Category Archives: poetry

From An Innocent in the House of the Dead

John Lee in the Red Jump Suit of Death Row

John Lee in the Red Jump Suit of Death Row

 

DEATH ROW

He was an accidental package, thrown away
to float upon the surface of the world,
an obstacle, a mouth to feed,
the nuisance bastard of a rough man’s wife,
a punching bag, a dog to kick,
a pale-skinned black boy good for nothing
but to shove aside, to mock,
to stare at with that hard and silent
slow-neck-turning straight-on stare
that sees so little and yet says so much.

An ordinary story his, the giddy highs off gasoline,
the Bull malt liquor and Wild Irish Rose,
the swift onrush from foster home to foster home,
group home to group, as though he traveled
down a glass-slick tunnel with the four harsh
winds of fate exploding at his back,
his panicked hands flung out to seize
whatever shone along the way—a box of donuts
and an apple pie, a winter coat, a pair of shoes
with solid soles, a pack of socks, a watch, some bikes—

until a handgun, loaned out of his grandma’s purse
to a cat who called him cousin, friend,
slammed him, spread-eagled like a cartoon character,
against the tunnel’s silver-badged,
blue-uniformed dead end.
And then the slave-like hobbles, lost-child mug shots,
and the prison label black, ignoring half his ancestry,
the stunned astonishment at what he had become.
And after that, beneath a high, shrill,
ever-burning light, the long slow dirge
of days and years toward the needle’s fatal,
sympathetic slide into his arm.

John Lee’s Reunion with His Birth Mother

John Lee, 12 years old

John Lee, 12 years old

 

 

When I met John in 2006, he had not seen his birth mother in sixteen years, so I arranged to bring her down from Hurlock, Maryland, to visit him for his birthday. The experience was so powerful that the only way I could express it was in this poem, which became part of the collection An Innocent in the House of the Dead:

 

Witness

I brought your mother down from Maryland.
I intended to surprise you,
but in the way of close-held secrets, it leaked out.
Or else I told you.
Maybe out of curiosity to see what you would say.
Are you trying to give me a heart attack?
Or to give you something wonderful to think about.
Yes, wonderful, despite the sixteen years.

Or to test you, maybe, to determine
if you tell the truth
when you say you have forgiven her for all
the beatings, for throwing you away,
when you say you’ve always loved her,
wanted nothing as a child but to go back to her.
I do not know. Intentions are so slippery.
Like ice squeezed in the hand, they skid away,

they melt, take on another shape.
Intentions, when you come right down to it,
are not much good for anything,
which is why trials go awry,
why men are locked up when they shouldn’t be,
or not locked up when they should.
So my intentions do not matter.
All that matters is I did it. And she came.

I thought you both would jump
clear through the bars and glass.
No touching. Touching not allowed.
Not even after sixteen years. Not even for a mother.
I wanted you to be alone. I offered,
and was glad when both of you refused.
Glad to be a witness to this amazing joy,
this grief pent up so long.

A visitation booth is tiny.
Like a phone booth, like a shoe box,
like a bathroom in a dollhouse.
But joy and grief are big, enormous,
and they filled it, made the walls bulge
and begin to crack,
like an explosion in a cave, or mine shaft,
or railroad tunnel underground,

or like the high priests’ rams’ horns
blown outside the walls of Jericho,
or a story told across the years
compressed into a poem, or a song.
There was that intensity.
It backed me up against the door and I slid down it,
sat there with my arms around my knees—
high heels, stockings, and my best gray suit.

I wanted to be small, to disappear.
Intruder. Voyeur. Secret agent.
But you said, No, get up, sit next to her,
sit right there on that stool.
And she kept saying, Baby, oh, my baby,
my sweet Johnny Lee.
The boy locked in the frame before her.
Ageless. Beautiful. Child out of her womb.

An Innocent in the House of the Dead – NPR with Frank Stasio

Innocent Cover

 

In an interview with Frank Stasio on NPR’s “The State of Things”, Joanna tells the story of meeting John Lee and the origins of their poetry collection “An Innocent in the House of the Dead”.  To listen to the story via WUNC,  CLICK HERE