Snoring Cellies on the Road to Parnassus by Eric Toso

The men in the workshop are not what I would call sensitive types. The tattoos and tough poses make it hard to raise such topics, but once raised, the inmates are not afraid to talk or to listen. One of the men said that the thing he dislikes most about being in prison is that he is never alone, that he has no inner life. He has to work from 5:30 AM until 6:30 PM, stay out of trouble, and keep up his guard. “The place is noisy, always distracting,” he says. “My cellie talks and snores. When we were locked down, he went to solitary and I actually had some time to think, to think about my family outside, and read. I read the whole copy of the Missouri Review. It was good; all those guys know how to write, technique-wise anyway, but I have to say I’m not smart enough to get half of what they are talking about.”

From Rain Shdaow Review II (2012)

It was a good workshop today. One of the yards was still locked down after a two hundred man race riot the week before, so the workshop was smaller than usual and more solemn. We read the poem “What the Doctor Said” by Raymond Carver. Carver depicts in the poem his being told he has advanced lung and brain cancer. He writes:

He said it doesn’t look good
He said it looks bad in fact real bad
He said I counted thirty-two of them on one lung before I quit counting them
I said I’m glad I wouldn’t want to know
About any more being there than that.

His unsentimental conversation portrays the ways we deny and avoid our mortality, until it knocks on the door of here and now. Many of the men in the workshop have medical conditions, some of them serious. The poem struck a chord of empathy and the no-nonsense, understated gravity of the subject fit with the rules of the conversational road that govern prison discourse.

Later in the poem, the doctor asks:

Are you a religious man
Do you kneel down
In forest groves and let yourself ask for help
When you come to a waterfall
Mist blowing against your face and arms
Do you stop and ask for understanding at those moments?

While I can’t imagine these actual words passing between doctor and patient, they pushed the poem from medical bad news into spiritual questions, the kinds of questions literature and the arts, if they are good, deal with. I told them about William Carlos Williams writing “It is difficult to get the news from poems, yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.” The gist of the discussion became one about ways that the arts are a way to cope with the big questions, the hard issues – tragedy, trauma, loss, and love.

The men in the workshop are not what I would call sensitive types. The tattoos and tough poses make it hard to raise such topics, but once raised, the inmates are not afraid to talk or to listen.

One of the men said that the thing he dislikes most about being in prison is that he is never alone, that he has no inner life. He has to work from 5:30 AM until 6:30 PM, stay out of trouble, and keep up his guard. “The place is noisy, always distracting,” he says. “My cellie talks and snores. When we were locked down, he went to solitary and I actually had some time to think, to think about my family outside, and read. I read the whole copy of the Missouri Review. It was good; all those guys know how to write, technique-wise anyway, but I have to say I’m not smart enough to get half of what they are talking about.”

Join the club, I thought to myself. That is much of the fashion of academic literature these days. Some of it strives at times to be as opaque as possible, with labyrinthine structures that make finding meaning difficult at best. But that’s another essay.

His other point about an interior life is one well-taken. Whether in prison or out in the “free world,” quiet and focus are in short supply. Writing is one of the better ways I gain access to those inner spaces. But writing does not always serve to connect the inner with the outer.
Another man stated that he only lets down his guard in the workshops. “I can talk about things in here. I’ve known some of these guys for years. We help each other when we can.” I did not need to point out that the lines that divide races in prison blur some in the workshops. We all struggle with ideas, with ways of finding the words that will do justice to our subjects.

“Write clearly and well about what you want to write about.” I said. “Having a message is not a bad thing, but don’t let a simple message get in the way of the art. Your writing doesn’t have to preach or clobber your reader over the head with your point. But don’t let high flying flourish and art get in the way of a message if you have one.”

We talked about what makes writing art, as opposed to, say, journalism or porn, and about publishing and what kinds of writing will likely make it into our literary Magazine, Rain Shadow. One of the men asked if he could tell it like it was on the streets, “having to break doors down and stuff. Don’t people need to know that? Would they read about it?”

I asked “Are you kidding? Look at half the stuff on television and film. People love that stuff. But I won’t publish cheap shots or sensationalism that has no literary merit. No glorifying violence or drugs. No bragging about crime. There’s plenty of that, but not much quality writing about the hard truths.”

“Here’s some bad news,” I continued. “There is not much of a market for quality writing. Happy endings, the good guys winning, the world going to hell in a hand-basket – yes, but not complex human stories.”

Sometimes, I think, I write for the sake of what needs to be said, no matter whether or not anyone will read the words, art (if I can call it that) for the sake of itself, or for the artist, or for the desire to connect. I tell them so.

Then one of the inmates read a poem “If Yes Were All That Was” about what his world would be like with opportunity. It was a good poem and I will type it up this week. Other men were writing ideas on their writing pads, the illegal materials of marking a life. We had broken through to something, something bordering on magic, on timelessness, on touching something as subtle as it is elusive.

The workshop ended as a guard rattled his keys, a sign to shut it down.

