torrin a. greathouse reads “On Confinement”

November 19, 2018

Don Share: This is the Poetry magazine podcast for the week of November 19th, 2018. I’m Don Share, editor of Poetry magazine.
Christina Pugh: I’m Christina Pugh, consulting editor for the magazine.
Lindsay Garbutt: And I’m Lindsay Garbutt, associate editor for the magazine. On the Poetry magazine podcast, we listen to a poem or two in the current issue.
Don Share: torrin greathouse was raised in Southern California. Her second chapbook, “boy/girl/ghost,” was just released.
Lindsay Garbutt: greathouse told us that she wrote the poem in the November issue after two events. One was her arrest for driving under the influence and the transphobic slurs she suffered while in confinement.
Don Share: The other was her experience visiting a former partner in a psychiatric hospital following their suicide attempt.
torrin greathouse: I became obsessed with the overlap of these two experiences and also the ways that these experiences reified and recreated traumas from my past, growing up with a father who was a jail guard and also the facilitator of a great level of abuse.
Lindsay Garbutt: greathouse’s poem is broken up into a series of moments or vignettes, separated on the page by a dot. When it’s read, it’s a finger snap.
Don Share: greathouse said she wanted the written form to look fragmented and broken, the way her body felt living through these two traumatic periods in her life.
torrin greathouse: Oftentimes, for me, poems become a way of taking a narrative I had no control over and retelling it. And through the retelling, I get to, on some level, own that narrative.
Lindsay Garbutt: Here is torrin greathouse reading “On Confinement.”
torrin greathouse:

I sit across the table from my partner
        in the atrium of the psychiatric holding facility

                our hands churched into our laps. We are not allowed
to touch. The air between us thick as Perspex.

                        They tell me all the ways this place resembles a prison.

                Everything a sterile white
                        so clean it could almost disinfect
                                a memory.

        In 1787,
                Jeremy Bentham conceived of what would become
                the most common prison design:

                        the panopticon.

                Intended to control prisoners through the illusion
                that they are always under surveillance.

My partner tells their therapist
they are afraid of taking
their own life,

                        that they balanced on a building’s edge,
                        & three officers escort them from the room.

The first cop who ever handcuffed me
                                                                                [was my father]
left me bound
                           till my fingers blued.

          On the days when I can’t remember
          his face,
                               he becomes the scent of
                                                                                vodka & zip ties
                                                 the sound of
                                                                                cuffs & a bottle
                                                 petaling into blades.

                           At the booking office they remove my glasses
                           & the guards blur into a procession
                           of fathers.

          I bring my partner clothes & pads
when the hospital decides to hold them longer,

          shove each shirt that could mark them
as queer back inside the closet & shut it [like a mouth].

                               The word faggot scrawls across
                               the jail guard’s lips like graffiti.

When I visit my partner
          they insist on staying inside

                       the sky above
                       the patio cordoned
                       off  with chicken wire.

I plead my sentence down
in exchange for: my face, my prints, my DNA
                             & ten years probation.

When I see a cop, I fear
                     even my breath

                     & when my therapist asks me
                     if  I’m suicidal
                                                               I lie.

both are a kind
of  surveillance.

Tear gas floods the street,
          sharpens water to a blade
          hidden in the orbit of my eye.

                    & just like this, a squad car
                    remakes my sadness a weapon.

If my partner snaps cuffs
          around my wrists

                                 [& I asked for this]

have they also weaponized
my desire?

A woman in the facility
tells my partner:
                                 I know what you are.

My partner goads her on,
babbles in false
                            tongues & is confined
                                         to their room for safety.

Once, a cop dragged me
into an alley &
                                        beat me like he knew
                                        exactly what I was.

          What does it say if sometimes
                                        when I ask my partner to hit me

          I expect his fist
tightened in their throat, his voice
                                     bruising their tongue?

I am arrested & placed
                                            [in the men’s jail]
in solitary confinement.

           They tell me this is protective
                      custody. That they couldn’t afford
                                 the lawsuit if  I were killed. In this way,
                                            they tell me I am a woman

                      only when I am no longer

The origin of the word prison
is the Latin prehendere — to take.

           It follows, then,
           that to take your life is to prison
           the body beneath dirt.

           suicide is a criminal act].

Balanced on a building’s edge, I imagine
some permutation of  this moment

                                 where to fail at death
                                 would be a breach

                                                                       of my probation.

We both weep for the first time

                                            upon release

when we see the sky.

                                            Pale blue

sliced through

                                            with a single helix

of razor wire & bordered

                                            in sterile white.

