On the Yard

By Tom Sleigh b. 1953 Tom Sleigh
After lockdown, tier by tier undresses to sleep:
Each skull nestles in its mattress-hollow.
Wall facing wall inside of wall shrinks to a keyhole:
A fly creeps through and starts to buzz, reeling through bars
Down steel corridors. A dreamer’s eye follows the fly,
And wherever the fly lands, the eye touches down
With an airier Midas touch that turns all to glass:
The eye wakes to Bentham’s panopticon, glazed cage
Of an inspection house where only the Warden sees all.

—I am asleep and not asleep,
I stare up into faces swarming:

Cellblocks of memory focus face by face,
Mine flitting in and out of theirs: In prison issue
They come, footsteps mingling over mine in a child’s game
Of chase from yard to cell, only we’re all grown men,
Meatier, less and more malign than
A boy’s imagining himself grown...

—I was asleep and not asleep,
Faces came and went.

Frank the Joker, the West Virginia biker, who composed
“A rhyme to fit the crime”:
“There was a young fellow named Frank
Who gave his girlfriend a spank;
She fell in a heap
In front of Frank’s jeep
And old Frank ran her down for a prank.”

Or the white-haired lifer, densley oracular:
“Sometimes, after lockdown, your thoughts
Just don’t have the energy to climb the wall.”

The Giggler who bolted
His brother in a barn and burned it down,
Eyes challenging, sly:
“They killed this guy and see, I think this is funny, hilarious
In fact, but you, you won’t think so—they cut off his dick
And shoved it in his mouth.”

Or the child molester who said about flowers
At funerals: “They’re there, aren’t they,
To hide the stink off the corpse?”

Or Pat, armed robber
Who held aloof: Rolled shirtsleeves, forearms
Carved from basalt, smoke rings
Lazily effusing:
“The johns here, they got no doors:
You ever try to take a shit while someone’s watching?
It took six months to get used to that—
But here, man, the bars feed on
Time, they nibble
It to nothing.”

—I wanted to sleep and couldn’t sleep,
I stared up into faces swarming.

Three o’clock dark dissolves
The walls, faces start to drift, their atoms
Mix with concrete’s
Atomic swirl, bodies get stuck
Floating halfway through, heartbeats
Booming as through a stethoscope:

Like Michaelangelo’s slaves, if a fly
Landed on their noses,
They couldn’t lift a hand to brush it off.

Dark velleities buzz in this hive of steel
Where power handshakes
Flower in forests
Of interlocking fingers:

In red prison uniform, a man
On death row, convicted 1984, exonerated and pardoned
October 2000 (New York Times, Dec. 10):
“You could hear the humming of the chair
Every time they cut it on, like an air-conditioner
Cutting on. My daddy came to see me, he said, ‘What's that?’
I said, ‘The chair.’ The way they put it, they got to test the chair.”

—I was asleep
And couldn’t wake up.

Inside my skull, glass
Keeps shattering: Dream-beings
Unsubscribed to the will, with insect bodies
And human heads, dash against walls, mammal softness
Of cheeks and lips join with stingers
Pulsing...my eyes awake and not awake, where is the chamber
As in the horror movie Return of the Fly that, circuitry and test-tubes
Sparking, would unscramble these divided
Natures?

(They called me “Teach”
As in “Hey, Teach, how do you spell...”
When I confessed I’d been in jail, they looked disappointed in me:
Their side of the wall was theirs, not mine.)

—I tried to turn over, to look away,
But couldn’t wake up, couldn’t not wake.

Chemicals drip into a man’s veins, one each
For heart, lungs, brain.
Strapped to a table, he stares
Impassive, eyes flickering shut, body
A meat wall, IV tubes
Almost empty...

—I was asleep and not asleep,
I couldn’t move to wake.

I hear shrill wings—that fly inspecting bread crumbs
Under dining hall tables while the Warden blares
Descartes over the Intercom:
“If a man’s head were lopped off
His mouth would keep on moving, faultlessly
Justifying his crimes.”

But that fly, that speck against
Steel, its wings steered in ways that seem crazy
To eyes awake, not awake,
Not seeing, all-seeing, the head unmoving
Moving to turn away...oh seely fly
I can’t not see, can’t move to brush away
From my unsleeping eyes, you veer
In spirals unflattened into pathos
Of careening chaos, your eccentric
Flight path darts
Through bars, oh alas, hairy
Vibrant fly!

Tom Sleigh, "On the Yard" from Far Side of the Earth. Copyright © 2003, by Tom Sleigh. Reprinted with the permission of Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.

Source: Far Side of the Earth (Houghton Mifflin Company, 2003)

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Poet Tom Sleigh b. 1953

POET’S REGION U.S., Mid-Atlantic

Subjects Crime & Punishment, Social Commentaries

 Tom  Sleigh

Biography

Tom Sleigh is the author of more than half a dozen volumes of poetry. Space Walk (2007) won the 2008 Kingsley Tufts Award and earned Sleigh considerable critical acclaim. Referring to this collection, poet Philip Levine noted, “Sleigh’s reviewers use words such as ‘adept,’ ‘elegant,’ and ‘classical.’ Reading his new book, I find all those terms beside the point, even though not one is inaccurate. I am struck by the human dramas . . .

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Poem Categorization

SUBJECT Crime & Punishment, Social Commentaries

POET’S REGION U.S., Mid-Atlantic

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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