The draft, prison, the I-Ching, and other portents: one poet’s 1968.

By Bruce SmithJuly 16, 2013


    BY JUNE OF 1968 I had received a draft notice (1-A, report to Fort Dix), a degree in English (undistinguished), and five (or more) concussions from playing college football. I had been waiting to be seized by the roots of my hair from the roofs of Philadelphia, where I was working mopping hot tar, and dropped into the jungle, Canada, or jail.

    Instead, that July I started work as a teacher at the Federal Penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania.

    Work: A chance to find yourself, as Conrad said in Heart of Darkness. But by 1968 Conrad and work were already discredited. Look at our fathers in their ironed shirts. Look at our steaming mothers.

    I believed in the thaumaturgical, the wonder work like the kind that snatched my father back from the fiery wreck of World War II and dropped him into an elementary school as a teacher. Seedlings in cups, cut-out snowflakes, a rabbit, naps. That summer in Philadelphia I looked into the bubbling cauldron of black pitch in the “Hotmaster” kettle and saw the hell realm black as James Brown’s hair, black as a rice paddy at night. I went to work like a stick-up man, in a hat, sunglasses, long sleeves, and a bandana over my face, but still, like Lou Reed sang in “Coney Island Baby,” a kid playing football for the coach. My tar mop was my mother’s mop, my father’s mop swabbing the decks. In the chimerical heat like jet exhaust shimmering from the roofs I had visions. I would be rescued or translated into vapors or made dead by the voodoo of the age.

    The age: Malcolm X dead, MLK, the drum major for peace, for righteousness, dead, RFK dead, fire in the cities, sex, Tet, destroying the town in order to save it, body bags on the runways, one hit then quit shit, music painting a thin black lacquer over everything, Otis Redding dead, the great god Brown screaming Please, OM vibrating in Coltrane’s skull, Philadelphia’s own Delfonics delivering their blows by falsetto.

    Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) seemed like a natural extension of my reading of the Romantic poets (Shelley: “the devotion to something afar/from the sphere of our sorrow”) and rage against the war and the affliction of capitalism. I joined. It seemed like what you did when you took off your helmet for the last time. Plus they needed a center fielder for the softball team.

    My first week at the penitentiary I took a blow to the back of my head and was kicked in the ribs by one tense individual who didn’t make parole. I had witnessed his hearing as part of my (dis)orientation. I let go of the notion of the innocent criminal, although I held onto the notion of my own innocence. I resisted the romance of the prison, which was another kind of romance. I lost my East. I lost my West too.

    The guards must have looked at me and thought “tool” or “power tool” in the terms of the age, a young punk pretending to be a radical priest, and so, fuck him on general principles. To the inmates, to whom style in its condition of deprivation — the cuff, the Converse high tops, the collar — was everything — a survival tool, sympathetic magic, and a costume — I must have looked like someone fallen from the Platonic ideal of style into the exigencies of Shirt City. I was compliant and defiant in my clothes. I wore my sport coat and tie to satisfy the warden’s edict. I died a little and was reborn in a houndstooth sport coat and a pocket silk. But I strutted like an NBA point guard and paraded about in the late '60s paisley or magenta shirt/tie ensemble. The response from inmates included some pity for the hot mess that I was and some “slip me some skin” (no other contact was permitted). The guards squinted and said, “Go ahead.”

    Processed, “re-educated through labor” (Mao Zedong), intimidated, I signed a release, signed away my life in case I was held hostage (although the language much more convoluted than that). With other intakes I was photographed in a photo booth, like at a boardwalk amusement park — half banquette, half curtain, three beeps, four flashes. Instead of my terrified, thick-necked white face, a strip of four black faces dropped in the slot. Two profiles, two toothy smiles, subtitled with numbers, of the last guy — mon semblable — mon frère! My first identity disorder. My first fiction.

    Years go by. Storage of memory is not retrieval of memory — retrieval is part will and part unwilling neural tide. Memory of ratting my way through the corridors comes back, unbidden, like a particular smell — only a fraction of a fraction of a micro-particle will set off an olfactory memory, and then I am revisiting a taste of blood from a human sacrifice at Ur. Retrieval is a time snatch, requires a deft athletic maneuver or a stumbling fall, or some of both. It is like retrying a case, bringing the experience back into a courtroom full of sensationalizing reporters and grieving spectators, family members, ex-lovers. Everybody has a stake in the outcome. Everyone has a version of what happened and an opinion and an imagination. Most of them wrong about everything. There are prosecutors and defendants, a judge and a jury selected from your high school teachers all loud in your head and struggling to be heard. And the entire proceedings are conducted using lines of poems from Emily Dickinson. My life had stood — a Loaded Gun. Before I got my eye put out.