Don Share: What’s really so powerful about the poem is that it takes a concept of confinement, which has so many claustrophobic implications, and becomes expansive. It’s a real spiritual generosity to be able to do that. It’s a rare spirit that can contemplate confinement in a way that reaches out and reaches out and works through each out. And there are so many ways in which this poem accomplishes that. Sitting across the table from a partner in a psychiatric “holding facility,” even that notion of a holding facility is confining.
torrin greathouse: We are not allowed / to touch. The air between us thick as Perspex. // They tell me all the ways this place resembles a prison.
Don Share: But then later in the poem the Latin origin of the word prison is put before us, it means “to take.”
torrin greathouse: It follows, then, / that to take your own life is to prison / the body beneath dirt.
Don Share: So that the expansiveness goes underground, it’s on the surface of the earth where there are so many confining spaces in it, sort of yearns for release.
torrin greathouse: We both weep for the first time // upon release // when we see the sky. // Pale blue // sliced through // with a single helix // of razor wire & bordered // in sterile white.
Don Share: So that the borders are sort of done holding somebody in, or holding them down. So really, it’s… it’s a struggle of breaking free. I don’t know… for me, I haven’t read very many poems that accomplish this. But it does something that I think happens, like, in Paradise Lost, where there’s a tussle on different levels, you know. And there is sort of a yearning for things to take off. There are things that ascend, and then there are things that sort of plunge right back to earth and then you contemplate the underworld in the same process. It sort of helps you work out how our own kind of society now is regimented. And the poem really kind of breaks through the different levels to try to connect them.
Lindsay Garbutt: Hmm.   
Don Share: They’re fragments, but they’re connected.
Christina Pugh: And really underlining that, too, is the presence of the panopticon in here, which, you know, for Michel Foucault was really a metaphor for how we live culturally, right. You know, this idea that you could be watched at any time. You never know when you’re being watched, when you’re not being watched, and the idea that you would self-imprison. You know, this architectural model of the panopticon for putting actual prisoners in becomes a way of thinking about culture, Western culture, more generally. But then it’s also doing the opposite thing, too, and asking readers: you may think you know something about the panopticon, if you think of it as a metaphor. But if you are actually experiencing, you know, a partner being held in that holding center of the psychiatric facility, you’re gonna be experiencing it in a very different way. And that there is a difference between knowing this as a metaphor and being released from this facility, and, as you were saying, Don, weeping upon seeing the sky. That there is something concretely very different about that experience. 
Lindsay Garbutt: What’s so moving to me about the poem is that the confinement isn’t just in these facilities, but it becomes a poem about how we are confined even in public spaces and even in our own private spaces, too. The fact that, in the middle of the poem, she says:
torrin greathouse: When I see a cop, I fear / even my breath / criminal // & when my therapist asks me / if  I’m suicidal / I lie. // Perhaps / both are a kind / of  surveillance.
Lindsay Garbutt: That even just seeing a cop on the street makes you feel confined in a public place. And that even being in therapy, which is ostensibly supposed to help you, feels like its own sort of confinement. And this proceeds even further when they talk about things like tear gas, or the weaponization of desire. That these things infiltrate even our most private spaces, because they are experiences that we’ve had, and then they become intertwined with love and, sort of, the most personal things that we have in our life. And it’s not really something you can let go of, which is why I found the ending so haunting, because ostensibly this moment is over, they are out and they get to see the sky. But that experience is still with them, and they don’t really get to let it go.
Don Share: Well, it’s hard because you’re confined not only by things like handcuffs, but by the vocabulary of hatred, which is so ubiquitous.
torrin greathouse: A woman in the facility / tells my partner: // I know what you are. / Says: / Sinner. / Says: / Anti-christ.
Don Share: This is a way of being dragged down and beaten too. That expectation of violence, both in literal terms, but also even in the language that you see all around us. You know, it becomes built in to imprison people even when they’re just walking around somewhere, or trying to live their lives.
Don Share: You can read “On Confinement” by torrin greathouse in the November 2018 issue of Poetry magazine or online at
Lindsay Garbutt: We’ll have another episode for you next week, or you can get all November episodes all at once in the full-length podcast on Soundcloud.
Christina Pugh: Let us know what you thought of this program. Email us at po[email protected], and please link to the podcast on social media.
Don Share: The Poetry magazine podcast is recorded by Ed Herrmann and produced by Curtis Fox and Catherine Fenollosa.
Lindsay Garbutt: The theme music for this program comes from the Claudia Quintet. I’m Lindsay Garbutt.
Christina Pugh: I’m Christina Pugh.
Don Share: And I’m Don Share. Thanks for listening.

The editors discuss torrin a. greathouse’s poem “On Confinement” from the November 2018 issue of Poetry.

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