In This Place

It has been so long since I’ve been here.

I’ve been waging a battle…or two…

First and foremost I’ve been battling lung cancer since April of 2015. This has involved surgery,  chemo, a myriad of tests, MRI’s, CT scans, endoscopies, pokes and prodding. My most recent surgery was in November. I’m writing this just to let you know the circumstance of my absence, not to garner sympathy.

I recently joined a Cancer Support group. I should have done this much earlier in this journey, but here we are.

I’ve met people in the group, who when sharing their stories, help me to cope with the issues I have yet voiced. We meet weekly and although I haven’t been able to attend each and every meeting, I have also gone away from there with renewed hope. Some of those with the most wisdom to share are very progressed in their illness.

Our facilitator is a Mental Health Social Worker. Once a month we have a time of creative writing – I’ve been to one so far. This act has helped me to find my words once again.

Today, I offer you a piece of poetry I’ve written and inspired by this support group:


In This Place

The UAMC Cancer Support Group
~Tamara Farner-Swerline

“And ecstasy through all our being leaps—   Death bows his head and weeps.”   from “Death” by Rainer Maria Rilke

 

in this place

darkness blesses all

enveloping the soul

 

in this place

what some dread

others may embrace

 

in this place

dark nights of the soul

are known and accepted

 

in this place

pain is a declaration

that life continues on

 

in this place

we seek resolution

to questions not voiced

 

in this place

we find consolation

in sharing our journey

 

in this place

tears are cleansing

like baptismal waters

 

in this place

we are warriors

silently waging battle

 

in this place

we fear only

the long, last good-bye

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A New Day – A New Year

It is my custom to have a time of meditation and read at least one piece of poetry daily. Then to make the bed and straighten the bathroom and towels. Little rituals that help me to set the tone of the day.

At the day’s end, I try to be sure the dishes are washed, the sink empty and everything is “in its place”.

It doesn’t always happen, but it is a ritual I try to keep.

My poetry comes daily from the Poetry Foundation and then from Robert Okaji at O at the Edges. His offering for New Year’s was a very rich piece entitled Year’s End – you can follow the link to read his piece.

Today I received the daily offering from the Poetry Foundation and it, too was a wonderful offering by Naomi Shihab Nye. I offer it here for your review.

~The Prison Librarian

Burning the Old Year

BY NAOMI SHIHAB NYE

Letters swallow themselves in seconds.
Notes friends tied to the doorknob,
transparent scarlet paper,
sizzle like moth wings,
marry the air.

So much of any year is flammable,
lists of vegetables, partial poems.
Orange swirling flame of days,
so little is a stone.

Where there was something and suddenly isn’t,
an absence shouts, celebrates, leaves a space.
I begin again with the smallest numbers.

Quick dance, shuffle of losses and leaves,
only the things I didn’t do
crackle after the blazing dies.

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The Poet Ai

One of the most wonderful things that happened by collaborating with Regents Professor Richard Shelton of the University of Arizona was that of receiving boxes of books for our prison library for the creative writing workshop. It was always like Christmas when the boxes arrived and the inmate clerks and I began to process the items. Honestly, some of the books and poetry reviews were immediately cataloged and put on display and others, well, we kept them for ourselves.

There was a sweetness to be the first person to open a book or review and read the words before anyone else had deposited their DNA on it. Selfish perhaps, but sweet. It was prison after all.

One of the poets whose work I began reading was Ai. Her work was scintillating and disturbing at the same time. Often, I had to put her work aside until such time as I could pick it up again, just due to the very nature and treatment of her subject matter.

A bit about Ai –

Poet

Florence Anthony was an American poet and educator who legally changed her name to Ai Ogawa. She won the 1999 National Book Award for Poetry for Vice: New and Selected Poems.

