I read last December at the Poetry Project, and now a portion of that reading, with Lee Ann Brown’s introduction, is available for listening as part of the Project’s new podcast initiative. Reviewing the sound file, I was startled to hear that I began that evening with “Cell #103.” This short poem, from Imagination Verses, is dedicated to “Vladimir Mayakovsky & Fred Moxley.” Listening back to this December reading in June, but a few weeks after my brother Fred’s sudden death, an eerie feeling came over me. In preparing my set list, I knew I wanted to read something to honor Tender Buttons Press and its forthcoming omnibus edition, which will include Imagination Verses in its entirety. But why did I choose “Cell #103”? It has never been one of my “go to” poems, those that you voice again and again because they read well and you know how to sound them in your sleep.
Was I thinking back to my visit to Missouri’s Bonne Terre maximum security correctional center? In fall of 2013, I had been a guest of the Inside Out Prison Arts and Education Program run by Devin Johnston and Mary Gould. Before my visit, prisoners were invited to read my book There Are Things We Live Among. Those who wanted to were invited to write essays on objects they valued. When I went into the prison, myself and three of the incarcerated men read our writings and led a discussion. Then, asking their indulgence, I read “Cell #103.” “That gets it pretty close,” one man said, and then, “How could you know what it’s like in here?” My answer: from reading the writings of revolutionaries (or revolutionary poets) and from my brother’s letters.
103 was the number of Mayakovsky’s cell at the Butryka prison, where he was locked up for several months when just a teenager. The poem “As a Youth” recounts his experience seeking the light outside, only to see a mortuary, “I / fell in love / with the Office of Funeral Processions / through the keyhole of cell 103.”* My brother, whose hopes of a different life were much curtailed by the so-called crack down on crime and California’s “three strikes” law, described to me, in one a letter from the “Gila unit” of the Arizona State Prison complex, how his body had been changed by incarceration: weight gain from working out, tattoos, piercings, and TB (then much associated with HIV). But, he assured me, “I am not into all the white supremacy bullshit here, but I also have to adhere to my surroundings. . . .” Trying to connect my world to his, I would send him Etheridge Knight’s Poems from Prison, which he thought described a milder situation than he found himself in, having recently participated in “two riots,” and “three fights,” but “not the stabbing.” When I had my first poems published in Ben Friedlander’s Dark Ages Clasp the Daisy Root, Fred, now in a California facility, was sweetly impressed: “Published! You’re my little braguette item — my sister the poet”! Criminals really respect you—as I’m sure you know a lot of inmates themselves are poets . . .” Yes, I know, I thought at the time. And though I may have forgotten it, my visit to the Bonne Terre facility reminded me anew.
*translation James H. McGavran III