    Was I hired at the jail because I was the young collegiate altruist with some Spanish? No, I was there because I ran recklessly and with abandon as a halfback (Coach Huntress, I am your boy) and collided with other thick-necked individuals and so they thought, those administrators in Prison Education, that I could protect myself.

    To get there I drove William Penn Drive, or Pen Drive, in the nomenclature of the joint. Heartbreak Ridge Road slanted off to the left. It led the back way to Big House Circle and Dairy Barn Road as if this were a parody of a suburban development. My route was down a road visible in its entirety from the tower. Guards and inmates alike could see me coming a mile away in my convertible as I performed free, white, and 21.

    I walked through seven hot electric locks from the fake Florentine tower where guards surveyed everything to my place in Education. “When I hear the word culture . . .I release the safety on my Browning!” says a character in the play, Schlageter, by Nazi poet laureate, Hans Johst. Enter, stage left, me, representing Culture.

    Class, race, and gender as I knew them in their safe ratios were shattered in the disturbed composition of the joint. (Disturbed too was Light, Space, Time.) Class: under, mixed with radical other. Race: 70 percent Black and Hispanic. Gender: all male cast, violently heterosexual, violently homosexual. A vocal brown majority replaced Nixon’s silent white majority. They looked at the warden’s picture of the president on top of the business deployment flowchart with amused hatred, if there is such a thing. Class was broken down into the dream of American classlessness (everyone wearing the same Navy fatigues), and then reorganized into gangs of race, class, and gender not unlike the culture at large. Things got unzipped. Overturned, tore up, or stood on their heads. Or stood facing the wall with an instrument, as if by some Orphic power of lung and reed and fingering, the wall would fall down. The myth was if you got good with your horn, the wall would crumble and you would walk out into the promised land. In the same vein: The mock presidential election held inside for those who couldn’t vote yielded Alabama Governor George Wallace as the winner. Why? I asked an inmate. “Wallace win and the wall come down.” The place had its grandiloquent ways.

    The prison was lit like an operating room, like a train station, the back of high school physics classroom, a monastery, the barracks at Fort Dix. How could it be dim and dazzling at the same time? I had no Foucault to describe the light. “Of course you know the work of Frantz Fanon?” my teacher’s aide said. Had I known Fanon I would have been able to speak of the blackness: a drop of sun under the earth.

    My teacher’s aide, S, an inmate, spoke three languages and studied with Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert (now Baba Ram Das) at Harvard in the League of Spiritual Discovery. S’s advanced degree in psychology was trumped by an honorary doctorate in insouciance he earned in jail. He got busted in Texas crossing the border in his Volkswagen beetle, a first offense for possession of pot (which sounds like the synopsis of a Janis Joplin song). I imagined him being held upside down on a pole. “Bring that boy on in here,” he said the judge said. A light skinned African-American from Boston, S became my mentor, my alma mater, my jazz rabbi.

    S stole books for me from the prison library and stamped the edges with “Property of the Catholic Chaplain,” so when my papers and books were inspected by the guards on my way out, I was guaranteed a safe passage.

    The Tibetan Book of Dead; Notes from the Underground; Chekhov; Kafka; both the Wretched of the Earth and Black Skin, White Masks by Fanon; Alan Watts; The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test; McLuhan; Black Elk Speaks; The Portable Nietzsche — publishers’ overstocks sent to the Federal Penitentiary as humanitarian (tax deductible) gifts to reform the incarcerated. No poems. Books by men, yes, but not manly man books. Books by men destabilized by time, as I was.

    I was wrong about everything, the Muslims told me, and I salaamed.

    War resisters, drug lords, drug mules, addicts, atomic spies, counterfeiters, bootleggers, pimps, distillers of moonshine, killers of your mother, your sister, your brother, white power brokers, black panthers, white collar administrators doing what they were told, hammers and the nailed, extorters, innocents, crossers of state lines, tax evaders, jury tamperers, what did I know, really, about who they were? Who was I? I was wrong about everything. I was too shy to ask about the crime, the time, “the bid.” In class we solved math problems about time and space and corrected mistakes in grammar. “Whose grammar?” the Muslims asked.

