The Pen Cries Power
Words By Daniel Carter, Charles Patrick Norman, Edward Ji, Evan MK Ecklund, Ward Allen Yont, Art By Tyler Champion
A Feature with PEN America Prison Writing Program
PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect freedom of expression in the United States and worldwide. Founded on the heels of the Attica prison uprising in 1971, PEN America’s Prison Writing Program believes in the restorative, rehabilitative, and transformative possibilities of writing, and we support free expression, encouraging the use of the written word as a legitimate form of power. We provide hundreds of imprisoned writers across the country with free writing resources, skilled mentors, and audiences for their work. We strive toward an increasingly integrative approach—aiming to amplify the voices and writing of imprisoned people to expand beyond the silo of prison and the identity of prisoner.
Every day the convict rakes rocks the desert repels from inside itself
into fine single file lines to match the march of the subjugated as they shuffle to main line.
One at a time! Yells the screw as though reciting from a script manufactured
By crooks who call shots for the Man who pulls their strings.
We all know these things.
Soft things don’t grow here.
My next-door neighbor needed a soup
So I gave him one of mine.
That infraction only cost me three days of solitary that time.
We are expected to get along
As long as we’re not too polite;
No one cares if it doesn’t make sense,
Just keep your fucking mouth shut and keep to the right!
If you turn your head around or make any sudden movements,
We will take you down to the ground and spray
(You Fucking Animal!)
Shackles leave scars only the soul sees.
Soft things don’t grow here.
A tumble weed struggles to free itself
From razor wire wrapped around my world.
The wild horses roaming the arroyos beyond the cyclones
Fill my teenage heart with a longing for what is illegal for me for nearly two more decades.
An old guard reads what’s in my eyes.
Soft things don’t grow here.
Early morning: the sun not yet shining.
Still dark. Breakfast.
My Father sits across from me
at the small square kitchen table
covered with a red-and-white-checked
oil cloth, spooning hot grits
onto his plate—white, steaming,
swirls of orange sharp cheddar cheese
stirred into eddies with the melted butter,
a shake of salt, then pepper.
He takes two buttermilk biscuits from the
small round pan, hot from the oven,
breaks each one open with his fork,
dabs soft churned butter onto each one,
sets the biscuits next to the grits,
then scoops a spoon of molasses,
from the little jar, dips one biscuit into
the thick brown sweetness,
bites, chews, and smiles at me.
He spoons hot buttered cheese grits
onto my plate. I take two biscuits from the pan and copy him,
move for move, as my mother turns
from the hot stove two feet away
black cast-iron skillet handle wrapped
with a striped dish towel, and slides
two fried eggs, soft, over easy,
with the spatula, onto my father’s plate of grits.
He stirs the yellow yolks into the grits,
dabs a biscuit into the mix
and eats, pleased.
She turns back to the gas stove,
blue flames flowing from the burner,
grasps two brown eggs from
the bowl in one hand.
With practiced ease she cracks
the eggs against the skillet edge,
drops the yolks and whites
into the bubbling bacon grease,
stirs the eggs, scrambled—
I do not yet like the runny eggs
like my father does,
but one day I will,
perhaps in homage to him,
or yearning to return to that time
when there were but the three of us
in that little white house
on the hill, happy, content, alive,
before he kissed Mama goodbye,
squeezed my shoulder,
and drove to work,
one more time.
My coworker makes parole.
No goodbyes. Just disappears one day.
We wish him well in our hearts,
Like among the dead, one resurrected.
He’ll forget about those still dead;
Shake off the gray dust,
While here, we still sleep,
An island away from the world.
I file my departed friend
Into my memories of the gone,
and inherit his work boots
As if I were the living,
And he the dead.
In the nighttime dew
Twisted shady trees
Climb to find the fruit
All the apples in my eyes
Behind the library
Stalking service berry section
Invisible I consume
Medicinal amounts of wild fruit
Coaxing plentiful branches
Through my kitchen window
Mullberry tree in the streetlight
Let the city grow wild…
I am everythang
that signifying Monkey say I be So they say: I am
a comet rider, planet hurdler, Milky Way maker I am
beyond, I Kant’s theory of knowledge
I am, a celestial transcendent time traveler, who
walked with Wisdom and Knowledge
and debated the inherited fallacy
of religion, but founded common ground in principles, I am
the Alpha and the Omega
and all the time in between
I am, the father, the son, and the Holy Spirit
I am in the midst of the burning bush and called-to:
Adam, Noah, Abraham
Moses, Marcus, Malcolm
Martin, Mandela “Here I am!”
the fourth man loose walking in the midst of the fire
who made Nebuchadnezzar shout out:
Ni Na Moto Ndani Yangu, I am, I am, I am!
The North Star master builders set the Great pyramid
underneath me, I am
the low moaning—strangled song, from a bilious bilge,
sung by kidnapped African nationals. I am the revolt, I am
the escape; I am
the dive, into the icy blue death.
I am, the bones that littered the middle passage, I am
what the white man: stung up and hung out
the slave. I am underfed and destitute
I am what the Negro forgot, so he shouted:
“I am somebody,” I am everything
that- that nigger Stagolee is not, I am
the black power, the Sixties sought, I am
rhythm in four/four time laid over
eighth and quarter notes, I am
Blues-bent soul cries, I am
jazz, funk on the one, soul, and hip-hop,
I am the bass drum of the heart. I am
the graceful H that played
like Donny Hathaway running
warm and cool at the same time
wild, through Coltrane’s veins
(through Coltrane’s veins)
I am, back-flips no-hands, on mattresses
laid out, in Mad Dog 20/20 battlefields. I am
the threat police officer perceive, in the presence of unarmed black men, I am
the roll call on black mothers for slain
children by white police officers’ violence, I am
incandescent with rage, beyond the point of pleading, I am
2.2 million Hostages, struggling forward from government owned property
up to, I am. I am as much of a man, as you think you are
I am compassion; I am love. I am Peace. I am
the black soil underneath your feet, I am
the Rebel without Pause, PE warned you about me, I am
the statue of liberty in Chains, (stop)
I am the American flag painted in blood. (stop)
I am the future the fire within,
on the eagle’s wings, which bore you to myself,
so I shall be I am!