by Shaun T. Griffin
Ten years ago an Iraqi Vet walked into my poetry workshop at the prison. Here’s one version of how it might have saved his life and brought us—soldier and teacher—together. Bear with me: this might sound like fiction—but it was an ornery fiction that ripples through us still.
Let’s say you get out of high school, try college and it backfires in a field of Fs. You look around, have another drink, and sign on for a tour in the sand. But the sand isn’t the sand of home—not anything like the dunes you rolled in as a kid. It looks like there’s tents and fatigues and night vision goggles. You learn to see things in the dark. You learn to pay homage to the desert of tanks and valleys. They tap you on the shoulder. You look scared, agree to serve as a medic. In ten years this will heal, a wound just starting to open. You skip the formalities and re-enlist—a hitch of recovery promised along the way. By then the bodies misconstrue their own names. They are lost in the canopy of conquest and salutation.
You write your kids, kiss them on a screen backlit with code for crawling out of here. You cannot hide from the leather boots, the thrum of gun fire in your ears. Your wife promises to love them for you and then she goes away, lost to her own dark desert. Your mother raises them, these boys you love from a distance. And they know it, almost. They know you’re there, even if you’re not. You’re here in the sand of what was left of the British Empire.
When you come home the recluse father comes out of hiding. You try school again but books and teachers look like cutouts on the discharge papers they give you. You drink enough to fall asleep in a car and wake in handcuffs. Someone robbed a man but you don’t remember, passed out in the back seat. Months later you walk into a poetry workshop, the only non-prison industry alternative on the yard. A way to feel what was left in the other desert—not the high desert of home. Slowly the poems emerge: a decalage of hurt and pain that starts in the neck and works its way to sudden release at six a.m. when count clears and you can sleep without the flashlight in your cell. Not much has changed you think, except they don’t need night vision goggles to see the enemy in here: it is me. I’m the enemy. I fought and fought and failed and now I return to home, broken like an oath to enlist in the carnivore that is prison.
The poems start to take shape—they are named and numbered after the events of a war the mother country refused to embrace. They, the poems, slip in and out of consciousness, halos to the unseen voices that storm your cranium. Your teacher says they are good, meaning you are good, meaning you have a way out of not just the desert, but prison. Which you infer to be affirmation: the brittle statuary of poetry has welcomed its soldier home. Now you must begin to unearth what you worked so hard to shelter from feeling. You must be numb to write the lines the teacher is reading. And the other men in the room start to listen. There is a chaotic scream in the lines: some small private begging for help and you jump from the Humvee, his eyes already pearled before the night sky, slap his face, and pull him into the vehicle, the waning dark somewhere near the end of the poem. You tell the teacher you can’t write anymore—it’s too painful. He understands, asks you to listen. You read poets from other deserts, places you have never belonged to—Egypt, Iran, Peru. You start to help the young guys even though you still are not yet thirty.
One day after years in the poetry class you announce you’re leaving, going to a low custody camp in the middle of the high desert. Easy time you say, like sitting on a beach waiting for a signal that it’s all right to lie down. When you get to the camp you write the teacher letters: “They are killing here too—” the small armies of men locked in their Levis—brown against white against black. You ask yourself, has the complexion of the desert really changed? You plead with your teacher for a visit. Months later your teacher arrives; the guard at the chain link fence is also young. She worries she’s got it too good. “I don’t deserve this,” she confides to him. Your teacher smiles, walks in. For three hours you and the teacher read poems, etch time with the photovoltaic cells of language. Together you lie before the wrinkled hands of justice, pray you will be released soon.
But you are transferred again—to an honor farm—literally. You work the dairy at dawn and when the teacher visits you are bottle feeding an orphaned baby donkey. Like being in the Humvee without a war you think. The associate warden lets the teacher stay for an hour of unsupervised visiting.
And then you walk out, almost without notice. Ten years gone by. Your kids hardly know you. Your mother can’t talk after two p.m.; the spirits have crawled from the bottle to slake her thirst.
You appeal your sentence with a popcorn lawyer for this same decade. Then a man in a suit who takes money promises you it will end differently. You remember the screams: “Can it?” you ask, “I was there—someone got hurt.”
“In the war or prison?” the lawyer asks.
“Are they any different?” you say blowing a cigarette. You show your lawyer your five-year pin from AA—clean and sober like a hologram around the neck.
One night you call your teacher, stammer around what you want to say but the words are like fetal monitors—they measure the flask of sorrow within.
“I don’t know why I called—” you say.
“What?” the teacher says.
“My sentence has been evacuated—”
“What’s that mean?” your teacher asks.
“It’s been overturned. I’m free. No more parole. No more permission to visit my kids. No more living in the land of two deserts.”
“They overturned your conviction?” the teacher repeats.
“That’s never happened in all the years I’ve taught poetry,” the teacher says.
“One of the guys in the workshop wouldn’t let me give up; he encouraged me to keep appealing and I did.”
“So it was a group effort?” the teacher tries to joke.
“To get out of prison,” you ask, “or the war?”
And just like that fate walked into your life to enlist you in the free world. Then you stammer, “Can I share this poem?”
“Sure,” the teacher says but worries you’re not nearly far enough from the place you last emptied your rifle.
Through screams at night,
I lie still, unsure all’s clear,
and I hold my line
with pen or the trigger of other thoughts,
ready to be stained,
ink oozing on the page
from a wound that won’t clot.
I open the tourniquet wide,
dear life spilling—
never once thinking this could end.
Shaun T. Griffin co-founded and directed Community Chest, a rural social justice agency for twenty-seven years. His new book of poems, Before the Morning, is forthcoming from the University of Nevada Press. Southern Utah University Press released Anthem for a Burnished Land, A Memoir, in 2016. For thirty years he taught a poetry workshop at Northern Nevada Correctional Center and published a journal of their work, Razor Wire.
To read more of Shaun’s work in this issue, check out “If There Is a Place for Death.”