Born: October 21, 1947, Albany, TX
Died: March 20, 2010, Stillwater, OK
Education: University of California, Irvine (1971), University of Arizona
Awards: National Book Award for Poetry, American Book Awards, More
Nominations: NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work – Poetry


Motherhood, 1951 – Poem by Ai Ogawa

Dear Saint Patrick, this is Peggy,
Or maybe it’s Pegeen to you,
Well, I’m really Stella Mae.
Peggy’s my nickname,
But anyway, will you please tell me
What to do about the rattlesnake
That’s in my room?
I know it’s there,
But I can’t find it anywhere I search.
I’ve ransacked the closet more than once,
Because that’s where we found the skin it shed.
I even put the cat in there and shut the door,
But he only went to sleep on my new dress
Which he had clawed from a hanger.
My grandma, Maggie, says you drove the snakes from Ireland
And they came here to Arizona.
She’s right, you know
For didn’t a rattler kill our cat, Blackie?
There he was beside the porch, stiff as a board
And baby Florence saw it.
She’s only three and doesn’t need to see death like that, not yet.
If you can, let her believe for now
That we will live forever.
Anyhow, I’m pregnant again.
I know I’ve sinned
But I am paying for it.
Don’t make my girl suffer
Because her mother used poor judgment
And got herself in trouble out of wedlock.
My mother’s disappointed in me.
My father doesn’t care
And says I don’t have to marry
Just to have a name for this one in the oven.
Father says there’s nothing wrong with our name
And will serve the babe as well as any other,
But mother is determined to give this one a legal father
Like Baby Florence has, but only on paper.
She doesn’t have a father either,
But she’s got her granddad, he says
And goes to work. He is a barber.
Mother is a cook and she works longer hours,
So I’m here with Baby Florence
And that infernal snake all day.
Outside, the new cat, dogs, chickens and hogs
Roam about the yard,
But they can’t help me, can they?
I keep praying, but you don’t answer.
I guess you’ve got no time for me,
So armed with a shovel,
I go in the closet once again
And succeed in smashing a wall.
Bits of plaster fall on my head,
But I don’t mind.
I’d rather be dead than never find the thing
That crawls about the room
Without fear of discovery.
This morning, I woke up to find a coiled imprint
At the foot of my bed.
They say I am protected from harm
Because the Virgin Mary put her heel
Upon a snake’s head and crushed it
For the sake of all pregnant women.
I am safe, I say to myself and pray for mercy
And recall the dead baby diamondback we found last fall.
It glittered like a tiny jeweled bracelet
And I almost picked it up,
Before I remembered my own warning to my daughter
To never, ever pick up anything suspicious.
I wish I’d done that with the man partly responsible
For the mess I’ve made.
The diamondback was like the lust I felt for him.
It glittered so beautifully
I had to pick it up and wear it for awhile,
Then like some Lazarus, it came to life,
By striking me with its poisonous fangs,
Leaving me to pay for my crime
Once by lying to myself
And twice for good measure.
Now I must suffer for my pleasure.
I curse, slam the wall again
And feel pain radiating from my navel
Down through my bowels
And am not able to get to the telephone
To call my mother.
I hear a splash and all of a sudden,
The snake darts from the hole I made in the wall
And crawls forward to slake its thirst.
I grit my teeth, but stand stock still
As the pain gnaws at my vitals.
I try to show no fear
As the snake takes a long drink of my water
Then slithers away,
But not fast enough to escape,
As screaming with pain and rage
with all the mother instinct I can muster,
and in the Virgin Mary’s name,
I raise the shovel and smash the snake,
Crushing its head,
As I double over and fall beside it
On the red, concrete floor.
For awhile, a ripple runs through its body,
Then it is still.
When my pain subsides, I fall asleep
And dream I’m dead
And hundreds of baby snakes are gathered at my wake.
They crawl all over my body
And I try to shake them off,
Until I realize they’re part of me.
At Saint Mary’s Hospital, the nurses and my doctor
Tell me how courageous I am
And the nuns even come to visit me.
They claim I have performed a miracle
And should be canonized.
Saint Peggy. “How does that sound?”
I ask Saint Patrick aloud
When left alone to hold my child.
I smile at her and tell her she is blessed.
The nuns have gone off to light some candles
And in the chapel.
They say they’re praying for special dispensation
But I don’t need that and neither does my girl.

