Beyond This Place

The air is thick with ambivalence.
The residue of those both forgotten and pushed away.
A watchtower too certain of its own authority.

The slow grating of a mechanical door granting
one passage in and out of the yard.
The dull gray of clothing rendering life

invisible against a backdrop of concrete walls.
Barbed wire coils itself precariously
around the edges of the prison.

It can be difficult to tell what they are trying
to keep in and what they are trying to keep out.
Chain linked fences standing upright as soldiers do.

Only what they are told,
only what they have convinced themselves
they have been built for.

But is anything built for what it ultimately becomes?
Stripped of any agency it might have had,
when this steel was melded into a false deity,

a pretense of human control,
did it dream of what else it could have been?
The wheels of a child’s first bicycle.

The monkey bars from which they would swing
to and fro.
The car a family drives on cross-country road trip

filled with laughter
and fighting
and spilled ketchup across the floor.

When did it learn it was to become a cage?

But how can a cage become a refuge?
A circle of men swallowed
by the world’s indifference.

Where the totality of their personhood
has been diluted to a single act.
That they have become singularly defined

by the worst thing they’ve ever done.
We don’t remember they are brothers,
husbands, fathers, friends.

We don’t remember that they are people
worth remembering. But their writing is a declaration
of all that makes them whole.

A classroom of men who refuse to forget themselves.
Each word provides the sort of liberation
a parole board can never grant.

So often they write about their family,
their children.
How they want them to remember

their father as the man whose laugh
would turn a room into a festival of rapture.
How he would read them stories before

they fell asleep to a world that didn’t always
make sense, but always made sense
in his arms.

It’s the sort of thing that reminds them
that they once existed beyond this place.
That they still do.

Clint SmithClint Smith is a doctoral candidate at Harvard University and has received fellowships from the National Science Foundation and the Callaloo Creative Writing Workshop. He is a 2014 National Poetry Slam champion and was a speaker at the 2015 TED Conference. His poems have been published or are forthcoming in the American Literary Review, Harvard Educational Review, Masons Road, Off the Coast and elsewhere. He was born and raised in New Orleans, LA.