Every prison sentence represents compound tragedies involving family members and friends, the affect on the community where the crime was committed, and, of course, the prisoner whose sentence may or may not be appropriate. If the prisoner who is confined is innocent, outrage enters the mix. If the prisoner has committed a crime motivated by political convictions, the tragedy plays out in ways that are very different from the experience of a socially disengaged drug user or the white collar criminal who never used a gun but whose actions have inflicted financial violence. All of this supports my contention that prison writing is important because, it offers lessons about an aspect of the human condition unknown to most of us.
Marilyn Buck was the daughter of a white Austin, Texas clergyman and she came of age in the combustible sixties. Imprisoned for procuring arms for the Black Liberation Army, her initial sentence was increased after she escaped, went underground and was captured. She lived out a real-life drama that ended two and a half years ago, when cancer killed her not long after she was released. Among the many complexities that must be taken into account when discussing her story, are beliefs about social justice that led to her actions, and the suffering of men and women outside the walls, and the women she lived with.
Thanks to New College, Buck studied for a degree in poetics under David Meltzer, who provides a passionate introduction to these poems and shares what it was like to work with her, as a correspondent and as a visitor. It is not until the acknowledgements at the end of Inside/Out: Selected Poems, written by Buck, that we learn she “wasn’t much of a poetry lover until I ran smack dab into Nikki Giovanni, Sonia Sanchez, June Jordan and Alice Walker in the 1960s. The power of these Black women and other audacious, determined, liberation-minded women made the poetic real: the spirit, the passion, the word.” She also read Blake, and it shows in admirable ways.
Sometimes that influence is too apparent, raising the question of how this work should be judged. And then the question falls away with the reminder that the writer spent half her life in prison, giving every deeply engaged word an intricately charged backstory.
The day-to-day tedium of her life and that of her fellow prisoners is well illustrated, but what is wonderfully jarring is her constant flash of refusal to be cowed, and her inner insistence to stay tender and allow pleasure. In “Woman With a Cat and Iris” she writes :
three purple iris
poised among crystal dew
morning- blurred sun
back drops black birds
flickering across day canvas
raucous as they sip
from glistening blades
Mustafah, gray tomcat sits
regal beggar awaiting
and I a prisoner, luxuriate
wealthy in morning light
wrapped in this anywhere world tableau
guards’ voices clang
the last drops of bitter coffee
nudge my lips into resolution
Sunday becomes prison.
She never loses indignation over what is going on outside. Trying to date the piece that follows makes me wish all her poems were dated so that one could get a more precise sense of how her accomplishments were knitted into what her limited resources exposed her to. “Air Nike Slam Dunk,” quoted in its entirety, is one of many reminders that her suffering served her, and now serves readers, as a constant call to connect to the situations of others :
forced to work
65 hours per week
for ten dollars
no time for
Meltzer and New College, well known for progressive involvement, were the right fit, and Buck’s more personal statements about prison routine, while adding weight to the significance of this book, are unnervingly affecting even when not as well written. “Night Showers” feels like almost any workshop poem, with its first person narrative and flat presentation:
fifteen years ago
I bathed in morning’s anticipation
now, after the sun drops
over the edge of the world
I hasten into showers
where water falls from walls
etched by prisoners’ tears and curses
into safety I slide
fugitive from the State’s eyes
the sorrow-drenched day
my spirit swirls tomorrow
into its eye
down the well of yesterday.
Note that I said “almost.” While “down the well of yesterday” is as hackneyed as “memory washes the sorrow-drenched day,” the lines that precede the missteps add a powerful punch, especially the image of prisoners’ curses and tears. There, Buck goes outside the shower and nothing can cleanse her, or the reader, of the unjustified filth prisoners live in. And when she puns in “Delirium III,” the word “mettle” becomes an appropriate sub for “metal,” effectively becoming a billy club in ink :
Silence is golden
listen to the clang of its mettle.
That’s the whole poem, a ringing, resonant artifact .
“No Love Poem,” the next to last piece in Inside/Out, is, like so many in this collection, a cry to be understood, mouth wide open, toward people who have never been in prison.
I wake, eyes open to what must
be a new day, creeping across the dark
I turn to the wall to the emptiness no
lover fills my eyes
across a narrow passage, only a reach away
rising from the fading shades,
yellow interior shadows
white-blanketed shapes, two bunked
one above the other
they too, lie, waiting to open eyes
against all desire
to their own empty beds.
Hayden Carruth, who valued religion much less than I do, compared fine poetry to prayer. The comparison isn’t new, and though it is unclear from Buck’s writing what place organized religion had for her after she left home, these pages contain prayers, answers, wise and generous gifts.