A Prison Poet Steps Across My E-mail
A prison poet, imprisoned no more, showed up in my e-mail this morning, asking a word of advice, a critique perhaps. I read his poem dry-eyed, then read it to my wife and couldn't keep the tears at bay, nor could she.
I have no advice.
Poetry isn't a matter of iambic pentameter or the rules of so many beats to the line. It touches your heart or it doesn't. Let me share James Kottmeier's poem;
i watched another young man lose a loved one today-
unable to bury his own nineteen year-old brother.
unable to hold his grieving mother (unable to be a son).
unable to do anything but cry into the phone,
receive consoling hugs from men he met over a bowl of mush.
prison-made tattoos don’t conceal tears very well.
did I mention that i love this young man like a brother,
like the little brother these cages prevented me from growing up with?
how many little brothers, how many sons, have i had in places like this?
how could my own little brother know that i am really a big brother
-just not his?
they told me he was on the phone.
my little brother.
i could see him crying.
saying it wasn’t fair.
hearing that the funeral would have to be held with a closed-casket.
because his brother (his own little brother) had been shot twice in the face.
it’s painful to hear a grown man cry like that,
even if he isn’t so grown.
when he got off of the phone i could see his eyes on me.
i could see the need i’d never been home to see in my own brother’s eyes.
and our hug was as real as two men get.
it was the sum of our failures.
it was his brother following his footsteps to a bullet rather than a prison cell.
it was me being unable to attend my mother’s funeral because i was locked up.
it was understanding.
but how much “under” can “standing” get?
i have tried...
but i can’t guide him toward answers more concrete than my own.
ten “hardcore convicts” sitting out in the hot sun with him,
not old enough to buy liquor but already burying a brother,
6 days after another one of our friends buried his mother.
hoping we don’t see that damn chaplain come around here for a while.
tired of seeing friends get “in loving memory” tattoos.
the chaplain will let you make a free phone call,
but you have to pray with him first,
take some pamphlets,
listen to his sales pitch.
so my friend is back on the payphone,
placing collect calls,
lined up with strangers who are listening to him fall apart.
“Don’t bury him in a three-piece suit mom,”
he’s almost screaming it through his painful-sounding tears.
“That isn’t him mom.
bury him in a Nautica windbreaker, with a hoodie and a hat.
that’s my little brother and that’s what he would want.
roll a joint and put it in his pocket.
i know he loved me.
i loved him too.
i’ll carry him in my heart forever.
and I’m mailing him a letter.
don’t open it.
just put it in the casket with him.
it’s just not fair.
he was my little brother.
he never hurt nobody.”
did i mention that it was the Fresno police who shot his brother’s face full of bullets?
does it really matter?
one man’s death is no more tragic than anothers.
-not to his family anyway.
no, he probably wasn’t going to cure cancer.
and, yes, he was most likely destined for a life of trailer parks, prison cells and drug rehab’s.
but the real tragedy is that we never got a chance to find out.
humanity is inextricably linked by both its failures and its successes.
it’s enriched by its Nobel laureates,
but it might be even more enriched by those small success stories that go uncelebrated.
the girl who’s the first in her family to graduate high school.
the father who kicks heroine and is still clean 27 years later.
the single mother who holds her family together.
the boy who drops out of school so he can work,
adding his paycheck to his mother’s so that his sister can go to college one day.
those are triumphs of humanity.
every bit as important as the twelve year-old prodigy who already has two college degrees…
and may, in fact, cure cancer someday.
because people need to see heroes in their own proximity,
role models that they can identify with.
curing disease doesn’t do a bit of good for the man who doesn’t see any point in living.
i watched another young man lose a loved one today.
unable to bury his own brother, hold his grieving mother, or be a son.
but i’m holding onto hope.
and my friend is too.
grass, yet, grows in this concrete deprivation.
Some of my own poetry can be read at PragueWriter poetry