I write a lot of poems and short stories, and I can’t remember them all. The Prison was one that I found recently. Usually, finding a poem will bring back a memory. Not so with The Prison. I had no recollection at all of writing it.
First I Googled The Prison to make sure that it wasn’t a poem that I’d liked which someone else had written. It turned out not to be someone else’s poem. It turned out to be mine. As I hunted, I found drafts of The Prison on my computer. I had indeed composed this poem fifteen years ago, and I had just forgotten about it completely.
When I found the drafts, I remembered what I was doing at the time. I was in college, and I had been reading Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory and thinking of his famous character, the Whisky Priest. Around that same time, I was also interested in the crisis in Burma (which is how Myanmar was called back then), and thinking of the Whisky Priest and the Burmese Crisis together led me to this poem.
It’s a rhyming poem that talks about how a prisoner and his jailer wait in the sloughs of inactivity.
He sat as the only prisoner beneath the low hanging ceiling with a drip
in the humid cell with the small barred window that looked into the jungle,
and he looked in at the captain who struck a match for the cigarette between his lips
while outside the rain splashed into the ferns and the dense vines’ tangles.
The captain was leaning back in his chair, and he was playing solitaire
with a pack of dog-eared cards as a ceiling fan spun slowly overhead
like a child pushing against a mountain, for the fan could not move the heavy air,
while the rain poured down in drops as big as grapes and as heavy as lead.
The prisoner knew that in this prison there was no time or meaning to life
that the thing to do was to survive with as little pain as one could manage,
and the captain coughed after he exhaled and set the matchstick near his knife
then set his chair down and laid his elbows on the table, rickety with age.
The captain turned over his card, and the prisoner watched with interest
for there was nothing to do in the monotony except to stare,
like living in the doldrums on the sea, and it seemed killing time was best
so the prisoner watched as the captain leaned back again in his chair.
The captain studied his cards, and he took the cigarette out and exhaled.
The smoke drifted up to the ceiling fan, and the fan dispersed the smoke,
then the captain laced his fingers behind his head, for his interest had failed,
and the prisoner glanced down and fingered his shoelace, which was broke.
Then the prisoner knew the electricity went out because the fan slowed and stopped,
but there was no change in the captain, so the prisoner lay back on his bed
and listened to the dull music of water as the rain continued to drop;
there was no wind, and there were no thoughts in the prisoner’s head.
Far in the distance came the deep whoomping sound of a mortar being fired,
so the prisoner lifted his head, and he glanced at the captain
but the captain hadn’t moved; he either hadn’t heard or was just too tired,
and the prisoner glanced around gloomily at the cell he was trapped in.
It was made of stone and cement and contained a toilet, a sink, and a bed.
The bed was a mattress without box springs, sheets, or pillows,
and on that mattress the prisoner lay again, his hands beneath his head
and considered briefly, without contrition, the paths that he once chose.
Six months ago, a white woman had entered the prison, and the captain stood straight,
and the prisoner spoke in his broken English to make the woman smile,
and after the translator interviewed him, the prisoner knew she had come too late,
for the prisoner felt her presence not as a warmth but as a kind of wicked trial.
And it used to be that on Fridays, the captain would serve them both coffee.
The captain would sit next to his cell and hand the coffee through the bars,
sometimes they would play cards and even talk in a way that was almost free
and the prisoner learned that his jailer, too, was a prisoner of the long hours.
Now the captain leaned back in his chair with his eyes shut, and the prisoner slept,
and there were no sounds except the steady drumming of the rain.
Whoever fired the mortar did not fire it again, and the peace was kept,
and the electricity returned, so the fan began to turn again,
then the captain opened his eyes, he lit another cigarette with a match,
and he shook the match’s flame out with a few flicks of his wrist
and the captain considered the loneliness of his official watch
and put out of his mind those chances that he had always missed.