Lines on Locks (or Jail and the Erie Canal)

By John Logan 1923–1987 John Logan

Against the low, New York State
mountain background, a smokestack
sticks up
and gives out
its snakelike wisp.
Thin, stripped win-
ter birches pick up the vertical lines.
Last night we five watched the white,
painted upright bars of steel
in an ancient, New York jail
called Herkimer
(named for a general who lost an arm).
Cops threw us against the car.
Their marks grow gaudy
over me.
They burgeon beneath my clothes.
I know
I give my wound
too much thought and time.
Gallows loomed outside
our sorry solitary cells.
“You are in the oldest of our New York jails,”
they said.
“And we’ve been in books. It’s here they had
one of Dreiser’s characters arraigned.”
The last one of our company to be hanged
we found
had chopped her husband
up and
fed him to the hungry swine.
They nudged the wan-
ing warmth of his flesh.
Each gave him a rooting touch,
translating his dregs
into the hopes of pigs.
And now with their spirited wish
and with his round, astonished face,
her changed soul
still floats about over their small
near this little New York town.


The door bangs shut
in the absolute dark.
Toilets flush with a great force,
and I can hear the old, gentle drunk,
my neighbor in the tank,
his phlegm and fart.
In the early day
we line up easily as a cliché
for our bread and bowls of gruel.
We listen, timeless, for the courthouse bell,
play rummy the whole day long
and “shoot the moon,”
go to bed and jack off to calm down,
and scowl harshly, unmanned,
at those who were once our friends.
The prison of our skins
now rises outside
and drops in vertical lines
before our very eyes.


Outdoors again, now we can walk
to the Erie Locks
(“Highest Lift Locks in the World!”)
The old iron bridge has a good bed—
cobbles made of wood.
Things pass through this town everywhere
for it was built in opposite tiers.
Two levels of roads
on either side
the Canal, then two terraces of tracks
and higher ranks of beds: roads where trucks
lumber awkwardly above the town—
like those heavy golden cherubim
that try to wing about
in the old, Baroque church.
The little town—with its Gothic
bank, Victorian homes with gingerbread frieze
and its blasted factories
(collapsed, roofs roll-
ing back from walls
like the lids of eyes)—
has died
and given up
its substance like a hollow duct,
smokestack or a pen
through which the living stuff flows on.


So we walk the long, dead-end track
along the shallow, frozen lake
where the canal forms a fork
(this time of year the locks don’t work).
And now and again we look back,
for the troopers haunt the five of us
out the ledges toward The Locks.
(We know they want to hose
our bellies and our backs.
Or—as they said—
“Play the Mambo” on our heads.)
We do not yet feel
quite free—
though the blue and yellow, newly
painted posts
for ships
bloom gaily
in the cold, and the bulbs
about their bases bulge
for spring.
Soon the great, iron gates
will open out
and the first woman-shaped
mammoth, silent, will float toward
us like a god
come back
to make us feel only half afraid.
Until then,
though my friends will be gone
from this dry channel of snow and stone,
I’ll stay here
among the monuments of sheer,
brown and gray rock
where you can read
the names of lovers, sailors and of kids
etched in chalk,
and in this winter air
still keep one hand over my aching ear.

Buffalo, March 1967

John Logan, “Lines on Locks” from John Logan: The Collected Poems. Copyright © 1989 by The Estate of John Logan. Reprinted with the permission of BOA Editions, Ltd.,

Source: John Logan: The Collected Poems (BOA Editions Ltd., 1989)

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Poet John Logan 1923–1987

Subjects Seas, Rivers, & Streams, Social Commentaries, Crime & Punishment, Friends & Enemies, Nature, Relationships

Poetic Terms Free Verse


The late John Logan "was considered one of the superb lyrical poets of his generation," his publisher A. Poulin, Jr., told the Los Angeles Times. "He referred to poetry as a ballet for the ear." Logan, who was also the founder-editor of the poetry magazine Choice, is remembered as the inventor of what poet Hayden Carruth, writing in the American Book Review, once termed "postacademic academic poetry." Carruth explained the term . . .

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Poem Categorization

SUBJECT Seas, Rivers, & Streams, Social Commentaries, Crime & Punishment, Friends & Enemies, Nature, Relationships

Poetic Terms Free Verse

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