    “Hey, Mr. SDS, come over here a minute. See this? This is what they can do with a pen. If you’ve got enough time anything can be sharpened. This is what we found in a cell. One cell. So you can multiply this by ten or a hundred and ten. Can you multiply? Homemade piece of mayhem with a purpose. Or maybe someone smuggled something in in someone’s rectum. This here could go into your heart up to here between your ribs. Look at the rest of this stuff we shook down. Don’t get too close, SDS. Don’t get too smoochy.”

    I ate lunch at the officers’ mess, not with the general population. I ate well through the largess of the underground economy. I was fed desserts denied to the officers: blueberry cobblers, some peach thing, snickerdoodles, strudel, crisps. The inmates waited on me like indulgent grandmothers. The phrase stick it to the man was in current usage. Was I not the man?

    Premise: All inmates get an eigth grade education. Premise: To get out of jail inmates need a 12th grade education. Therefore: I get a job teaching GED classes to the best and worst students I’ve ever taught. The best devoted themselves in a way I have not seen since even when I went on to teach bright, young, free collegians. A year’s work of high school math would be completed in a week. The worst slept face down on the desk, inert, wronged, unable to be roused, with darkness behind the eyes, in the blue room of their depression like their collegiate others.

    The dance of my freedom went like this: jail, not-jail — a two-step that included evenings at a bar, Dunkle’s. In not-jail I squirmed under the hot blanket of my draft notice, dreaming of a hand clamped on my shoulder that would escort me to a jeep that drove me to the Ho Chi Minh trail. I read the stolen books and Jane Austen, the Gita, The Koran. I dropped 30 pounds in not-jail. At Dunkle’s (German for dark), I would work my small-town, ex-jock celebrity (puny), my prison status (perilous), and my paycheck (a pitcher for the table) into an audience, into stories meant to charm. I was the metaphor, the aperture into our symptoms, carrying across the news of the extremity and pornography, the thin membrane between the forbidden and permitted. I spun incriminating tales as foamy and insipid as the beer, stories in which I was the hero who survived another day of mayhem in this fucked-up world. Fucked-up: It elected Nixon and put the Berrigans behind bars. A beautiful woman I met at the bar was writing a thesis on conspiracy theories and the Kennedy assassination.

    Cigarettes were currency. Dental floss, a photograph, a sock. A tin of mackerel, a palm frond, pills. A taste of an envelope someone had laced with acid could be traded on the commodities market like Sumerians trading coins and barley. Anything in foil. Anything sharp. A lipstick, a lick of something, cum. I brought in a roll of tropical fruit Life Savers — fruit punch, piña colada, tangerine, banana, and mango melon — and gave them to S who told me they could buy almost a life and did I have more?

    No Antonio Gramsci and his letters from prison to help me read the cultural hegemony. No Dietrich Bonhoeffer to offer me a Christian resistance. No Eldridge Cleaver, Soul on Ice (confiscated at the gate with my pen). No James Baldwin, Fire Next Time. Really? James Baldwin? I was wrong about everything, the guards told me. “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons,” Dostoevsky said. Come back again to the jail, Oscar Wilde, honey.

    I had no poetry in my life. I had read some poetry in college, but it had not yet entered my heart or been stuck between my ribs.

    Buffalo Township, Union County, where the guards and caseworkers lived, voted overwhelmingly for Barry Goldwater in 1964. “In Your Heart You Know He’s Right,” the billboard said. “Yeah, far right,” my leaning-left mother said, repeating the joke.

    “Of course you’re familiar with the work of Miles Davis,” S said. He said to go get “Sketches of Spain” and “ESP.” “Or are you listening to Streisand?” I tried to buy vinyl at the Woolworth’s in Lewisburg where they did sell Streisand but no Miles. I began to feel the accretion of my ignorance as a form of whiteness. And I felt my whiteness as a terminal sentence. I wanted to hear Miles. I felt insulted (by whom I didn’t know) but sharpened enough by my jail time to slash my way, with a mind-forged knife, through the pitiful accumulation of American commodities and oil excrescences and non-prison capital and storefronts with no Miles and Barry Goldwater and the Pennsylvania Dutch cuisine and the buttery white light and rows of corn until I got to Big House Circle via Heartbreak Ridge Road and from the outside blew my horn against the walls.

