Reading Macbeth’s monologue
in the women’s maximum security
prison, the room goes quiet—
those petty tomorrows tumbling
toward a furious nothing—until
a voice among the lowered heads
intones, “He’s talking about us.”
“It’s just like here,” someone else
says, “every day the same.” Affirmative
murmurs fill our circle. Then the student
with the baseball cap and bag of snacks
sighs, “Well, this is depressing,”
which somehow lifts the mood,
a deprecatory pebble dropped
into the gloom, rippling out
A shout in the hallway—the guard
calling the line. The women stand, pack
their see-through knapsacks, square
the circled desks back into rows,
then form ranks for their return
to yesterday’s tomorrow.
Earlier, unbagging my night-class fare
of cheese and crackers, I hoped
the badly needed rain would stop
before the long drive home.
But not bad, that apple
from our moribund tree
still squeezing out some sweetness
before the fruit falls, bruised
surfeit for some foraging bear.
Exiting, I notice they’ve painted
the cinderblock white with black
borders, as if color itself were a crime.
My inked wrist fluoresces under the lamp’s
ultraviolet eye, and the officer
in her Plexiglas booth releases me
with the simple twist of a switch.
With better luck and a touch of grace
(a summary pardon declaring these women
all good apples), my students in their prison
-issue drab would also find themselves
outside the clanging gates, clothed
in the warm end of the spectrum,
the soft floodlit rain falling
on their upturned faces.
Artist Statement: “Good Apples” owes its origin to my students’ response to a reading of the “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow ” soliloquy from Macbeth in our poetry class. I chose the speech to illustrate the use of metaphor but what occurred surpassed any lesson I could have foreseen. Several students volunteered to read the passage aloud and when they had finished I invited comments. When none followed, I assumed the students were still grappling with the intricacies of Shakespearean rhetoric. Then, when they did voice their reactions it became clear they not only “got” the metaphors but saw in them the desperation of their own lives, the “petty pace” of incarceration, the sameness of their tomorrows. As students spoke, others nodded or assented verbally, so that a sort of felt consensus pervaded the room. I was touched, if saddened at their intimate connection to these words crafted four centuries ago, how the poetry spoke to them and for them. It struck me at the same time how different my life was from any of theirs. Yet, through the poetry we were sharing a language that spoke to us all. And through their response to these words they too were communicating their lives to one another and to me. In that moment, I never felt more “in prison” and yet felt that we had transcended the bounds of this environment through the medium of metaphor. It was this–the students’ vulnerable and honest response to the poetry–that prompted my own words. I wanted to acknowledge and if possible honor their language and their lives.
Alan Devenish currently teaches in the Bard Prison Initiative and has taught literature and human rights for the Marymount Manhattan Prison College Program.