We returned desks and chairs to their original places, and packed up the magazines, books, and folders. I carried the tub out of the room as the guard closed and locked the door.

I followed the inmates down the hall to the door that leads to the gate before opening onto the yard. From the back they walked like any group of students I have seen after a good class. They were the ones that made it that way. Muses have a way of finding these moments no matter where they take place.

 

***

How Nature Taught Me to Sing in Lockup by Ken Lamberton

Prison taught me to be unobtrusive and quiet, to always go with the flow, to never make waves. Nature taught me that a wind without resistance has no voice. That a river without stones cannot sing.

Prison is a wild place.

I discovered an affection for nature in childhood and pursued it through college. But it was in prison where I learned to be a naturalist. Prison narrowed my education to a more intimate study. I understood that while nature has no restrictions, I had many, so I focused on seeing nature within my limitations. I became uncivilized in a manipulated landscape that warned me to be unobtrusive and quiet, yet alert. To notice things. Like the impenitent weeds, the trespasses of birds and insects. Like the night owls that violated the perimeter fences to feed on the mice and remind me of a world still untamed and mysterious. And the ants: those sexless worker drones that crawled about the prison grounds in hordes, carrying out menial jobs as masons and carpenters and waste-disposal crews, farmers and food-handlers. They obeyed without thinking, doing what they were told, sustaining a colony that only existed to devour and multiply. I couldn’t escape the parallels.

In his essay, “The Case for Going Uncivilized,” Barry Lopez says there are truly wild places that offer a kind of illumination that can take the darkness out of contemporary life, that help us regain “the sense of balance that the persistent closeness of strangers, the screech and mumble of machinery, and the needling presence of advertising threaten, every day, to overturn.”

On every lap during my daily exercise walks, as I passed along the length of fence that enclosed my 20-acre world, my eyes always turned to the trees. They, like other bits of wildness confined or visiting there, touched some vital part of me. Those wild trees lessened the darkness of the place.

I watched one tree grow over the years from a transplanted stick into a humid, bug-clicking canopy of wrought-iron branches and hard green leaves despite successive seasons of mindless pruning. I would sit against its sun- and wind-furrowed trunk and breathe in the smell of its obstinacy. The mesquite was a survivor. It had overcome years of butchery yet remained robust. Most springs, it produced a crop of seedpods, which drooped in clusters like blonde dreadlocks; some winters it even held onto its leaves. But the mesquite grew askew, hunching away from a nearby building as if crippled by the heaviness of its gray walls.

It taught me many lessons. I learned the difference between pruning something for its own good, following its natural form and inclinations, and pruning something with no more purpose in mind than retribution. This, I decided, was the difference between discipline and punishment: one looks forward and works toward restoration and health; the other looks backward and tears down, dehumanizes. Pruning should enhance, not maim. It was ironic how prison treated its plants and inmates in the same way.

The mesquite tree was the only one of its kind at the prison. It was alone but not withdrawn. Cicadas trilled among it branches. Fat carpenter bees carted off sacks of its pollen. Ground squirrels feasted on its sweet pods. The tree seemed obstinate only in the way that life is obstinate. Despite the buildings and fences that confined it, the concrete slabs beneath it, despite even the brutal punishment of its careless pruning, the mesquite emerged each spring with offerings of leaves and shade, pollen and seeds. This was what struck me: The tree didn’t shrink from that place.

***

The writer Alison Deming says we need to outgrow the childish notion that nature takes place only in wilderness. Wendell Berry says that the whole world is wild, and “all the creatures are home-makers within it, practicing domesticity: mating, raising young, seeking food and comfort.” Anne Matthews, in her book, Wild Nights: Nature Returns to the City, writes that “Wild does not always mean natural; urban is not the same as tame. Even in Manhattan, you are never more than three feet from a spider.” In prison, the spiders share your pillow.
Prison shoved me toward a love for wildness. Along with the arachnids, I shared my pillow with writers like Deming and Berry and Lopez and many others whose words about the natural world exploded my confinement.

I saw how the visitations of toads, those golden-eyed miracles of summer, connected me to my three young daughters who were just beginning to discover their own love for nature. I found lessons in the breakouts of weeds among the concrete and steel, in the spring intrusion of barn swallows that nested under the eaves of our cells.

I learned to gauge my life by the swallows. Their nature, like many things in the world, was cyclic; they lived inside the heartbeat of the land. Ebb and flow, flex and flux, rise and fall. It was a pattern I could live with, one that gave me hope. As long as the swallows came in the spring and went in the fall, came and went and came again, I could feel their rhythm, measuring it out as a change of seasons. This was the source of my hope: the swallows didn’t make me feel the weight of time, they cued me to the passage of time. Where ancient peoples raised stones to track equinoxes and solstices, the swallows were my Stonehenge. In a place where clocks and calendars were meaningless, where hours and days and months percolated into one homogenous, stagnant pond, I marked the swallows.