Back home, after a few days, I realize

That I made a mistake in thinking I could take away my sins
When Mother tells me my new daughter is cursed
Because I killed a snake the day she was born.
“What a cruel mother you are,” I tell her
And she says, “Yes, I’m just like all the others.
I should have smothered you when you were born.
I was so torn up inside, I nearly died for you
And you repay me with not one bastard, but two.
I never thought I’d call a whore my daughter.”
When I protest, she says, “There’s the door.”
After that, I decide to ignore her
And in a state between agitation and rest,
I remember something I had forgotten.
As I lay beside the snake.
I saw a tiny bunch of eggs spill out of her
And realized she was an expectant mother too
And simply wanted a drink to soothe herself
One desert afternoon
When mothers must decide to save
Or execute their children.

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Elegy

Another poem from the prolific writer – Gordon Grilz. He is serving a life sentence in the Arizona Department of Corrections. His words and twists are among my favorite.

Gordon GriIz

Elegy

Bury me under a cloudy sky
with a cold wind and the threat of rain.
Put me in the ground when the grass has died
before me and the trees stand naked
against the overcast haze
of some November morning and I will not
rue so much this passing
nor grieve so hard this leaving.

I will descend upon you in the snow that falls,
be with you in the changing of the season,
the turning of the leaves,
and the moving of the shadows.

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The Humming Bird

I’ve mentioned previously that our own son was incarcerated. A number of years ago we returned home from visiting him in prison. Our trip was always one of silence. When we arrived home, we were going through the motions of busyness. No talking, just busyness and each of us lost in our own sorrow and disappointment. I was sitting on the patio finishing up grooming our dogs. I had been observing a hummingbird at the feeder. All of a sudden the little guy made a huge right turn and entered the open patio door!

The chase was on! We blocked off all the open door ways, turned off any lights that were on, pulled the curtains closed so only the patio opening would be illuminated. It didn’t work. The poor little hummer frantically flew between our kitchen and living area. He kept bumping into the ceiling. It was so heartbreaking to watch this little bird. After 20-minutes or so of this frantic dance between him and us, the little guy landed on the ceiling fan. My husband gently picked him up and took him outside where he proceeded to the branch of our eucalyptus tree, chest heaving and trying to recover. He finally flew to the feeder, drank for a bit and headed off.

In review of this incident, the similarity struck me about the hummingbird and someone imprisoned: for all of its short life the hummingbird had the freedom of the sky, but while inside my house, the poor creature kept bumping into the ceiling. The ceiling was a foreign concept to him. Likewise, for those who are incarcerated, a secure perimeter is a foreign concept to them. For their time of imprisonment, for the duration of their sentence, they must become acclimated to this new and strange environment. Where they once had the freedom of the open skies, they now have restrictions, rules and regulations.

May they never get used to the environment of prison in the sense that they are so comfortable they find it difficult to return to society. May they use their time constructively and prepare for the time when they will be released back into society.

I think of those persons who work with the inmate population: the corrections officers, counselors, administrators, teachers, librarians, chaplains and the volunteers. May they be safe and ever vigilant. May they be persons of integrity and not abuse their positions of authority.

Just this past week in our state of Arizona, the Associate Press reported a third disturbance within four days broke out in a private prison in Kingman.

Units with the Arizona Department of Public Safety and the Mohave County Sheriff’s Office were helping the Department of Corrections with the unrest at Arizona State Prison-Kingman, officials said. The law enforcement officers are providing security around the perimeter of the prison.

Inmates in the Hualapai dormitory were “again refusing to comply with directives this afternoon,” said Andrew Wilder, spokesman for the Department of Corrections.

By Saturday evening, however, “all inmates were complying with directives,” Wilder said. He said he did not have information on whether any inmates were injured.

Saturday’s disturbance was not a riot, said Wilder, who added that the cause of the disturbance remains under investigation.

Corrections officials on Saturday evening were screening the inmates and checking the facility to make sure order was restored, he said.

On Friday, about 700 inmates at the prison were moved to new locations after disturbances on consecutive days left their housing units uninhabitable.

