Truth is a Green Rubberband by Garen Zakarian

Because we need more / Chinese helicopters / to fight famine in Ethiopia / and Italian submarines / for the Western Sahara.

Because we need more
Chinese helicopters
to fight famine in Ethiopia
and Italian submarines
for the Western Sahara.
Don’t ask how or why
because they’ll make a movie about it
and when they make a movie
then it’s true.

And who needs jobs?
Everything has been premanufactured
prepackaged and shipped in.
Now we create stories about
things we used to make
and purchase things,
unpack and trash
to justify our sense of touch
and perhaps possession
Because very soon happiness
will be assembled
and shipped in aluminum cans.
And it will be rechargeable
and very “green.”

Interrupted by Garen Zakarian

You talk / I listen / then I nod / I draw a line on a piece of paper /You spill the coffee

You talk
I listen
then I nod
I draw a line on a piece of paper
You spill the coffee

I drop the needles on the record
It’s Bach … it’s black … it’s plastic
But it’s perfect
D minor doesn’t sooth your mood
You are an ‘A’ flat with a suspended seventh
laid over burnt sienna dipped in cobalt blue

I crash-land to negotiate
and offer numbers: 2 … 4 … 8 …
But you withdraw into your prime
Rebel with: 9 … and 47

We’re disconnected
Line’s dead

Confused we look for rust
The gold was real
but the finger chose to leave the ring
The ash has smoldered the best of memories
Sinks drained the rest

What’s left of our tastefully composed duet
diminished into a solo tennis game
Go hit the wall
We’re interrupted.

Happy Days by Garen Zakarian

Some days you won’t brush / your teeth going to bed / those are the crazy days

Some days you won’t brush
your teeth going to bed
those are the crazy days
because we are preoccupied
brushing off each other

And some days
I won’t take the trash out
you’ll come home
and find me [assed out
on the couch
Those are the busy days

Some days I’ll walk out
onto the balcony
stare at Van Gogh’s bright sky
and ask      What now?
You’ll sneak behind me
wrap your arms around my
docile shoulders
We’ll stand here
listen to the silence of the moon
Those are the happy days

We Who Are Left Behind by Michael G. Springer

must tighten the cinch / wrap up the reins and open the shoot / eventually this rodeo will buck / us all to the ground

for my brother Greg

must tighten the cinch
wrap up the reins and open the shoot
eventually this rodeo will buck
us all to the ground

it won’t matter much
at that time
who gasps in the stands
if there is a little blood

we won’t cry
if we live long enough
between now and then
we may welcome the thud

perhaps if we cowboyed well
when the moment arrives
we’ll be allowed to be
with the ones we’ve loved

after the clowns come rescue us
from the raging beast
that is this life

Going Home by Leland G. Heathco

One last road to follow, one more hill to climb / You won’t need your tools this time or a thermos to fill

For my Father

One last road to follow, one more hill to climb
You won’t need your tools this time or a thermos to fill
There’ll be nothing to build; you’ve done your work; it’s time to rest
The foundation has been laid from the most precious of stones
The walls are up and the roof is on, and it’s waiting for you
The builder made everything straight and true as can be
It is worthy of a man like you; one last road and you’re free
There is a chair on the porch; have a seat; you’re finally home.

 

Childhood Memory by Ruben Garza

It’s dark and it’s late, downtown modes to scare me at night / Streetwalkers and drug dealers lurk in the shadows /They sing the song of sirens luring men to their doom.

It’s dark and it’s late, downtown modes to scare me at night
Streetwalkers and drug dealers lurk in the shadows
They sing the song of sirens luring men to their doom.
I sit alone in the car anxiously waiting for my father’s return
I spot him in the sea of the crowd and thank God he came back
Such relief, I exhale. Had I held my breath all this time?
No matter, I’m safe now. Fear removes its hold on me.
The cabin light comes on when he opens the car door and goes
out when the door shuts after taking his place behind the wheel.
“Dad, where were you?” I asked, trying to sound like a big kid,
but there was no hiding my tear-stained cheeks.
He looked at me and smiled with sadness in his eyes. “It’s okay,
son, I’m here now,” he replied as he leaned over and kissed my
forehead. A father’s love and affection was all the reassurance I
needed.
He pulled a crushed beer can from his pocket and placed it on his
lap using its bowl-shaped bottom to prepare his fix.
I watched as he drew it into a syringe and tucked it into his arm,
dumping its dark contents into a vein.
“Dad, what are you doing?” I saw shame on his face.
“Nothing, son, nothing.” He began to hang his head.
He didn’t look at me, but I didn’t care. I had him here with me.
The presence of my father was all I needed.
Though he is reckless and broken to pieces, I’ll travel any sea
with my junkie Ulysses.

