shoes.
I revisited this and every other vacation
In the relative safety of Bunk Sixteen
While the city’s castoffs battle-rapped around me—
Two dudes, nose-to-nose on their tummies,
Nightly slaying a half-sung, half-spit
Routine with variations before clamming up like
Birds slammed into windows or boys gone to sleep.
I’d think of Florida then—that ocean smell—
The sense from car ride to coast to hotel lobby
Of closing in on something, some baroque hoedown
Or Space Mountain—rail cars, screaming, air conditioning—
How, frozen in line, I couldn’t see my family
Before me or the tracks snaking through blackness.
Because I was always doing crossword puzzles,
Alex asked if I’d give him a phone call
In exchange for a pen that I did not yet know
Was contraband—smuggled in to blend ink
With shampoo and toothpaste for blurry tattoos.
I had no clue until we had a shakedown.
He found me in the game room while the guards
With dogs went searching down the rows of bunks.
“Did you hide it,” he asked. I hadn’t. “Dude,” he said,
“You’ll lose your good time. You didn’t get it from me.”
It was the most anyone had spoken to me in days.
Suddenly, I had reason to be afraid.
I stank like them. I wore the same puke green
Socks and orange uniform. The same underwear.
I’d still be there in September, as school started.
At the bunk, the black market pen was gone.
Whoever had found it was letting me sweat—
Not a word. Alex eyed me from across the cell.
Cocooned in the state’s blue blanket, caught
By a sliver of window, I listened to the brisk
Swishing of a guard’s keys and thought of work—
The correspondence between careen and career. Late one
Afternoon, my boss told me to move a mound of bricks
By hand before heading home. I opted to get stoned
With the painter, borrow a backhoe without permission,
And fill it with unleaded. The engine seized. I was fired
And pleased. Young men leave with such ease
Until, as on an island of inbred wolves, one stands
Panting at the far end of an empty point, the foliage
Decimated, antlers everywhere.
Torture was the portrait I wore on my wrist: a scowling
ID bracelet like a scar dogging the skin—eyes rubbed
And bagged, nose now crooked, forehead an empire.
At a mosque in Jos, Nigeria, a Boko Haram
Suicide bomber retired—with sixty-some others—
Early. At this rate, I would never retire.
My dad would call it Deep Shit—
The worse version of mom’s Hot Water.
I was in it in Windsor, in South Padre, in Marion,
And here again, decades after my dad first slammed
A cell door and disappeared. When an inmate defecates
In front of me and smears it on the phones
All while grinning like, “Well, what
The fuck are you gonna do?” it’s time
To admit I’ve never felt the proper thanks:
Not when my cop dad had my mug shot taken;
Not when he booked and fed me to the jeering,
Fatherless faces; nor when their front fell
To a sociable quiet, an occasional salute;
Not when he returned to release me, took me
For ice cream, the arcade, maybe the batting cages;
Nor when the trooper at my window in Richland,
About to save me from myself, said, “No,
Son, home is in the other direction.”
And doesn’t vigilance call for
at least an ounce of expectation,
imagining the lion’s tooth inside your neck already…
Some may be proper fears.
That one might, for instance, stray into the bike lane at a bad time.
Some may be useless.
That one won’t, for instance, escape the shame of one’s hairline, one’s
weight, or one’s blood’s fondness for polyps and forgetting.
If one is severely near-sighted and gets one’s glasses broke—if the room of
fifty inmates becomes an orange-gray blur—how might one solicit
help without becoming helpless?
Does one mind the rock hovering above?
The dreamt apocalypse may be a kind of conjuring, a command—at least
a run-through for the meltdown, a freak-out with the gift of waking as
built-in safety, the brain’s subtle installment of faith.
And the owner who dreams of stomping his dog’s skull in…the shame and
fear and sorrow…the tenderness with which he handles her next.
An all night stream of electric light bright enough to read by breathes
distrust of darkness on the cell’s stale air. Still, the bright watchers are
If I had not asked the nurse for mercy, I would not have received the
Neosporin or the Band-Aids, and the blisters on the soles of my feet
would have festered. “The heat, the filth, and all of these bodies,” the
nurse told me, “make this place a hotbed of infection. If I were to
wait for you to request medical treatment through the proper
protocols, it could come tomorrow night or never.”
Of course, I shouldn’t have taken the sandals off to play basketball, but it was
the first time in two weeks we’d been let out of the cell and the sandals
don’t fit for shit. The game needed to be played. The gym was split
into factions: fighters on the weights, loners wandering the baseline,
zealots mixing theology and politics with sit-ups on the fringe, and in
the middle—on the court—a motley group earnestly playing and
regulating a game with loose rules, with room for all of this
appreciation of first steps and threes and sky hooks while forging the
slightly tighter bonds of rebounds and passes and screens. Losing
players sifted into new teams; guys looked on, saying, “We got next”
and “next” and “next.”