Nine corrections officers suffered minor injuries in the incidents at the prison, which has had a long history of problems. No inmate injuries were reported.

The first disturbance occurred Wednesday at a minimum-security unit, followed by what he described as an unrelated riot Thursday night at a medium-security unit that took several hours to quell, Wilder said.

Saturday’s incident “was clearly a significant disturbance, but it was not on a scale with what occurred (at the prison) Thursday evening to Friday morning,” Wilder said.

In 2010, three inmates escaped from the prison after a woman in a getaway car threw cutting tools over the fence and they broke out. The inmates went on a violent crime spree that included the murders of an Oklahoma couple during a camping trip in New Mexico. They were killed, and their bodies were found burned in their trailer. The inmates were caught, tried and received new prison sentences.

The Management and Training Corp. continued to operate the prison despite scathing criticism of its lax security during the escape.

An inmate at the prison — and the minimum-security unit where the disturbance happened this week — was sexually assaulted and beaten at the facility in January and died at a hospital three days later, according to a legal claim filed by his family. The legal action says emergency responders weren’t notified for nearly two hours.

The inmate, Neil Early, was serving a five-year sentence for theft and possession of drug paraphernalia after becoming addicted to heroin and stealing video games.

Arizona houses thousands of inmates in private prisons, and the industry has come under fire for its large donations to Republican politicians.

As I have previously stated, I do not believe that for profit prisons are the answer to prison overcrowding. I believe we must actively seek for reductions of prison sentencing for non-violent offenders. I follow a private prison watch group that is sponsored by a religious organization. Through them I learned that the illustrious Senator John McCain has benefitted to the tune of over $30,000 from the private prison corporations. He has also been serving this state for 32 years. “We, the People” need to see that our representatives and senators have term limits and do not become career politicians. We need to ensure they do, in fact, represent us and not their own causes that profit them.

I am now stepping down from my soapbox.

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It’s All About Corrections… or not

Another piece of poetry written by Gordon Grilz. He carefully plies his words and speaks the truth of private prisons. The almighty for profit beasts that warehouse human souls with no concern for positive programming to help eliminate the horrific recidivism rates, at least those in my state of Arizona.

If a private prison has 1500 beds and the state fills 750 beds, the state still pays for all 1500 beds. Isn’t that a fine example of fiduciary responsibility with tax payers funds?

I recently learned that one of our oldest Senator’s in this illustrious state has taken funds from a private prison to the tune of over $30,000.00. I trust the information as it came from a religious website that is adamant about social justice.


Gordon Grilz

Corrections

The prisoners on the
make-work crew
are creating crop circle designs
in the dirt with their rakes
at ten cents an hour.
Modem hieroglyphics
record their histories
on the institutional landscape.

From the other side
of the canal bank
we hear the report
of gunfire as the guards
sharpen their skills
at the shooting range
pop pop pop
pop pop pop pop pop

It’s a parallel nightmare
in an overcrowded prison,
battleship gray building
full of double bunks
and no hope,
a human warehouse
where failures are stored
out of sight
out of mind.
When there is no more room
Arizona leases storage facilities
in other states
exporting its
throwaway population.

At night the desert reverts
under the shadow of the saguaro
as coyotes reclaim
their territory
from men with their
chain link obsession.


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More of Lucille Clifton’s Work

Here is another piece by Lucille Clifton. In it she describes being nonwhite, female, and self made. Even though I am considered a white woman, I identify with this piece. Maybe is is because no band aid ever made matches my skin tone, so I like to think of myself as a woman of color. Perhaps it is that one quarter of my blood that is Cherokee that allows me to proclaim that fact.

What ever it was that tried to kill her (and all the rest of us), I am glad beyond measure it failed.


won’t you celebrate with me

Lucille Clifton

won’t you celebrate with me
what i have shaped into
a kind of life? i had no model.
born in babylon
both nonwhite and woman
what did i see to be except myself?
i made it up
here on this bridge between
starshine and clay,
my one hand; come celebrate
with me that everyday
something has tried to kill me
and has failed.

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