Poetry by Ace Boggess from The Prisoners
“What Right Have I to Be Happy?”
—Jean Valjean in Les Misèrables
I could spend hours
reading poetry to the Institutional Magistrate,
though my arguments already
have enough complications
to keep him hypnotized by strobe lights
of language, all the technical jibber-jabber
that lets my clients believe
their jailhouse lawyer really knows
how to conduct an autopsy of form.
Of course they also realize in all likelihood,
whatever rule it is, they broke it,
so just want a little mercy,
as do I. But I wear a scarf
of self-pity to match my socks
handmade from discontentment:
I lost my wife to another man,
my house to my wife,
my city to a dark wave of junky nostalgia
black as a raven’s beard. Too,
my wife lost her lover’s unborn child,
which made me sad for her, &
for me—which made no sense &
had me telling her God is an asshole,
praise His name (Not that it helps,
the one or the other, or the One).
Sometimes I wonder if
all at once a man must pay
for every outrageous act in a long life
as though the Honorable Circuit Judge
read every festering page
from my file & told me, “So,
you were loyal to your wife but cheated
on a 7th-grade social studies test
although you knew the answers,”
then brought his gavel down
with a thundering sigh.
“What Was Your First Day of Incarceration Like?”
When Mr. Kurtz says, “The horror, the horror,”
he’s lucky. The story’s over, & so is he,
no longer trapped in his nightmare world
or the existential one. Still alive &
commencing my journey deep into the dark continent
of the future, I wrapped in a tattered baby blue blanket &
strained to shake off my past: the opiate detox
fear & trembling unlike Kierkegaard’s, without a faith
in anything. In a medical isolation cell,
I paced & cursed & purged, bent over the steel john
as if I lost something there: a wedding band
or matched set of dreams. Left alone, buried alive
in a cave-in of steel & stone, I didn’t possess
so much as a pen to write I want to die!
The real Hell isn’t other people as Sartre supposed; no,
it’s absence, loneliness, genuine being-for-itself,
like that: locked up with just the ugliness
of one’s thoughts. Unable to cry, crying out
unheard, I lay face down on the cold concrete,
spying through a crack beneath the door &
praying any human foot would pass:
an angel of mercy, invisible friend,
a stranger’s voice in the wilderness of night.
“But When They Drop the Bad News on You, Then What the Hell Will You Do?”
—David Baldacci, The Simple Truth
Say to yourself, At least it can’t get worse, although it does.
Your victim shows, curses you with eyes swearing
your many pretty wounds are glitter glass
compared with diamonds shimmering in his skin.
“Twenty-five,” the judge says, while you wonder if that’s days
or weeks. Then in a few hours or maybe a year
your lawyer develops cancer of the ear & no longer takes your calls.
Your friends lose themselves to madness, heroin,
something else they caught while petting spider monkeys at the zoo.
By now you’re so exhausted when your wife requests,
“Let’s separate,” your mind sighs, Whew,
we already have, until you figure out she’s not
measuring space between but what cement she’s using
for the break. All you can pray as you kneel
to gather your entrails off the floor
is, I hope he’s a priest, so at least someone might be there
to pour the shots of liquor at your wake.
“Can They Do That?”
They can feed you pulverized bones
of rat, but not the eyes or hair.
They can softly submerge your face in the sink,
never the toilet without a showing of cause.
They can sing country western songs
all night off key as you try to sleep,
rap on Fridays, rhythm & blues in the afternoon,
though heavy metal would violate your rights.
They can laugh at your inadequacy.
They can kick you, but only when you’re down.
They’ll seduce your wife with white roses &
tales of your exploits floundering
like a bear with no arms & broken wings.
On a good day they might leave you alone
(a good day for you, for they have none).
They can spin you in a centrifuge,
dress you in dresses, dance on your grave,
can tie your shoelaces in a knot
(don’t say they cannot) then lock
your fingers in a Chinese puzzle
so you struggle until you disappear,
a Theseus walking threadless into a maze.