    “Hey, SDS, is that a matching shirt, tie, and pocket square? I have my eye on you, meat.”

    I was asked to direct a play, 12 Angry Men, a TV drama that was made into a film in 1957 about a homicide trial in which 11 of 12 men are wrong about everything. Unlike the original, I had a cast of six black actors to work with. “How can you be positive about anything?” Lee J. Cobb asks in the movie. When that line was delivered by a brother in the prison production, it brought down the house. (And still the walls were unmoved.)

    Fridays in Education there was sometimes a film, although the administration didn’t like the idea of darkening down a room. Most were stultifying advertisements, made for white America, about timber and the telephone. One was from the National Film Board of Canada: Oscar Peterson playing piano over a slow pan of women on beaches in the Maritime Provinces, and we held ourselves for an hour and thought of Canada and pussy.

    Muhammad Speaks, The Village Voice, The Berkeley Barb, Evergreen Review were in circulation in the prison. And I couldn’t bring in James Baldwin?

    I distributed the programmed GED books in language arts and math. Could I multiply? Eleven times eleven equals what? Nice pentameter S said. This is how the hours went in Education. I tried to explain the subjective and objective cases: let’s you and I or you and me go to the concert? The books still reeked of postwar GI workforce sweat and illustrated math problems with tow-headed kids in sweaters gathering apples in bushels. I devised my own problems: If three gallons of gasoline can burn four city blocks . . .S taught me how to consult the oracle of the I Ching, the Book of Changes. “Let’s give the Ching a ring,” he said. We used the Bolligen edition translated by Wilhelm and Baynes, with an introduction by Carl Jung. In place of ancient coins or yarrow stalks we ripped up paper and tossed them heads, tails to divine our future. S read the hexagram: Straight line, straight line, broken line, straight line, straight line, straight line:

    __ __

    Hsiao Ch'u — The Taming Power of the Small

    If you are sincere, blood vanishes and fear gives way.
    No blame.

    I witnessed the death of an inmate after he drank most of a tin of duplicating fluid meant for the mimeograph machine. He thrashed like a mackerel on the floor of Education. Whatever prison status I earned by taking a beating, I lost when I fainted.

    “Prison” as an adjective meant parochial, narrow, concocted with inadequate resource, with limited vision and effect. Prison tattoos, prison liquor. It meant broke-dick, jury-rigged, ghetto. Prison lawyers, prison air conditioning, prison logic. Prison light, prison space, prison time. Insufficient in knowledge and power and yet admirable, a non-style that earns begrudging, righteous respect for its style. I was a prison teacher.

    “Get poor,” Father Philip Berrigan said. He arrived at Lewisburg at the end of the year. I never met him although he too taught in Education before he transferred to the minimum-security facility at Allenwood. “In such a war,” he said about Vietnam, though he could have meant prison, too, “man stands outside the blessings of God.”

    It was a place of overwhelming materiality. (It was a fucking rock.) A 1932 Popular Science article about the new Lewisburg prison under construction illustrates the obvious: the masonry of “block and bar” walls and the “carbon steel bars with tool-proof steel cases.” Against the weight of the corporal came an opposing push from the metaphysical, not just from the Office of the Catholic Chaplain or the Nation of Islam. (“The material / spiritualizes and lock stone and air meet / cordially with a high lust clamping one to the other,” A.R. Ammons says in Garbage. “All finite things reveal infinitude,” says Theodore Roethke). The real got tested everyday by its opposite. The obvious and opaque became porous. There is vacuity in things, as Lucretius said, even stone, concrete, carbon steel. Hurt was a lever to pry open the cover to the real. Skin, too, was a micro-thickness, it was a sign of your tribe, your fleshy sentence and, when pressed, your ticket to ride. A pigeon flying by the window, a cloud, a cuff, a sigh could be the vehicle for the transcendental. It was possible for everyone to be a bodhisattva. Or at least a surrealist or a fetishist.

    Baba Ram Das handled S’s parole. He wrote from India to say, “The bars are in your mind.”

    “We who live in prison, and in whose lives there is no event but sorrow, have to measure time by throbs of pain, and the record of bitter moments.” — Oscar Wilde

    “I talked to ‘em,” comedian Richard Pryor said when he spent six weeks on location at the Arizona State Penitentiary making the 1980 film Stir Crazy, “and thank God we got penitentiaries.”