Broken Glass Heart with Fresh Flowers by Tommy Antrez

Shattered into a thousand
Tiny pieces shaped
Like a maze
A kaleidoscope design
Carved by two soft
Smooth hands
With French-tip nails
Cold as seashells
Stuck in white sand
My wild scented
Rosemary

Shattered into a thousand
Tiny pieces shaped
Like a maze
A kaleidoscope design
Carved by two soft
Smooth hands
With French-tip nails
Cold as seashells
Stuck in white sand
My wild scented
Rosemary
With short mostly red hair
Now floats
With dead leaves
In a dirty stream
Of a sidewalk gutter
Sun-ray beams
And tasteless rain
Nourish
My new bouquet
Of beautiful bloom’d
Lilies, jasmines and violets
With color’d green-eyes
Music
Pours into the vase of a
Broken glass heart to seal the cracks
When I sing to my new
Flower
Named Daisy at
The park

Lessons from an Infant by Steven P. Arthur

She could’ve easily been mistaken for being asleep, but I knew she wasn’t. Ambulances and paramedics don’t get called for sleeping babies.

In loving memory of my father, my friend, Lyle A. Arthur Jr.
A simple man, completely loved, and eternally missed.
Oct. 9, 1944-Nov. 21, 2016

Looking at her silent, motionless form on the queen-sized bed made her appear impossibly smaller than she already was. Brightened by the blush of the mid-morning sun, her balled up fists at level with her closed eyes and careless face, mimicked a serenity that only an infant can possess. She could’ve easily been mistaken for being asleep, but I knew she wasn’t. Ambulances and paramedics don’t get called for sleeping babies.

I was early spring in Oklahoma. We just shook off an especially cold winter, and were thankful of the reprieve. The past year had been a busy and exciting time for my wife, Christy, and me. Shortly after exchanging our vows, I graduated paramedic school and began my new career. Which enabled two very excited young adults to purchase out first home. But all of those great happenings paled in comparison to the blessed arrival of our healthy baby girl.

It was my day off and the three of us were outside enjoying the weather at our modest starter home, when the call came in. I was still laughing and smiling at something my daughter had done when I answered the phone. It was the emergency dispatcher from work and immediately I knew it couldn’t be good. As I watched my wife and daughter play in the yard, the dispatcher explained the situation. My smile faded.

The dispatcher said there was a 911 call for a child not breathing. The closest ambulance was responding but it was more than ten minutes away. Eons in paramedic time. Compounding the terrible situation, the small volunteer fire department that would normally respond was out of town on a brush fire. Fortunately, the local police had a unit en route, but I knew they were ill equipped and minimally trained to handle this type of emergency.

The dispatcher, a coworker and family friend, was aware that the emergency was just around the block from our home and asked me to first-respond.

While I threw on my work uniform, I relayed all this to my wife. It took no convincing her that I had to go. She was a new mother; she shared my urgency to help the baby and rushed me out the door.

So quick was the trip, that I arrived at the residence in my personal vehicle before it even had time to warm up. I hadn’t much to bring with me. Only my stethoscope and penlight, none of the basic equipment a paramedic relies on. Those things were still miles away in an ambulance speeding to my location.

I rushed up the concrete steps and found the baby’s mother at the front door, still on the phone with the dispatcher, who was giving her first aide instructions. Without hesitation, and only a quick glance at my uniform, she let me in. She spoke rapidly as she led me through the house. I don’t remember her exact words, but she was terrified.

In the master bedroom, the frantic mother stopped at the bed and stepped aside. And there she lay in a shaft of sunlight, six-month-old baby Abby.

