Life under capitalism

Greyhound buses – the analogy runs – are like prison ships, ferrying the urban poor from one ghetto to another. It turns out that this is almost literally true. Greyhound Bus Lines, Inc. has an arrangement with the federal government to transport paroled felons, who get vouchers for tickets home upon their release. As such, it is but one of a rapidly growing number of companies who rake in sizable profits from the “captive market” that prisoners represent.

I learned this and much more by eavesdropping on a conversation between two just-released felons yesterday, as I rode back from an overnight in Pittsburgh. One of the men, a heavily tattooed white guy in a sleeveless undershirt, had gotten on at Pittsburgh, and I was surprised by the fact that he had no luggage or carry-ons whatsoever. He sat down right behind me. He had the rank smell and motor-mouth tendency of someone who has been riding the dawg for two or three days.

Three stops to the east, at Greensburg, two men dressed in identical brown slacks and white t-shirts boarded the bus, each carrying a couple of bulky cardboard boxes, which they wrestled onto the bus rather than stowing them underneath in the baggage compartment. One stop later, at Johnstown, one of the two men – a 20-something Hispanic – came back to use the john in the rear of the bus and was hailed by Tattoo Man.

“You guys just get out?”

“Yeah, man. You?”

“I got out of Texas state prison two days ago. Huntsville, Texas. Heading home to Altoona.”

“Damn! We just got out of Greensburg. I’m goin’ to Allentown, he’s goin’ to Harrisburg.”

I wanted to take notes on the conversation, but something told me I better just listen. It was a fascinating exchange. Tattoo Man had also done time in the Pennsylvania correctional system, so they had lots of fun comparing notes. I was surprised by how quickly their conversation got political.

“Yeah, you know everyone’s got a hustle going here, it’s just one big hustle. Everyone wants a piece. You know that prisons are the single biggest moneymaking industry in Pennsylvania?”

“Yeah, and it really took off under that fucker Tom Ridge. No surprise he got where he’s at now – Homeland Security. He got lots of practice from bein’ governor. That’s why Bush picked him. ‘Course, Bush bein’ from Texas, that’s the worst state there is! They got more prisoners in the state of Texas than in all of Russia!”

“Yeah, when Ridge was governor, that’s when we first started getting the Acts, you know, that’s what they call it. Getting the Acts. Every year they pass a new one that’s worse than the year before. Every prisoner is under some Act, it’s hard to keep straight – ‘cept for the guys that have been there a long time.

“You got to make up for what you did, you know – that’s alright. But they make you pay for everything else now, too. And at the same time, you get less and less money for working. They give you a “raise” – one penny at a time! It’s not even enough to pay for cable. Man, you have to have someone sending you money or you ain’t gonna survive!”

“They still give out TVs?”

“Hell no! They make you buy these little ones, K televisions – total piece of shit. It ain’t even color! Fucking black and white little piece of shit television! And you know how much they charge you for it? One hundred and fifty dollars! And now they got a rule against giving them away to someone else when you get out. I didn’t want the motherfucking thing, but they made me take it with me – new rule. That’s so everyone has to buy one. K Television.”

“That’s a generic brand, you know, can’t even buy it on the street.”

So it went with a whole litany of products and services, including extra food. The company store charges outrageous prices, to hear them tell it, and in Texas, the prisons even have a hustle going to take advantage of parolees. It seems there’s a law that requires the warden to give every newly released prisoner fifty dollars.

“But they give you this clown suit to wear: great big shoes, pants don’t fit, no belt. Unless you want to ride Greyhound looking like that, you got to walk across the street to buy some clothes right away. Jeans, $30.00. This shirt cost me $6.00, can you believe it? I refused to give them any more money than that! But that’s how they get you. That fifty dollars is gone!

They discussed the difference between Pennsylvania and Texas prisons in great detail. Not surprisingly, Texas is more severe in almost every respect. The gang warfare is much more dangerous there, Tattoo Man said, and membership in a gang is virtually unavoidable. The white guys have a choice of three different “families,” whose names each begin with the word “Aryan.” In addition, there’s the Mexican Mafia and the Crips and Bloods.

“They got Aryan Nation up here now too, you know.”

“Yeah, I know. But that’s still just an optional thing, right? Not too many members?”

“Yeah. But any time there’s a riot, they put us on lockdown for a month!”

“Three months in Texas. You have to go anywhere, they put on a gag, handcuffs, shackle your feet. Five guys pick you up and carry you.”

Most shockingly, according to Tattoo Man, Texas prisoners no longer have the option of not working – and they are paid nothing. “Eight hours a day, man. No air conditioning, either. It was 110 degrees there when I left! Texas is fucked, man. You can’t get money from the Outside, you ain’t worth dogshit.”