    There’s no such thing as silence composer John Cage said in 1952. And in the jail the same: A duration with coughs, screams, snores, the percussion and amplified metal on metal. The stamp, pat, thigh-slap, clap of someone doing his hambone. Nocturne for things sharpened over time.

    Prison radio had three modes: country, jazz, and rhythm and blues. All dedicated in their way to bringing the wall down. A point of honor to be true to your school. Prison honor. No crossovers. No defectors.

    Inmates in my class insisted, then posted, then consulted daily, like they would results at OTB, what they called The Hall of Shame/Hall of Fame, a lined sheet of paper as in grade school to which they added, justly and unjustly, the names of their friends and enemies.

    “I do not doubt interiors have their interiors, and exteriors have their exteriors and that the eye-sight has another eye-sight, and the hearing another hearing, and the voice another voice,” — Walt Whitman from “Assurances.”

    I was ordered (you could do that in jail) to discontinue the Hall of Shame/Hall of Fame by the head of Education, a small groundhog of a man who seemed to have dug under a posthole in the New Hampshire woods then surfaced inside the wall in Pennsylvania. Too much agitation, he said, which meant there was taunting and retaliation and a beatdown over the rankings and someone was spending some time in the hole.

    The prison shrink befriended me, asked if I’d be willing to sit in with his group, a therapy group, or T group, where inmates were encouraged to express their feelings. I told S there was only one feeling, which was expressed each week: somebody on his knees pounding on the chair with his fists.

    __ __
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    Sung — Conflict

    The Judgment

    Conflict. You are sincere
    And are being obstructed.
    A cautious halt halfway brings good fortune.
    Going through to the end brings misfortune.
    It furthers one to see the great man.
    It does not further one to cross the great water.

    My mother, my beautiful mother, the ex-marine, called me to say, “Sit down. Are you sitting down?” I sat to hear I was to report for my army physical. I packed for Canada. I ran down the hallway of my apartment in the hope I could throw myself against the wall and induce a final, army-disqualifying injury. A concussion, a separation. I reported for my exam with my x-rays from football and letters from doctors to prove I had had at least five concussions. “You’re a specimen, son. You passed. Tell your mother the good news.”

    On the stairs to Education someone said, “Blood the fuck up.”

    On the stairs to Education some scuffling or buttoning up or down [were zippers permitted?] some cloth rustling. I saw a black hand, supine, brush fingertips with a white hand, prone, passing some powder maybe or a Life Saver or just a forbidden touch.

    S told me he spent the weekend licking some stamps that had been franked, read by his caseworker, and passed on to him. The stamps were steeped in acid.

    At the end of August I would watch on television the four nights of coverage of the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. (On a borrowed black and white Westinghouse portable with a “See-Matic” chassis and a wide range 4-inch speaker.]) I knew that the general population could only watch television up to 9 o’clock, so it was up to me to report what I witnessed the next day: I saw Mayor Daley swearing at Senator Abe Ribicoff of Connecticut. (I couldn’t hear him say, “Fuck you, you Jew son of a bitch.”) I saw tear gas and schools of anti-war protestors like fish in underwater shades of gray in Grant Park. (I couldn’t see the Yippie Festival of Life or the Police Riot of the Walker Report.) I saw turmoil on the floor of the convention. (I couldn’t see Dan Rather getting punched in the stomach.) I saw kids my age being clubbed and maced and arrested and bandaged. I saw cops in helmets swinging their nightsticks. I saw tanks and the National Guard like in Philadelphia. (I wouldn’t hear until later, “The whole world is watching.”) I could see the rough beast. (I couldn’t see Bethlehem). I could see there was one feeling being expressed and a reaction to that feeling by the police. But I was seized. I tried to convey to S and others in Education what it was, what it was like. It was some fucked up shit, man was the best I could do. It was the “flabby, pretending, weak-eyed devil of a rapacious and pitiless folly.” But S told me Heart of Darkness was racist, man.

