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Good Apples, by Alan Devenish

Good Apples

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
into laughter.

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.

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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.

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Alan Devenish currently teaches in the Bard Prison Initiative and has taught literature and human rights for the Marymount Manhattan Prison College Program. 

Notes From An American Prisoner: An Ode To Fyodor Dostoevsky by Brandon Loran Maxwell

Notes From An American Prisoner: An Ode To Fyodor Dostoevsky

I am a loving man, soulless by disposition; a forgiving man, vindictive by circumstance. I am an innocent man, but I am a monster. Another might say I am two men, or even say I am no man at all. But what another says is of little consequence. Do I believe good exists in the world? Not proportionately to the injustices of the world. I admit, however, of the good that does exist, I have experienced very little, and understand even less.

“Guilty!” Pack ‘em in like sardines. Place ‘em on the back burner for a seven-year stint. Just let our children pick up the mess come release date. That is what fuels the sheep I count.

Admittedly, I live one tyrannical hour at a time because anything more is a trivial pursuit, a hypothetical ship docked on Generality Island. That you will probably never understand, though.

What? What do you mean you’re not rehabilitated? You freeze all night, starve all day—get raped in the showers—and you’re still not fixed? Something must be wrong with you.

“Guilty!” Seven more years ought to do the trick. Maybe our children’s children will have better luck. Better yet, maybe we need another prison—where’s that Senator who owes me a favor? It’s so damn expensive to consult my conscience these days—why bother.

I am a man without a name because an eight-digit number suits me perfectly. Indeed, I live a simple life, here, comfortably, in the palm of the state. It’s kind of like a vacation—if your idea of retreat is Dante’s Inferno.

Sure, I used to care about identity, individuality—but those cares have long since adjourned. “Before your mother was born,” as McCartney might say. Is he still around?

They say when you’re exposed to something for too long, you become desensitized—so now I beg the judge to keep me. I live here and I’ll die here. Anything more is just a fairytale, a figment of incarceration. And surely I am stronger than that—right?

I used to work at a little movie theatre on the corner not far from here. It’s not there anymore so don’t look for it. I loved the solitude. But I loathed the decline of American cinema. They don’t make ‘em like they used to.

I used to watch On the Waterfront over and over again. I could relate to Brando. He told it like it was. “You don’t understand. I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am.” Nobody said it quite like Brando—not even Bogart.

I used to hate it when customers came to the counter asking for popcorn. Most of the time, I managed to muster up a passable smile. But inside I secretly fantasized about gouging their eyes out.

Their eyes would almost certainly serve a more purposeful existence on the black market somewhere—perhaps in India—in the skull of “a thinker,” a Maharishi. Besides, Brando wouldn’t have stood for this type of nonsense. Why should I?

Sometimes I feel like Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard. The entire world has changed to color, yet here I am still living in black and white—lounging in the past. Thus, I am fairly apathetic.

Admittedly, I was lying just now when I said “I feel like Norma Desmond.” Perhaps I did it out of dejection—who really knows. A conversation is just nice to engage in sometimes. Moreover, as we do not have much in common, one of us must lie to keep the conversation going—don’t you agree?

The anticipatory footsteps of my neighbor serenade me every evening just before dinner, almost like a lullaby. He has very little space to walk, but he walks proudly. Maybe it’s the hunger. Maybe not. The body will do strange things to a man—a loving man, soulless by disposition; a forgiving man, vindictive by circumstance.

You must imagine, undoubtedly, freedom lovers, that I want to amuse you. But you are mistaken. I can tell you earnestly that I have many times tried to become a good person. But I am not equal to the task.

Good cannot exist in a man of meager but ambitious means. That is, a man in the twentieth-century must, and morally ought to be, preeminently a soulless creature.

 

Author’s Note: I’ll never forget the first time I read the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky. I was a student in my first year of college when a professor handed me a copy of his 1864 classic “Notes From The Underground,” and asked me to write a critical analysis. The book was unlike anything I had read. Compared to other writers, Dostoevsky rang unapologetic. His voice experimental. His life tragic and complex. His undertones introspective and seditious.

He wrote about what he knew. At just 28 years old, Dostoevsky had been sentenced to prison and barred from writing by the government for affiliating with an intellectual group that discussed antigovernment activities—an experience that forever shaped him. On his incarceration in Russia, Dostoevsky would later write, “I consider those four years as a time during which I was buried alive and shut up in a coffin.”

I immediately related. Before college, I also had spent time in jail and glimpsed into the abyss of human despair. So with Dostoevsky in mind, I began sifting through old poems and essays I had sent to family members from jail. Eventually I found an old poem I hadn’t finished, re-worked it to match the experimental prose in which “Notes From The Underground” was written, and submitted it to my professor. The essay went on to gain national recognition in the category of personal essays and memories by Writer’s Digest.

 
Brandon Loran Maxwell is a Writer’s Digest prize-winning essayist, contributor at Bold Global Media, and speaker at the Foundation For Economic Education. You can follow him on Twitter at @BrandonLMaxwell