Kamilah Aisha Moon's poetry collection, She Has A Name, is forthcoming from Four Way Books. A recipient of fellowships to the Prague Summer Writing Institute, the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, MA, the Vermont Studio Center and Cave Canem, her work has been featured in several journals and anthologies, including Harvard Review, jubilat, Sou'wester, Oxford American, Lumina and Villanelles. She has taught English and Creative Writing at Medgar Evers College, Drew University and Adelphi University. She has also led workshops for various arts-in-education organizations in diverse settings. Moon received her MFA in Creative Writing from Sarah Lawrence College. Photo by Rachel Eliza Griffiths.
It's been several months since I walked out of Rikers Island Prison, bag weighed down by Certificates of Completion not granted, and boarded a bus over the bridge without looking back. Well, I didn't look back in that moment: I was soaked and furious as the storm raging that night because we didn't get to have a proper ceremony. Or maybe it was an appropriate end for our complex situation, turned away because the whole ward was on lockdown. No one could enter or exit; stopped at the gate.
I cringed going in there anyway, didn't I? The grime, lack of natural light and honest odors nauseated me. I loathed how the inmates were led down the halls in lines like ants instead of the sons, nephews, uncles, cousins, and dads (before they could legally drive, some of them) they actually are. No husbands that I knew of. And back in the neighborhoods gutted of them, no wives-to-be any time soon. They are American citizens coming of age, fast-tracked early by colliding social fronts and political currents into a demimonde of victims who victimize; breathing products of an industry grown too lucrative to reform. Beware the endangered becoming dangerous as options dwindle.
What a storm…see, I literally couldn't look back then-windows fogged and pixilated by millions of drops, as most of their faces will become in memory over the years.
Two hours each way on two subway lines and a bus, I went rain or shine, day or night sessions twice a week to sit across from them. I never saw the menace or malice personally, even the ones in solitary-especially the ones in solitary, souls at their most vulnerable. I saw the whys, the how it happeneds; read the reasons scrawled across loose-leaf paper with golf pencils, week after week. I taught and paused as planes roared out of LaGuardia every 10 minutes. Who thought of this torture? Build a prison next to an airport, forcing them to live with the constant thunder of people going places-another nuisance in hell. Which it literally was in the summer-I would melt with them in July and August. No working fans around, it was hard to grasp things; pencils slipped out of sweaty hands. Every inch of us glistened with misery. I can't sleep in the heat. I wondered how they slept. I wondered how I was going to get through another arid season, still scrambling and scrounging six years after earning an expensive graduate degree from one of the highest-rated institutions in the country.
This last group I facilitated awaited trials and didn't know the length of their stays yet. I see their ponytails, caesar cuts, unbraided afros (no soft knees to sit between for cornrows) and razored edges. I see their sandaled feet, fresh out of the shower and willing to write a poem or two with me when they could be playing cards, watching a movie. There were the faithful few who showed up every single session; the one who would freestyle rap to cover up that he didn't know how to write; the one who knew Keats' “Ode to a Grecian Urn” from 11th grade Honors English class; the one with his girlfriend's name tattooed on his neck who, no matter what the writing exercise was, wrote her love letters. The one with the ocean eyes and perfect teeth-savvy enough for Wharton Business School, who commanded respect whenever he spoke in his confident baritone. There were the ones who knew the roughest corners and alleys of Brownsville, and the one who knew camping and windsurfing in the Poconos until a joyride gone too far. There was the shy one who compared his muscles to "mollusks straining against their shells," and the one who simply wrote, “Give me back the moment before I broke my mother's heart. Give me back a new start.”
“Why we doing odes to the body, Miss? I don't know about that,” one of them said to me. Then we took turns reading lines from “Anodyne”: “I love this body, this/solo and ragtime jubilee/ behind the left nipple,/because I know I was born/to wear out at least/one hundred angels,” and in the best Mexican Brooklynite accent ever, he exclaimed “Yo, this Yusef cat went IN on this lyric! He shut it down homes, I could never write this, wow...” When I replied, "Yeah, it's pretty wavy-" using the latest slang correctly without pretense, the applause was instant and wild…a holy moment where we felt proud of ourselves for reaching past our usuals to embrace different kinds of cool, sophistication.
The administrative support was more unpredictable than March. Some officers glared at the sight of me walking up the long corridor. These overseers enabled chaos-or worse, apathy; never remembered me or any other teachers from the week before, and seemed more “incarcerated” than the young men under their spiteful supervision. Thank God for the officers who believed in grace and rehabilitation! They wrote poems with us, learned my name and began to greet me with a hug after the first year… one officer whose bearded kiss rang my cheek like a silver bell. The captain who was a closet poet, revealing her lines and images almost in a burlesque way the few times she participated, all of us also enjoying the poetry her curves made out of the state-issued blue uniform. That too, yes-amazing how real and transcendent we were able to get, none (except me) wearing his or her own clothes-but all of us swathed in the ill-fitting irony that in a better world, none of us would have to be there.