    But I was a witness. For the first time I was needed for my testimony. S and some other political prisoners (we’re all political prisoners, S said.) would wait for me inside the classroom of Education. Prison waiting: “sweating the fence.” It was a ritual that was both urgent and indifferent, a jolted boredom, a slouching, enervated attention, for the news I could barely carry. “Spill,” S said and I spilled my crude account. I made a vow to get articulate, like Malcolm X. Or if not articulate I could aspire towards a “curious puffing […] whispering heavenly labials in a world of gutturals,” as Wallace Stevens says, in order to undo the powers that be.

    __ __

    T'ung Jên — Fellowship with Men

    Nine in the fifth place means:
    Men bound in fellowship first weep and lament,
    But afterward they laugh.
    After great struggles they succeed in meeting.

    The I Ching offered S the ecstasy of release from time. It offered a belief that was not ironic or doctrinaire. The synchronicity and randomness of it offered an escape from causality and rationality and linearity. It was a laughable oracle that made sense of the senseless or vice versa. Every black/white faction, every religious denomination, every skin color and tribe pursued S to join them. He resisted solidarity and the orthodox approaches and suffered for it. He preferred being inside the inside. The Ching was clemency from all things temporal. One must have an I Ching mind so as not to do hard time, you might say.

    Vietnam was TV and my demon. Part exotic nature show, part Hollywood blowin’ stuff up, part crime drama, part elegy. It was a naked girl running from her napalmed village. It was a black-and-white shadow show that depicted the signal grasses being bent severely down by the rotors of a helicopter while young men my age were carrying stretchers with fubared young men my age. I watched it every night.

    My mother called. “Are you sitting down? You got a letter. I opened it. You’ve got a new date to report to Fort Dix.”

    I put in eight-hour days, but sometimes I would leave to eat and come back for a T-group or a Narcotics Anonymous Session. I did my time. My friend, the prison shrink, invited me to join his NA group. We need somebody who is neither an inmate nor a guard, a sort of layperson. And who was I?

    Two white men with prison muscles and brilliantly Brilliantined hair waited for the electric locks to buzz at the end of 50 minutes and entered the classroom. S retreated to a neutral corner and looked out the window, fascinated by a pigeon. “Mr. Hoffa has a birthday comin’ up,” one said, and they left and returned two weeks later. “Mr. Hoffa likes Cuban cigars.” A week later I said to them, “Even if I would, where could I get Cuban cigars in Central Pennsylvania?” Three days later, “A nice young fella like yourself would do well to remember Mr. Hoffa’s birthday.” They spoke to each other as if I wasn’t there. “Mr. Hoffa’s birthday, four days away.” I taped a sixpack of Phillies cheroots inside The Portable Nietzsche that the Catholic chaplain’s office had stamped. They came back in a week, “Ever think about law school? The freight could be paid. A nice young fella like yourself.”

    I took some “substance abuse” training with guards and FBI and other serious men in suits. The legal, psychological, sociological, medical aspects of drugs. To start we saw a film about fetal drug addiction and I threw up a little in my mouth. There were lectures by law enforcement and lawyers about the production, distribution, and consumption of drugs, very lugubrious and chilling, after which I got to see and sniff various white and black and brown compounds laid out on tables like at a junior high science fair. I learned bonita, poor quality heroin cut with lactose, and I learned about black tar heroin. I loved saying black tar heroin as much as I could in my civilian life (“Could I have a quart of orange juice and some black tar heroin? Just kidding ma’am.”). I loved the lexis I learned in that room. Fu, fuel, gauge, gangster, gash, giggle, grunt. I got to smoke, well not smoke, but pass around a lit cigarette of marijuana with FBI during which there wasn’t even a smirk. Don’t Bogart that joint, my friend. The other men looked like my college football teammates.

    Text and countertext: Philip Roth in his autobiographical essay, “Joe College” writes about his time at Bucknell, about the cultural schism set in motion by his exile from Jewish Newark in goyishe central Pennsylvania. I was his “Secret Sharer,” his part-Jewish Joe College alter ego, injected into mainstream football/campus culture 15 years later. Then, four years later, Joe Jail.

    I knew it as “woofing,” two men in the yard toe to toe fighting, but at a distance, more of an aggressive singing — an unarmed battle to subdue your opponent by words that summoned all the caged cleverness, metaphysical conceit, repressed homoeroticism, overt homoeroticism, street wit and prison vernacular. It probably duplicated the daily condition of inmates: wanting to erupt in violence but against whom or what and with what? So woofing. This verbal fighting demanded an audience, and it wasn’t over until the loser went speechless or the circle proclaimed a winner after a particularly nasty insult about mother fucking, hygiene, intellectual acumen, and shit eating. S called it signifying. The Muslims said, “Woofin’? That’s the dozens. We don’t encourage disparaging our African-American sisters, sir.” You don’t have to call me sir, I said. “It’s our way to show respect for all persons.”

