January 4, 2010

Terrance Hayes

MODEL PRISON MODEL

Here in this small expertly crafted model
you can see the layout of the prison I will erect:
the 17,500 six-by-eight cells, the wards
for dreamers reduced to beggars to my right,

the wards for strangers who might be or become
enemies to my left. It has taken years of research
and perspiration to design and assemble
this miniature, but with your support

it should only take 12 to 18 months to build
it to functioning size. You may note the words
(Prison is for the unindoctrinated) painted
on the tiny sign at the main gate are still wet.

I finished them while waiting for you to arrive.
They are the smell of civilization in the air.
Let me direct your attentions to the barbed wire
which thickens to a virtual cyclone of fangs

above the prison. With a good fence
to draw upon I was able to create
a terrific somberness and then lie down
and look through it at the prisoners

and officers inside. I feel like this is a good time
to tell you my father, mother and closest cousin
have worked decades as correctional officers
for the State. Nonetheless when I, a black poet,

was asked to participate in the construction
of this vision, I was surprised.
During those first uninspired years I smoked
so much I would have set myself on fire

had I not been weeping most of the time.
I am told the first time my uncle was an inmate,
my father would find him cowering
in his cell like a folded rag. Between jail

he works Saturdays helping out a man
at a flea market fruit stand, my uncle Junior.
You will note the imposing guard towers
at each corner of the prison. In the yard

below them I will loose vicious, obedient dogs.
Whether you consider dogs symbols
of security or symbols of danger depends
upon whether you’re inside or outside

the fence. In our current positions
around the model you and I represent
the mulling picketers: the just and vengeful,
the holy and grief-stricken citizens.

Standing along the corridor
leading to the preliminary de-dressing area,
several savage and savaged widows will insult
the new inmates. Even a slur is a form

of welcome. I plan to have the vocalists
among the prisoners sing for the old men
who die there. Perhaps their song will soften
the picketers. The prison of the picketer,

let me remark, is a landscape of dry riverbeds,
canyons and caves. During the uninspired hours
I imagined that land as the color of brick
set to flame. Everything gets tender in fire.

I imagined the melancholy stone of the prison
with a sort of geological desire. I imagined
the rehabilitated before the parole board
spilling brightly lit jive, alive with the indecipherable,

indecipherably alive. Everything is excited
by freedom. But I don’t know. I feel like no matter how
large we build this prison, it isn’t going to save us.
Please permit me to end my presentation for now.

We might get so caught up imagining the future,
we’ll never find our way. Come. Bend over and try
moving forward while looking between your legs
to get a sense of what it feels like trying to escape.

from Rattle #31, Summer 2009
Tribute to African American Poets
2010 Pushcart Prize Winner