If a paramedic cannot control his emotions and suppress the natural physical response to stress, his effectiveness is greatly reduced. This ability becomes easier as one gains confidence from years of experience. But as any honest paramedic will tell you—no matter how many years of training—children are the most terrifying and heartbreaking of patients. And I was still very new.

Anxious and petrified are words that still fail at what I was feeling. Abby was only a few months younger than my own daughter. The situation hit close to home, and I was without my usual equipment. I had to do something. I had to think back to the basics.

She was lying on her back wearing only a diaper. I placed my ear on the soft skin of her chest. I caught the familiar scent of baby powder and shampoo. I listened for breathing and a heartbeat. I found neither. With no pulse or respirations, this little girl was clinically dead. In medicine, there are two definitions of death. One is characterized by the cessation of breathing and heartbeat, which, if determined within a few minutes, can be remedied. The other definition is biological death. This is characterized by an extended period of cessation of bodily functions, and signs of this include lividity (a black and blue discoloration of the skin) and rigor mortis. Abby showed none of these signs. Abby’s mother had reported that the baby was fine an hour before when she was laid down for her nap. I knew Abby still had a really good chance.

I began the only thing I could do: cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR). Unlike performing CPR on an adult, which is surprisingly difficult and physically demanding, performing CPR on an infant is easy. The difficulty is more emotional.

I covered little Abby’s mouth and nose with my own mouth. I had to carefully deliver just a puff of what my own lung capacity was. It would have been very easy to accidentally rupture her lungs with too much of a rescue breath. Abby’s mother was justifiably distraught and helpless, so I had to perform both rescue breaths and chest compressions. Adult compressions are performed with both hands stacked and placed over the patient’s sternum, using most of one’s weight to depress the chest wall approximately two inches. The infant patient requires use of only two fingers: the index and middle fingers placed over the sternum and compressions of half an inch.

Although I had only been performing CPR for a few minutes, it felt like an eternity. I was so focused on Abby that when a city police officer walked into the room, I didn’t realize it until he asked if he could help. By the look on his face, I could tell he hoped I had it under control. I have never before witnessed big, tough men become more distressed or heroic than I have when a child is in danger.

I picked up Abby, carried her outside to the front seat of the officer’s car, then asked the officer to contact dispatch for an estimated time of arrival for the ambulance. If it didn’t arrive in the net few minutes, it was my intention to have the officer drive us to the hospital.
Only a minute later, with the officer still on the radio and me performing CPR, I heard the approaching siren.

Now, after many years of working in emergency services, most of the personal thrill of the lights and sirens of emergency vehicles has faded. But, that day, when I saw that big, top-heavy truck come screeching around the corner, and despite the odd sight of having only one technician and who that was, I couldn’t have been more happy and excited.

I quickly loaded Abby; we were off to the hospital.

I later learned that the responding ambulance was farther out of town than initially reported, so the owner of the ambulance company, still a licensed emergency technician himself, staffed a fully equipped back-up unit and drove it to the scene.

I was so relieved to be in a controlled and familiar environment. I knew where everything was and finally had all of my equipment: cardiac monitor and drugs, endotracheal tube with bag valve delivering 100% oxygen. The ride to the hospital took four minutes. It couldn’t have gone smoother. Absolute textbook treatment of an infant in cardiac arrest.

Because of the quick-thinking and competence of the emergency dispatcher, police, and the company-owner-turned-temporary-ambulance-driver, Abby was soon in the care of the superb hospital staff.

Everything went right.

But we lost.

Less than an hour after I first saw her still and silent form, Abby was pronounced dead. She was the unfortunate victim of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).

It’s been almost twenty years and thousands of patients since that day, but I still think about her from time to time. Especially when I consider my own daughter: healthy, bright, and full of life. I wonder what Abby would have been like if given the time, or what she would be doing with her life. Had they grown up together, would my daughter and Abby have been in the same classes, or cheerleaders on the same squad? Would they have been friends, or rivals for the same boy’s affection? The birth of my daughter matured me in many ways. But the loss of Abby was the first and most influential death that I have known.

Every life has value, meaning and impact no matter the duration. Abby’s little life was only a brief flash of brilliance, but she instilled in me that life, our very existence, is tenuous.

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.