David Matlin: From 'Prisons / Inside the New America,' 'Kenneth's' poems & poetics

In August of 1994, President Clinton’s Crime Bill destroyed the monies designated on a nation-wide basis for all Prison Education programs. The Federal or Pell Grants were for books; without books, like it or not, there are no programs. Those monies constituted less than one percent of all federal funds designated for higher education and were beginning to offer proof, at least in the program of which I was a part, that this form of rehabilitation might be the cheapest, most far reaching yet devised. For a man like Kenneth, these programs opened up a new world and offered a restoration of chances, not just for himself personally, but for ourselves. He literally devoured the readings offered to him, as if they were the nutrient he’d been waiting for, and began asking for compilations of myths, stories, and legends that would demand further study. He went to William Carlos Williams’ Imaginations in hopes of finding direction. His collection of first poems based on his experience as a “grunt” in Vietnam offers little comfort. Instead, what is given is a transmission so deeply formed and composed that the reader becomes inextricably shadowed by the living arrangement of things which at once possess and bind us to their crisis:

          At times
                                                              resemble so much
                                                                                    nerve endings.
                                                                                    raw exposed
                                                     seems inevitable
                  they’ll blow
                  This thing about honor, less clearly defined:
Honor is the
                        sight of red-gray matter
                                                 sickly falling
                                                                         in small jellied
                from the waist
                                         of a mango tree

                                                                 like opaque snot
                                                                                         sliding off
9th century
                                       Honor is …

There is no ornamentation here, nothing unnecessary. The detail of parts, the breath-by-breath construction of the poet’s awareness and how he directs this language toward an actual act of seeing and how this act attracts reality, offers us no escapable device. At the same time, through his rigor, he sounds out “This thing about honor” far more intimately than the policy arrangements of an “honor” that brought him to stand inside the “sickly falling” clumps of his and our condition of shattered minds that can think up no more than an industrial future whose central jewel is prison. Kenneth also anticipates and answers Robert McNamara, who In Retrospect says, “… Obviously there are things you cannot quantify: honor and beauty, for example …” McNamara’s precious order and distance become an even more realized distortion before the account of this poem and its beauty of first consequences that cannot be impeded, nor will it succumb to the lures of the obvious where a whole geography, to the men who had to slog through it, became know as the “slab.” 

               Often have wondered 
                                                                how NVA treat captured 

                                                                                                           beyond print, and the
               11th brigade
                                       was on
                                                              Red Mountain
                                                                                      less than three days
                                                                                                                found members
                 of an ambushed
                                                                         staked to the ground,
                                                                                                                               hand & foot
                left by
                                                              NVA regulars
                                                                                       who had neither time
                to deal
                                       with captured GI’s:
                                                                                       admonished them
                                                                                                                tucked them away
                for safe keeping
                                          fate’s a bitch
                                                                     ain’t it?

                                                                              the grunts laughed.

Kenneth wrote about these poems, “I am attempting to discover what LINE is, what SYLLABLE is supposed to be; the above is a reflection of the exploration. I think I do very much want to write, but my problem is separating ideas from things — and where does the medium lie, for the sake of poetic creativity, between those extremes?” Perhaps in hoping to “tuck” this man, and others like him, in a penal banishment, we can contrive relief, or failing that, the vague symptoms of reassurance that instruct us that Kenneth’s presence and worth as a man doesn’t matter. His poems tell us, however, about a vacuum off contrivances and dismissals that rule us in their despoil.

[This excerpt is from David Matlin’s Prisons: Inside the New America from Vernooykill Creek to Abu Ghraib, Chapter IV: Nerve Endings. His masterful study is described by the publisher, North Atlantic Books, as follows: “This powerful exposè reveals how America's ailing prison system undermines the public trust. For ten years, David Matlin taught at a maximum-security prison, where he confronted daily the nature of society, crime, and violence. Based on his experiences, this book examines the history of prisons in the United States and shows the terrible price a lethal combination of degradation, abuse, and corruption inflicts on inmates and society as a whole. Matlin argues that privatization of the prison industry has led to irreversible tragedy both at home and abroad, weakening our national identity and shattering public trust in the American justice system. Engulfing and enraging, the book challenges readers to take a long look at the culture of crime and punishment.”

The poet’s actual name, presented here with the pseudonym “Kenneth,” is William Blount].