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Joseph Bathanti

Huron Valley

Oversized Royal blue snap-blouses,
matching trousers, orange stripes
flowing at the outseam –

big bags of time to shrink them,
circled in little yellow chairs,
eyes closed, listening as Trudy

recites by heart the poems
she refuses to commit to paper.
Words are contraband the man spins

into more time: sentences,
stanzas, entire volumes:
the signed confession of her life.

Beneath a tired red wig,
lily tat on her jugular,
she rhymes in toothless hip-hop.

The best relationship she’d had
in years was with her pimp;
she liked not thinking for herself.
Her daughter was murdered
outside Motown Kabob.
Mama died since she’s been down.

Now, behind this time,
all she does is ponder walls
of words immuring her.

These women know whoring in Detroit:
signify like church, amen Trudy
when her voice breaks,

hand around the circle a roll
of toilet paper, tearing off spans
to dab their eyes. Through a window,

in the corridor, a male guard
occasionally peeks in at them. Outside
invisible through the valley slices

the Huron River. Along its banks
flare purple crocuses, straining to open –
to make it back – this wintry April. 



                           I died in 1960 from a prison sentence and poetry brought me                             back to life.

                           -- Etheridge Knight

                          (For Rebecca Gould Gibson)

Dead winter, black outside, Raleigh,
under Morgan Street.
From dungeons and asylums,
the only light creeps. 

Rebecca Gibson walks into Central Prison.
A poet at a Quaker college,
she has never entered a penitentiary.
A silent guard escorts her by elevator

down below the earth, as if time-
travelling – steel box in a steel house:
knobless, slick on all sides, controlled
by an invisible hand and disembodied voice

snapped over an intercom. 
Like an alluring saint traipsing
into a leper hospital –
that luminous feminine detachment –

she is led to a room: a long wooden
table and chairs, closed circuit
cameras in cornices. Barred window:
halogen orbs strobe the sky,

swirling shadows of concertina,
swooning search lights
sweep the perimeter.
A dozen convicts in felon brown

sit around the table, State tablets
and sharpened #2 Ticonderogas.
Rebecca speaks
about the well-meaning heartbreak

of family, its disorder and turmoil;
she talks of love, then reads her poems:
“[marveling] at the persistent love /
the only paradise we’ll ever know,”

how, “Again, we fail to connect.”
The guys signify, deeply into it.
They place together their palms,
close their eyes, drop their heads.

She confesses that she wants to feed them poems,
implores them to be honest.
They write about longing and children,
women and God, of their crimes,

what they’ll do differently, how they know,
now, behind this wall of sentences,
what it takes to make it on Earth.
These men pull ferocious time:

life to die. Underground.
They’ll never get out.
They’ve done the terrible things inked in their files.
Shrouds of threadbare light envelop them.

The dying light of hope –
that the same blameless words
that tripped and seared them,
pulled triggers, drove steel  into flesh;

words that masqueraded as their lives,
then died in their arms, and finally
chained them to this cellar –
hope that, those very words, spilled tonight

as poetry, will be enough to pluck them
from the penitentiary. When Rebecca rises
to depart, they stand, receive her proffered hand,
look into her eyes, she into theirs –

the light rimes her as well – and she wonders
aloud in breathtaking innocence
if parole boards ever listen to poems,
an interrogative blazing

for an instant in the shaft of night:
a poem trembling in a convict’s
hand as he stumbles over his own syllables,
the incredulity of the parole board,

their heads cocked, hearing
something so unimaginable, so
numinous, they’re evangelized.

There would be that same reel of light,

the convict absolved, loosed to black January,
stationed beyond the wall, awaiting him,
with such cold precision. Tonight.
Outside the door burn legions of time.


Jesus Meets His Mother

Winsome in the lone likeness I possess:
girl again, hair un-grieved, heart un-riven
the yearning profile of The Angelus,
Peabody High, class of ’37:
long before jeweled triptychs of her dandling
me on satin gowns, Madonna and Child,
our matching diadems, her infant king.
Exquisite. Not this widowed peasant, beguiled
by loss, arthritic hands, babushka, bare feet.
The Jew-baiting mob divides as I pass
Booze Alley and slouch down Omega Street,
fruit of her womb, sacrifice of the Mass.
At our patched row house, she kneels on the porch,
remnant dress impaled with a bloody torch.