When a man in Special Needs, in for squeezing
His infant to death, took to inserting things—
A pencil, a strip of sandal plastic—into his own penis,
I went with Champ to mop the man’s cell floor. Bio
On four. They had a book cart. I swiped In Cold Blood.
Stationed like sci-fi pilots behind a fiberglass wall,
Guards laughed in the glow of computer screens.
We found no fleck of blood or flesh, just the dull pulse
Of a pop song in our heads. I had a flashback
To the drone of Days of our Lives and the ennui
Of steam from the iron—my mother ordering me
Outside—and my going
Out to an endless opening, yard upon yard, each
Driveway a crossing—when a rich green
Seam still held separate my touch from others.
Later, sleepless, I took to counting the beds I’d slept in,
Quit at one hundred and kept going: Queequeg,
The Spouter-Inn; Bonnie Clutter, her bedroom; Lenny…
Five weeks in, my release date neared. Freshly sentenced
Men appeared—returning as to a small town,
Speaking with a recidivist’s intimacy: “Oh,
You was over at the House? Jones still C.O. in C-6?”
I craved the pudding known as mud and shuddered
At how cozy I’d let it all become.
I read one evening of a hundred-year-old summer somewhere
South—how vivid the men of that still-amassing nation!
Each in his space of lawn, his shirt fishlike pale…and his face
Nearly anonymous. As they fed the grass: an insane noise
Of violence in the nozzle…then the smoothing into steadiness…
I heard on the radio that a lion was loose in the city.
Thinking, I sank into the quietude of American summers
Past. That lawn. That wide lawn and all that water.
An arc from the hose like the firing of an automatic. The dark
Grass deepening. Each man withdrawn into what he singly is doing.
One man feeding his lawn. One misplaced lion.
The lion pacing its tiny corridor, coming at dusk to the lawn.
The day after I get out it is still summer. Without anywhere to be or time to
be there, I drive a rural route north along the shore of a lake. The
windows are down: the hush of grasshoppers, crickets, and birds, the
blur of grasses, sand-colored and green, the sun-warmed sky smelling
like August on a country road by a lake. I stop the car to call a friend
and before he speaks I remember.
Har Ron in the passenger seat with the windows down, holding his phone in
the air and singing. I’d never seen him so happy nor heard him utter a
longer string of English: “Welcome to the Hotel California. Such a
lovely place.” We had just left the TB clinic.
After the second D.U.I., I was required to do community service and I elected
to serve it out as a host for a family of refugees. I was assigned Har
Ron, Aye Shwe, and their two daughters, Pyo Pa Pa and Yu Mai Naw.
They are ethnic Karen, from Myanmar. At the time, they recently
arrived after seven years in a refugee camp in Thailand. They spoke
painfully little English and I spoke none of their language. Seated
cross-legged on their apartment floor, in a circle around a dish of
orange slices Aye Shwe had prepared, we communicated mostly in
gestures and by pointing at pictures.
I didn’t know Har Ron had TB until he called one day out of the blue. “Jake?
Jake? Hallo Jake? You come here? You come today?” I wasn’t
scheduled to visit for another couple of days, but he made the urgency
heard. When I arrived, he handed an empty prescription bottle to me.
Misunderstanding the directions, he’d taken too many and run out
early. Two weeks early.
The TB clinic waiting room was a claustrophobically partitioned space: a
clinic within a hive of clinics. Daytime television was muted above the
folding chairs set up in tight rows. A wailing child threw himself
against a plastic play set. In the front row, a woman with bloodshot
eyes kept yawning aggressively—a terrifying, almost growl-like act.
Near panicked in my uncertainty of the circumstance, I sat beside Har Ron in
a middle row. Might he be contagious? Is he going to die? He took a
cell phone out of his pocket, hit a few buttons, and the song began. His
speakers were surprisingly loud. People looked over incredulously.
When the chorus hit, he sang aloud and smiled at me.
“This could be heaven or this could be hell,” sings Don Henley in the only
other line that Har Ron clearly understood. I had always hated that
song. And now, how could I? He sang it out again as I drove us back to
his new home—a spacious, if rickety apartment in a complex packed
with immigrants. Har Ron is my age exactly, so let’s assume that he’s
still alive. His eldest is entering Junior High.
It feels incredible to be let out of jail. The minutes stretch out unassuming,
unfettered and full of possibility. The body—no longer forced up
against its enclosure—takes its rightful attitude, wears its old clothes
like sacramental cloth. The voice is unguarded again. The car comes
out of hibernation and you drive out, out, out, out into the world.
It was only once I was sitting in the park, my two dogs rolling in the grass,
their leashes trailing and twining around their bodies, and a van-load
of work-release prisoners in orange vests began horsing around on
the pavement as their foreman leaned and looked on, that I
remembered the inmate—just a kid, really—after two weeks straight
in the same room, backflipping from baseline to baseline in the gym.
Jacob Boyd has work forthcoming or recently published in Blackbird, Copper Nickel, Crab Orchard Review, Iron Horse Literary Review, and elsewhere. He recently graduated from the PhD Program for Writers at the University of Illinois at Chicago.