If I could measure time by the migrations of swallows, and connect with my daughters through the wisdom of toads, anything was possible. I could learn about human passion in the exploits of spiders. I could feel the importance of trees. I could restore my faith in wildness with the single appearance of a great horned owl.

I had found an unlimited wildness in prison. And in this, as undeserved as it was, I found redemption in the fact that life is no accident. Life is universal. It is like a fifth state of matter.

***

From my upper bunk, a narrow window allowed me a view of the desert outside my cell. An expanse of razed ground, marked with a horizon of galvanized steel webbing, filled the lower two-thirds of the frame. But beyond the fence, an entire basin of creosote, mesquite, and cholla cactus leaned up against the hunched shoulders of the Santa Rita Mountains at our border with Mexico. On some evenings, coyotes called to me with borderless voices from the desert’s fringe where nighthawks knit the sky with needled wings.

For twelve years, my wilderness was a limited geography bound by chain link and razor wire. My wilderness was a prison with its own nuances of seasonal change, summer droughts and winter freezes, rain, dust, and wind; with its own microcosm of wildness. Nature was there as much as it is in any national park or forest or monument.

Most people probably think that prisoners wake up every morning as bodies on mattresses that move through pointless days, bodies at work raking rocks, bodies at meals, bodies in front of TV’s, bodies that live without participating in life. This is true for some. But there are others who see beyond the concrete walls and scraped earth, or see into it, between the cracks, those who notice the stubborn untamed, feel its moods, hear its migrations, sense its shiftings and pulses. Those who sense nature not by accident but by paying attention. Serendipity, after all, is a matter of will. As Pagan Kennedy suggests, those Persian princes from the Isle of Serendip weren’t just lucky as much as they were keen observers. Did the finches of Galapagos find Darwin? Or was it his creative mind that sought them out?

The human mind comprehends no boundary, no edge. It is a nerve-tangled pathway that wires us to wildness, a current that flows in both directions. Nature can access the hardest criminals, finding weaknesses and breaching barriers, building nests and rearing offspring. Place windows facing toward the migrations of birds and we will count them. Open cell doors to the toads and tarantulas and we will learn from them. Plant trees and we will sit under them. Even in the deepest prison holes where society’s worst offenders are kept, we will attune ourselves to the proceedings of cockroaches. Nature returns us to that childhood place where we register astonishment at the very mundane until we become exhausted by the euphoria.

I spent most of my twelve-year sentence inside the chain-link fences at the Santa Rita Unit in Tucson, Arizona. The prison housed more than nine hundred men on four yards, cell blocks of ninety-six two-man cells, and one tent city of canvas, military leftovers. A half-mile dirt exercise track circled a field and a pocket oasis of trees, shrubs, and flower beds. The leaves and grass and blooms masked the stench of fear and desperation. They cut holes in the fences and broke open the stark, gray aspect of walls. This was not unusual. Like great art, nature’s purpose is to disturb, to jar us out of our complacency in the world. Even if our world is a prison.

During my last years at Santa Rita, however, the climate changed. Nature became a problem. The trees had grown too tall. Someone might climb one, hide among the branches, and imagine he’s escaped. The shrubs had grown too lush. Someone might lie down and disappear into the leaves. Crews with chainsaws and backhoes worked feverishly to correct the security error: All the brittlebush and agave, the Texas ranger, all the Mexican bird of paradise, the desert willow had to go—cut down, chopped into sections, wrenched from the ground. The few trees that survived the clearing lacked all lower branches, their skinny trunks winding comically into high, tight crowns like trees in a Dr. Seuss story.

Imaging the Sonoran Desert without the saguaro. Without the mesquite and paloverde and drought-withered cholla cactus. Today, it’s all gone. And the men remain locked inside their cells. No longer do they walk circles in soaking monsoon storms or rest on sun-glazed grass among poppies and mint. No longer do they sit at tables with mourning doves perched on their shoulders, these men who once knew the intrinsic value of nature lying against the skin, even if they were unaware of how profoundly it touched them.

Maybe it’s farfetched to suggest that nature can teach anything of worth to prisoners. Prison already has such excellent role models. Those who have mastered the art of filling their days with narrowed options. But I would rather learn from nature than learn from prison. I would rather be a disciple of saguaros and centipedes. Nature cuts through more hard layers than punishment ever will, ever could. For me, nature reached to the place where hope lay, and hope was a better security system than all the guards and fences and electric locks. For twelve years hope was my jailer.

Cut off nature from anyone and you cut off hope—something more inhuman than taking away his freedom. I can’t imagine doing time there now—without tasting wildness, without learning how to live from the twisted and obstinate. Prison taught me to be unobtrusive and quiet, to always go with the flow, to never make waves. Nature taught me that a wind without resistance has no voice. That a river without stones cannot sing.

 

***

Ken Lamberton was released from prison in 2000. His first book, Wilderness and Razor Wire: A Naturalist’s Observations from Prison, won the 2002 John Burroughs Medal for outstanding nature writing.