Some evenings, poetry was the last thing on their minds: bad news from lawyers, the aftermath of a fight. It only took the foolish actions of one to bring the wrath down on many. On these occasions, I would ask them to give me five lines based on a simple writing prompt, then they would vent. About how expensive the phone cards were to talk to their families, the minutes never long enough. About being transferred upstate-no more kid's stuff, the sentence truly beginning. About shady officers working them over, naively made deals with the devil. About news that another friend is no more; feeling lucky they were locked away from the scene despite loathing the low, iron twin beds and scratchy wool blankets. “Look, I know we messed up, but we still like everyone else. We want good food, we got dreams.”
“Why you do this?” asked my MC who quoted Biggie often and could only sign his name on the attendance sheet. I told him I've always loved to write, to be connected to others by sharing our human business in creative ways that ultimately heal.
“That's nice but nah, why do you come to the island? I would never come here on purpose.”
“Because it's too damn easy for boys who look like my family members to end up here. And I want you to know that I care, and that all of you matter, and this doesn't have to be it. You don't have to be defined by your mistakes, or doomed by what you never got that you should have.” That was the official answer-every word true, but not even the half of it. In fact, I am still trying to answer him, figure out the extent of what was given and received because it was definitely an exchange. I know that we grappled with the idea that pain, no matter how profound, is never grounds or license to harm yourself or others. Once, we contemplated what freedom truly means. Perhaps part of it was sitting together beyond the initial sting of judgment, with all of our goodness and badness, struggling through punishment (internal and external) towards some sort of reconciled peace we can always access, regardless of anything else.
I was comfortable there in a sense. So much so, I forgot the circumstances once and said we should all get drinks sometime-which we laughed at hysterically for a long time. I told them about poets and colleagues who had phoenixed from the same ashes, told them it wasn't some rare magic they didn't already have inside. I brought in poems by Etheridge Knight, books like Reginald Dwayne Betts' Shahid Reads His Own Palm and Randall Horton's The Lingua Franca of Ninth Street for them to hold in their hands, allowed them to reflect in the clear, finely wrought mirrors of these words. I shared with them one of my favorite Lucille Clifton quotes: "What they call you is one thing; what you answer to is something else," and watched their heads nod at the import of her statement, a knowing grunt from the corner of the room hovering in the silence.
One night I stood at the door about to leave, no poems written because the warden of that cellblock had overbooked and another program was in progress. I could have used that night to rest; my health was suffering greatly at the time. But notice and consideration are scarce on the island. As the guard opened the door, Zorro (my nickname in my head for him, striking resemblance) ran up and said, “I liked that hope-is-the-thing-with-feathers joint you brought in last week. Hope is hard to hold onto. But I'm going home next week, Miss. I just wanted to say thanks and peace.”
“Peace to you too, that's great news! Take good care of yourself, man.” Not a wasted trip after all.
I look back often lately as I recover from emergency surgery-one of those close calls compelling a person to scrutinize everything. Their crude jokes and candid admissions in the day room show up unexpectedly like guests who know they don't have to call first. I look back and flash ahead, trying to imagine where they are now. One young man found me folding clothes in the Laundromat months ago, walked up with a smile like dawn and said, “you used to be my poem teacher, I really liked your class.” I was thrilled to greet him on this side, gave him a hug and wished him well. I know that chance meeting was a shooting star in this particular sky, yet I wish for them daily. Let their beautiful faces show up in my freshmen composition classes, please. Let the television glow with their tales of survival featured on talk shows other than Maury Povich; maybe even memoirs on the New York Times bestseller list to help send little brothers and sisters to private school, let Mom quit at least one of her jobs.
Mr. Grecian Urn read voraciously, whatever he could get his hands on. He told me about a brutal past he shoulders with mixed results, and I told him that he must read this book by Nick Flynn, some of the details uncanny between their lives. He howled at the colorful title, Another Bull**** Night in S*** City. “I haven't read it and I love it already,” he said. I know the feeling…I didn't really know these young men well, yet I fell for them quickly. I was so upset when he was suddenly transferred and I didn't know where to find him.
However, I knew my sojourns had to end-my heart too full now, my body too weak from a packed, stressful schedule-too tired to insist on care that I desperately needed but eluded me. I was torn but resolute, didn't even invoice for my last two sessions. I played it hard like they recounted in so many of their stories and poems, the go-to urban fella's strategy for coping. The steely prison staff on that last shift, the unrelenting weather, and my oxygen-starved organs made it a little easier. I didn't look back at the time in order to keep moving.
But when Mr. Grecian Urn finds me one bright day, as I deeply hope he will, I'll extend the book I bought for him like a baton, ready to trade recent stories about each of our legs in this race.