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The Poetry of Prison

I read the poetry of convicts now that I am ex-,

& letters from a pen pal reminding

the inside never leaves me,

has its own beauty, its tragic

sense of the day-to-day.

Reginald Betts builds monuments—

sharply-angled, marbled—

to memories like monsters

that never cease following

through free, smoggy air of the city.

Nazim Hikmet? Think sadness,

isolation. Judith Smith?

There is no true forgiveness in this world.

Then, my friend Savannah—

I’ve never met—expresses

how she’s learning happiness,

as I did, in the horrible strangeness

of that bleak but fascinating place.

Her words don’t come as poems

but are rich in simplicity:

buying coffee from the commissary;

eating dry, bland breakfast pancakes;

taking classes to better herself;

her universe of supporters expanding

where, for most, it would contract.

Life on the inside is just life

with fewer choices, yearning,

awful hours of forgetting, normalcy,

plus art, as even bloody battle

can be, reading Shakespeare

at four in the morning

when the cell door is locked, & one,

no matter how at ease, can’t enter sleep.


Ace Boggess is author of five books of poetry, including The Prisoners, Ultra Deep Field, and Misadventure. His sixth book Escape Envy was published by Brick Road Poetry Press in May 2021. His writing appears in Michigan Quarterly Review, Notre Dame Review, North Dakota Quarterly, Tar River Poetry, J Journal, among others. He received a fellowship from the West Virginia Commission on the Arts and spent five years in a West Virginia prison. He lives in Charleston, West Virginia.


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