Sing Sing

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:

parole 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.

stopped 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:

and 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 looked
at 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 officers
of 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.


Recent writing

E Read More

PoetryMay 19, 2024

“Everything only connected by ‘and’ and ‘and’”: On Elizabeth Bishop and Disappointment

In prose that’s erudite and accessible, former Editor-in-Chief of At Length, Jonathan Farmer, explores why “[s]o many of Elizabeth Bishop’s poems end with something audibly, willfully unsatisfying.” Covering Bishop’s career from “The Map” (1946) to her late elegy for Robert Lowell, “North Haven” (1977), Farmer’s claim will send you back to Bishop’s poems with new eyes.

W Read More

PoetryFebruary 16, 2024


“[W]hat am I to do / about beauty, about / my fear that beauty // has made me arrange / every experience in a word / and image too neatly // for them to bear / much semblance to life,” Paisley Rekdal asks in this confessional, ekphrastic poem written in response to George Stubb’s famed painting of an Arabian thoroughbred, “Whistlejacket” (1762), on view at the National Gallery in London.

S Read More

PoetryFebruary 9, 2024


“[H]ow do they bear this heat Who / knows who can say what will change,” Joanna Klink writes of this poem’s eponymous plant, also known as trumpet pitchers, as she explores our climate crisis and her relationship with her father in language that is both colloquial and catastrophic, meditative and urgent.

T Read More

PoetryApril 11, 2023

Three Weeks

“I am going to try to write / A little. // I have nothing at stake but my life.” In Dawn Potter‘s sequence, a 19th century woman alternates between diary entries and poems, trying to make sense of her life, her obligations, her hunger for holiness, and a feeling of disaster or deliverance just out of view.

Begin typing your search above and press return to search. Press Esc to cancel.