at Length

Sing Sing

—Tomás Q. Morín

She had lived within
the white stone walls

so long she couldn’t
remember any longer

the face of the man
who ferried her across

the river. When she tried
to see him she saw

nothing. What struck her
always about that night

was how from the boat
the black crest of beech

and maples joined the
dark flat of the river

to make a green yawn
each second made

yawn even wider.
She never could forget

this coupling of solid
and liquid darks so

unbroken and total except
where the buildings sat

locked arm in arm
along the shore.

The ferryman had said
on a night like this,

when stars were dim, one
could look at the savage

light of those buildings and
swear it was the harvest moon

dipping for a drink.
For years her pride

had kept her from begging
a parole board of strangers

for mercy and a little
tenderness. But now

she was finally tired
of walls and it was time

to acknowledge her crimes
and apologize so she took

the sheet of grey
paper she had folded

to look like the gull
wheeling overhead,

and flattened it. Her hair
firmly tucked behind her ear,

she sighed and wrote:

Esteemedparole board, I’ve
spent every hour
wondering what I could
have done differently,
how things might’ve
turned out if I hadn’t
broken the rules and
followed my poet out
of the house and away
from the page. I was sure
he was going to abandon
his words for what would’ve
been the 10th time
since he believed he had
no talent to speak of,
that the future readers
of America, dull and
overfed on vampire
poetry, would shred his
“stupid poems” and sell
them by the bag
as packing material. He
couldn’t write about
the dead South anymore
or the war between the races.
I was sure not a soul
would know I was watching
him as he slid a sack
over his leg and the
leg of a woman he didn’t
know loved him yet.
How could I know
when I tripped them so
he could fall on her
and they could roll and laugh
that she would die? I was
supposed to make him a poet
of joy, not grief.

Shestopped writing
and stared away

at the bleached stones
of the wall stacked

like loaves of bread.
Walls this high, she’d

learned, had a way
of making the mind

forget what was real
so that before you knew it,

you were staring hard
enough to misremember

your own father
shuffling in the kitchen—

a tune playing on his lips—
from mixing bowl to oven

and back again until all
the sills and countertops

and tables were heavy
with golden bread he braided.

Those warm slices she
never tasted bubbled up

in the soup of her
mind when the steam

from the laundry room
slipped down the corridors

or when sweat clinging
to hair met the hot pillow

on the bed below her. A wall
built high and plain enough

could easily bend
a memory, is meant to,

which is why so few
ever remember the past

true enough to know what
they’re apologizing for.

Because she knew the land
the prison was built on once

belonged to the Sinck Sinck
tribe who fished and camped

the shores, the white
stones of the wall

were only ever stones
and nothing more.

But her apology couldn’t be
about forgetting. She knew this,

knew she must tell the past
true if she was ever to grow

a seed of sympathy
in anyone’s heart

and so she started again
and wrote:

Ladiesand Gentlemen, I present
the facts of my life: before
I was a Muse, milk
and cheese were my trade
by day, a warped
fiddle by night. I sawed
the most bent notes
a Kansas City sky
ever did hear. Five
years later I was kissing
strangers at the carnival
for a nickel a piece.
I was inspiring them
to kiss their wives
harder. Yes, I’ll admit,
long in the tooth couples
necking in a Buick
isn’t art, but wouldn’t
you rather see that
than the high drama
divorce on the lawn
of a courthouse? How
I came to inspire a poet
from the South hell
bent on writing love
poems about Roman
gods and goddesses
I can’t recall. Four more
weeks and I would’ve cured
him of the silly idea
of gods. Love, now
there’s godliness
in that idea. For the record,
I never was a god. I am
spirit same as you,
moving body to body
through the years, always
sneaking into the background
of people’s lives when
they need focus the most,
which is all inspiration
really is. Drown out
the noise of your life
miraculously one day
and rest assured I’ll be
mowing grass or snoring
on the couch in a key
so pure the busy world
slows down clear
enough for you to finally
see and hear what was
always there.

She lookedat what she had written

and knew it was wrong.
She’d said too much

about the nature of things.
People of most stripes

prefer their beauty simple,
she thought. Most want to see

a crest of beech and maple
as perfectly clearly in the dark

as in the day, not the shifting
black crouching like a dog

about to leap across
the water. A hill is a hill

is true enough, but how
many prisoners had forgotten

over the years this simple
truth on their ferry ride

and been smothered almost
to death by the warm dog breath

of the shore and emptied
their dinner into the Hudson?