    My mother called: where was I and what and how? I was spending all my time in jail. What more could the Selective Service do to me?

    I don’t remember ever taking a breath, but I must have taken a breath. I don’t remember the seasons, but I remember putting up the top of the car and turning the heater on giving a ride to an “inmate” who turned out to be a government informer on anti-war activities. I never could identify the smell: ozone, mercurochrome, male oils, venison, spills of guilt (I imagined) mopped up by bleach, disinfected rage. I remember the first time I witnessed a “count”; the black and brown men obediently rendering their numbers to the jailors. I was unaccountably terrified and reminded of the distance between us.

    I remember trying to articulate the inside/outside paradigm: Crooks outside/Saints inside became Some Crooks, some Saints inside / indifferent assholes outside became Crooks inside so violently anti-authoritarian they won’t accept help from anybody / Crooks outside so violently authoritarian that Nixon would be elected (and reelected) and the war would go on. The only thing I was sure of was the slashes. I remember feeling like a novice to the planet.

    A novice was sitting on a cornice
    High over the city. Angels
    Combined their prayers with those
    Of the police, begging her to come off it.

    John Ashbery, “Illustrations”

    One student would answer only if the sum of the problem were 2, as in “Deuce, cut her loose.” He answered only in rhyme, clanging. “Make that 2, yabbadabbadoo.”

    Another student showed me his scrapbook. A picture of him in a burgundy sheath, a bare-midriff piece in emerald, a red peplum with a blouse, a strapless white, that’s champagne, gown. He told me about the tuck. And tape. But what I remember most is the photo of the family at Thanksgiving fanned out behind the bounty: turkey, stuffing, cranberry, mashed potatoes, and tax stamps proudly on all the liquor bottles.

    __ __
    __ __
    __ __

    Chieh — Limitation

    The Judgment

    Limitation. Success.
    Galling limitation must not be persevered in.

    Nine in the fifth place means:
    Sweet limitation brings good fortune.
    Going brings esteem.

    My mother, the marine, was crying. “Sit down. Are you sitting down? You’ve been reclassified.” The drop in the alphabet from 1-A to 1-Y meant: Registrant available for military service, but qualified only in case of war or national emergency. As far as she knew it went something like this: files from my trip to West Point as a high-school football recruit and subsequent disqualification (shoulder separation) were sent to my draft board who added them to the x-rays and transcripts of injuries sustained playing college football and the draft board thought better of me as a specimen. “The US Military Academy got you out of the military,” she said.

    I would not have to go to war, but I would serve.

    I drove around and played Miles.

    It seems now a cheap, absurdly theatrical, backwards and shitty kind of resistance. Kids my age, friends, were coming home in body bags: I wasn’t oblivious to this. It wasn’t just TV. Kids I went to school with, the skinny red-haired kid in the corner, was a gunner on a helicopter. Kids I slammed my head into in football games were a flag folded over and over into a starry blue triangle. I wasn’t any less bewildered by this outcome than I was by living out of my car and plotting escapes or self-mutilation. Or by teaching in, being in, jail.

    Whoever I was when I arrived (Joe College? Mr. SDS?) I was not that person now. I had killed that person, or tried to and for that I would do my time in the company of men and be released to my own recognizance. I wouldn’t see white and free without seeing a boundary, a concussion, a lockdown, a count. And a man in a jean jacket in the rain playing a saxophone against the wall. Prison music.

    I got out and turned to words, “the taming power of the small” as the I Ching says. I would practice a curious puffing, a broken music. I would begin my apprenticeship, a 20-year bid. I would become a teacher, without the “prison” qualifier, but always qualified by the memory of the wall.

    “Spill,” S said, and I spilled.

    One feeling, a sadness I couldn’t tell.

    Broken line, broken line, broken line.


    Bruce Smith is a poet.

    LARB Contributor

    Bruce Smith is the author of six books of poems including The Other Lover, which was a finalist for both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize, and most recently Devotions, a finalist for the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. He received the 2012 William Carlos Williams Award.


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