The Subculture of the Wrongfully Accused

By Thylias Moss b. 1954 Thylias Moss
Ultimately improved by it:
slant light
hitting his prison obliquely

near the state bird’s pointed head
crest, the black-ringed bill

from which wheat-wheat-wheat-wheat
from which whoit cheer, whoit cheer;
cheer- cheer-cheer

inspired Ronald Cotton to listen
as in his head, the solitary cardinal
indulged in snails   

which seemed like polished fossils
of trophy hog tails
(after prize         butchery)

that Ronald was able to recall,
his hair a mess of replicas of them

as industrious as the state
whose success was poultry & eggs
tobacco & soybeans

as well as convictions:

None as tightly knit as Jennifer’s
(not even the state flag)
that she could identify Cotton

that cotton’s taking on appearances
other than burst white   
of a dense localized haze from which
to weave memory, following
pink-petaled start, rather a satellite
dish of a flower, pollen/sensor-
studded antenna protruding from
the center

undeniably; the jury couldn’t acquit
of its role in documenting and altering
Jennifer’s history,

many lives changed   

as result of consequences, sensors
that boast duality   
of receptor and transmitter: witness:
insects give and take, taint
what is put out, taken in; mix

it up so that interrelatedness
and the understandable error of
becomes less erroneous over time:
eleven years in prison, innocence
locked up, protected

although in prison, it resembled
something else.
If Cotton strained, he could see
the top   

of a Ferris wheel on the horizon
just a possible
segment of a rainbow the length
of a chain

of cardinal feathers

even though it wasn’t that at all.
The eye witnesses all the time,   
even the unseeing eye is turned
toward a focus
on black, saturation dense as
conviction; the eye

processes, pulls in whole vista to a
retinal speck
of convergence

which is to say there is some Cotton
in Poole,
some connection, independent
shared participation in cold   
beer, occasional cards turkey-spread   
in the right hand without knowing
the other
sank into the seat at the cinema
the same way

and sampled Funnel cake at the
state fair
within a week of each other

and more than that in common:
both being men
and convicted for what men really can and really do, do.   

Including sometimes confessions
and apologies; cash reparations

after the innocence is free to extend its parameters
to unlocked doors, be an oversized
over-zealous white bird   
floating down the aisle, its cottony
haze lifted   
in order to kiss and marry Ronald’s
calm delight in being able   
to take his time

leave his longshoreman’s mark on
that take some of him to any port in the world: durable goods

such as the DNA whose precision
detects human exactitude,   
and could build as many Ronalds as time would permit

something Jennifer now desperately wants to do, restoring
what was lost because it was like
something else,

because the fact of similarity
is compelling, convincing;
if connections could not be made,
there’d be no havens, no fugitive
status lost to fusion, no links
to God, no human   

murmurings whose
constant echoes   
are also the gentle silvery hum
of fans praying   
over computer motors to cool them
and also mimic   
motion of small wings amplified
to make sound

in the distance much like
the electric razor
preparing a head on death row
clean as a light bulb.

Ronald was prepared to be believed;   
he saw the quiet manner of his long days in court
as evidence of his rationality and

such as befits clergy; a potential
propensity for order,
mercy, the steadiness required to
dispense blessings
mostly on the undeserving without
emotion or judgment
selfishness or preference

while he was being judged guilty for
lack of emotion,
for Jennifer’s incontrovertible emotional insistence   
on Cotton’s being the one—she had
to finger him   
to be comfortable within her survival.
No way to mistake
to ever forget details documented in
the event relived to the point that it
resculpted her brain
into a Cottony bust (he was there
to be the perfect model)

whose reality floated away
in a Poole,   
as only the reflection of Cotton   

identified as source. A situation
also called (must-have)                  moonlight.

Here’s the new & improved Cotton:
               eleven years in the making;
time served to anger to ruin it; at that
same room’s temperature
it became doubt of clemency, pardon:
peculiar butter that erupted   
as gratefulness for the miracle of absolute exoneration   
when his impossibility as rapist
was proven.

Even Cotton conceded that
the composite sketch   
bore a just resemblance to Cotton,
displayed a metaphor for men   
like Cotton, the seeds of capability
in the structure of the face,   
the human repertoire that includes
who softly consents to meet Jennifer when she asks him to
funnel her regret and apologies deep into himself, accepting that
she meant no malice toward him
but toward
the perpetrator whom many men
resemble, all
brothers, family   

of man resemblance; Cotton’s
own daughter, Cotton’s                            own wife
could be in a similar position; no
taken, captivated by the beauty of
Jennifer; her superior logic

refusing to let the crime against her
silence her; as sure, as certain, as
about speaking up about mistaking
Cotton for Poole
as she was in identifying
in the lineup
the closest thing there to Poole
the best
available, the incredible
that memory seized, filling gaps in
the recollected Poole
with Cotton’s particulars.
She felt better in her cotton-          touched skin.

Metaphor is a form of forgiveness; a short rope of it knots-up   
those that can’t come together any other way into being defined   
by the other. Strange   

and estranged pairings give rise to mutable truth
that can yield to both dawn and twilight
demands that things be seen differently.

Jennifer in moonlight instead of being illuminated moon whose face
was also in Emmett Till’s way, but this generation of Jennifer has another side
home late after a day of good faith
in which she and Cotton team up
at a church to speak up about doubt
as less a shadow than certainty.

Memory is as accurate as metaphor, an overlay
that always fits something, that like the purest
most sparkling water is too naïve
not to submit   
to any vessel into which it’s poured.
Just to be guzzled.

Perhaps the vessel in which cotton
becomes a pool
in which North Carolina is shaped
like an embryo:

Humanity still on the brink
of infancy.

Source: Poetry (January 2006).


This poem originally appeared in the January 2006 issue of Poetry magazine

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January 2006
 Thylias  Moss


Thylias Moss’s poetry collections include Tokyo Butter (2006), Last Chance for the Tarzan Holler (1999), Small Congregations: New and Selected Poems (1993), Rainbow Remnants in Rock Bottom Ghetto Sky (1991), At Redbones (1990), Pyramid of Bone (1989), and Hosiery Seams on a Bowlegged Woman (1983). Known for expansive poems full of details ranging from art, history, and laundry detergents to ants and Disney characters, she has . . .

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Poem Categorization

SUBJECT Crime & Punishment, Social Commentaries, Race & Ethnicity

POET’S REGION U.S., Midwestern

Poetic Terms Free Verse

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