She had to omit the past
if she were to have a chance,

leave out all her years
of hard work. She couldn’t

mention all the singers
and politicians, doctors

and artists, who built
with her help great pain

into art. No one had cared
about any of this at sentencing

and no one at her parole
hearing would care either.

The future was where
she needed to focus

so she crossed out
everything she had written

and wrote:

Dear officersof the court, if you see
fit to release me, I
pledge to inspire
responsibly or not at all.
If it’s my luck to draw
another Southerner
obsessed with pie
and ribs and sun-soaked
tea, I’ll nurture her
natural inclinations
toward food until feasts
complete with appetizers
and desserts spring
from her pages. And
if it’s sports she loves
more than anything, she’ll
have the great lacrosse
players of the Hudson
valleys crisscrossing
her canvases. I won’t
repeat my mistakes
from the past. I’ll give
in to every whim
and indulge the people
who need me. If another
poet selling jewelry
to snobs from the suburbs
to make a living goes
out on a limb and asks
a bookbinder from
Tennessee who is
also a closet poet
if he wants to partner
with her for the sack races
celebrating Washington
Irving Day, I’ll stand
to the side and let nature
follow whatever crooked
course it cares to go.
If you see me fit
to walk free I’ll find
her parents and nudge them
to take up singing
lessons. Nudge them
to wail, to howl to the stars
with perfect pitch about
their great misfortune.
And him, him I’ll…

The shadow

of the lost gull sounding
overhead kept crossing her lap

as it shrunk against the empty
blue that on a clear day like today

was like a second river
that didn’t suffer the traffic

of ferries and whose
shores waited for nothing.

When sleep would not come
she lay in bed thinking

about the gulls that would get lost
in the valley. Even though

she knew it would not help,
she closed her eyes

and flew up the warm
face of the Palisades

before rising still higher
and then flying downriver,

her wings still as she
let the current of wind catch

and carry her past Nyack
and Dobbs Ferry, Yonkers

and Manhattan, Hoboken
and Red Hook, down to

where the river empties,
where it crashes and tosses

against the breakers and its
old groan is washed and

drowned in the dusky song
of a thousand happy gulls

hissing and squalling. As the
light grew weaker the shadow

of the gull cutting across
the yard stretched into

the shape a child’s kite
would make. She had a son,

the woman who died.
He would be older now,

maybe even a father.
Promising to be responsible

would not be enough.
She’d have to say

what they wanted, what
her lawyer had begged

her to say all along
to prove she wasn’t crazy.

For her own protection
she scratched through

all her words until they
were unreadable, balled up

the paper and tossed it
on the ground and began

a fresh page with what
she knew they wanted

to hear:

Fellow citizens,I’m the same as you
in that I was reared
right by decent parents.
They mourned me
good and proper
the summer I lit out
of Iowa with a carnival.
Ten years it took
to work up to an act
in the big tent. My talent
was confidence, pure
and simple, though
on my banner. The old
timers called it a knack
for knowing the heart
of people. All I had
to do was decide what
they wanted and give them
a little push in the direction
they were already headed.
I got so used to calling
myself special I forgot
to stop after the carnival
and I split. Confused
is what I was. I see
clearly now. I’m a woman
who broke the law,
plain and simple. The only
thing special about me
today is I have a debt
that needs paying. If
you see your way to grace
me with a chance to enter
the world again, I pledge
to be like a struck
match in the dark
and light the way for those
who are lost from the path
of good citizenry.
You have my word
and faith.

Her tucked hair

slipped loose from her ear.
She left it to sickle

under her jaw, smiled
at what she had written

and then rose and left
the almost empty yard

to keep the weak day
moon company and

the wild moan coming
down from the north

to wrinkle the river
and muss the maples

and beeches. When the
last person had gone

inside, the gull dove and
splashed on the ground.

Tired, it sat and watched
with curiosity the grey wad

of paper twitching
open like the egg

of a bird about to hatch,
a bird that in time might

sing to us about love
and good intentions

and how little we
ever know about both.

Tomás Q. Morín is the author of A Larger Country, winner of the APR/Honickman Prize, and translator of Pablo Neruda’s The Heights of Macchu Picchu. He is co-editor with Mari L’Esperance of Coming Close: Forty Essays on Philip Levine.