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Tunes and Time: Excerpts & Poems from a Daily Rikers Journal


The Pearl, by John Steinbeck with drawings by Jose Clemente Orozco., Digital ID 490163, New York Public Library

"The song remained; Kino knew them, but no new songs were added. That does not mean that there were no personal songs. In Kino's head there was a song now, clear and soft, and if he had been able to speak of it, he would have called it the Song of the Family." —The Pearl, John Steinbeck

I read this passage from The Pearl while waiting for the Count to be made and the inmates to be led in a thin trickle to our closet-sized library. Time to wait and contemplate what it was that I was about to give to Jake, the DOC inmate working Bing lunch duty that day. Time to wonder if this book would be more than just a diversion of time; more than a presence on the spare shelf in his cell. Whether the simple fact that he owned it would add motion to his stasis here in the New York City Jail system.

Would the words affect him?

How much time does Sam have left frozen on the Island? Is he on work detail because he's a trustee on the way out?

Do you know how pearls are formed?, Digital ID 1519445, New York Public LibraryOr is he trusted because he's in there for a long long long time yet to come, all those weighty measures of time pressing him into the perfect trustee: mass converges down into a pearl, after all.

Is Sam a pearl of the system? Even a pearl isn't completely dead matter: hold it to your face and you'll catch the ghost of a face, half-recognizable in the contours.

I hope the words will speak to him, or at least murmur reassuringly.

The songs Kino longed for, recalls like the rhythms of physiology, are here in this jail too: no new songs are added behind the cinderblocks, lead paint, wired glass, barbed wire, the cold of the East River, the guards and their guns and clubs and gates. That doesn't mean no personal songs remain embedded in each DIN numbered man and woman and kid, Rikers' cinderblock villagers. In the yard, under the slim trunks of the hoops and light poles listen to the song of flight: pigeons from Astoria, gulls from the East River, the steel and plastic flocks of LaGuardia, simply the wind. In the halls the voices of men and all the children of the voices of men: jokes, jeers, laughter sweet, cruel, hollow, shouts, calls, the incoherent, the nonsensical, the beats and rhymes of a trio of jury-rigged rappers, a prayer, a breath.

What is the song of Jake S.? Of Walker the Bing Officer? Of Faulk, cell number 27, solitary, Bing unit, who shouted to us from the shower sequestered below the panopticon's floor, head and arm poking from the rectangular opening in the bars. The steam wreathed him and he had no face, only a voice that told us to make sure his requests were in for the library. To make sure we'd bring him something to sing his song to. Or to sing with. Or to sing for like a newborn, a sleeping ancestor, a headstone, the egg of a kept bird.


Islands - Rikers Island - Commissary for prisoners., Digital ID 732157f , New York Public LibraryThese men, their stuffed

envelopes, their half-pages,

penned-in lines on blank paper.

No lines, small mercy, no grey lines

to remind chain links, barbed wire

of one last long, free expanse.

                          Each writer

puts up his own fences or none.


                          Their requests,

their “God Bless”, their “Allah

thank you”, their sincerely,

                          DIN numbers

                          last name

                          first, middle initial

                           taken, found, precious and purloined,

                          facts checked

materials referenced

slice open frank white envelopes,

                          my expectation

                                    to uncover


                          caged voices.


No, they’re candid men asking questions.

                          Men who slipped

in beside their letters. Escape

just for a day or two,

until return addresses open the gates

                          beckon them to the lock.


They are best hand-writing,

best manners, good graces,

humbled words. Materials enclosed:

                          pry bars  to slip through,

break the seams of walls wide.

Official clemency

to be Man


From the Office of Dead Letters

Fishkill Correctional Facility:

150 requested reference pages.


            Inmate # M-O-O-N, the caller down.

He wants to trace the craters


and seas and blackness.

Seek out his lunar kin.

            He requested

star charts and an astrolabe

            buried in a cake

            thick with white-blue icing.


Sweet navigation. Cosmic jail-breaker.


No air up there at all, except

the air you imagine for your lungs.


Test the globe’s directions:

North, the wallop of the prison bricks.

                        South, warm breezes, Banyan trees,

wide, flat toads, poisonous and free.

East the living sea, not the petrified dust

            sleeping in the sky.

And West? Gold. It’s always been that way.

Gold wheat that Inmate # M-O-O-N

scotch-taped to the wall

            the warden-god sculpted

as his cell mate.

Wide and tall,

his impossibly spoon-proof roommate,

wired glass eyes, the furious,

                                    ringing bars

                                                his teeth.                   


There’s a diner at the four way stop,

            out on Devil’s Gate Lane,

where the Bulls eat.

Inmate # M-O-O-N watches

through the depths

            of star maps and chain-link fences.


In the front booth, so close

to plate glass so thin it hurts

            to see the freedom reflected on the other side,

MOON’s light sits.

He orders coffee and speaks sweetly

to the waitress.

            Far off,

under starlight,

MOON unfolds

his telescope and traces

                        Orion’s blind eyes,

the face gone to glass.                                  

His abandoned coffee freezes through.

            A shadow passes over the moon.

He ends this letter:

I humbly ask

would you please

lean a little closer

so I may pluck you

like a coin

from its purse.


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