Friendly as their conversation became, I noticed that they were careful not to give out their first names. The Hispanic guy addressed his fellow Greensburg parolee as “Harrisburg,” after his destination. Tattoo Man didn’t say what he was in for, though his interlocutor did mention at one point that he’d been convicted on drug-related charges.

It was touching how animated the former Texas prisoner became as we neared his hometown, behaving like a tour guide: “Now up here’s the stadium they built for the Altoona Curve baseball team. It’s nice, man, check it out! We’re gonna get off at the 17th Street exit. That’s where they been building this mall right on the side of the mountain – tearing it up for years now and they still ain’t got one building on it! You’ll get a better look when you get back on the highway.”

He moved up to the front of the bus and talked to the driver in a vain attempt to get him to stop a few blocks short of the station. It was, he’d told his new friend, a long walk back to his old lady’s house in the pouring rain. When the bus finally pulled into the station he disembarked without a backwards glance, grinning from ear to ear.

Experts on the U.S. prison system point out that we would be in flagrant violation of the Geneva Convention if it applied to the treatment of domestic prisoners.The latest report on U.S. prisons from Human Rights Watch observes that

Across the country, inmates complained of instances of excessive and even clearly lawless use of force. In Pennsylvania, dozens of guards from one facility, SCI Greene, were under investigation for beatings, slamming inmates into walls, racial taunting and other mistreatment of inmates. The state Department of Corrections fired four guards, and twenty-one others were demoted, suspended or reprimanded. In many other facilities across the country, however, abuses went unaddressed.

Overcrowded public prisons and the tight budgets of corrections agencies fueled the growth of private corrections companies: approximately 100,000 adults were confined in 142 privately operated prisons and jails nationwide. Many of these facilities operated with insufficient control and oversight from the public correctional authorities. States failed to enact laws setting appropriate standards and regulatory mechanisms for private prisons, signed weak contracts, undertook insufficient monitoring and tolerated prolonged substandard conditions. In less than a year, there were two murders and thirteen stabbings at one privately operated prison in the state of Ohio.

Sexual and other abuses continued to be serious problems for women incarcerated in local jails, state and federal prisons, and INS detention centers. Women in custody faced abuses at the hands of prison guards, most of whom are men, who subjected the women to verbal harassment, unwarranted visual surveillance, abusive pat frisks and sexual assault. Fifteen states did not have criminal laws prohibiting custodial sexual misconduct by guards, and Human Rights Watch found that in most states, guards were not properly trained about their duty to refrain from sexual abuse of prisoners. The problem of abuse was compounded by the continued rapid growth of the female inmate population. As a result women were warehoused in overcrowded prisons and were often unable to access basic services such as medical care and substance abuse treatment.

A columnist for the Toronto Star recently noted that

At Abu Ghraib prison, the alleged main perpetrator is staff sergeant Ivan “Chip” Frederick, 37, the senior of six non-officers charged with cruelty and other mistreatment. He is a part-time military policeman called up last year for service in Baghdad — and was a prison guard for six years in Virginia.

To get involved in prisoner outreach and solidarity efforts in your community, consider becoming active in a local branch of the ABC Network.

Kudos to Kooser

For many months now I’ve been liberally sprinkling this blog with excerpts from Braided Creek, the “conversation in poetry” that Ted Kooser co-authored with Jim Harrison. So can I claim credit for Kooser’s selection as the new Poetry Consultant to the Librarian of Congress? (I refuse to employ the new, overblown term “Poet Laureate” for an appointment that lasts a single year!)

Ted Kooser, like Wallace Stevens, made his career in the insurance industry. I believe this is the first time in many years that the Library of Congress has selected someone from outside academia.

Here’s a piece that speaks to me. This is from Kooser’s Sure Signs: New and Selected Poems (Pitt Poetry Press, 1980).

Visiting Mountains

The plains ignore us,
but these mountains listen,
an audience of thousands
holding its breath
in each rock. Climbing,
we pick our way
over the skulls of small talk.
On the prairies below us,
the grass leans this way and that
in discussion;
words fly away like corn shucks
over the fields.
Here, lost in a mountain’s
attention, there’s nothing to say.

From the dragon’s belly

Yesterday, I took my sister-in-law Luz to visit Jack Troy, a local potter and author of Wood-Fired Stoneware and Porcelain, a seminal text in its field. The focal point of our visit was his huge anagama, a wood-fired kiln of traditional Japanese design. Made from special, high-temperature-resistant bricks, it stretches some ten to twelve feet up the side of a hill, bulging in the middle like a snake digesting a rabbit. A side door, through which the pottery is loaded, allows one to enter and sit inside.

I felt as if I were sitting under an overturned boat – a common impression, Jack said. But in fact the resemblance is accidental. The design evolved over the centuries largely through trial and error. Anagama means “cave-kiln,” and the first anagamas, Jack said, were basically just “woodchuck holes with a chimney.” The chimney for this one is relatively short, because an arched flue extends from the tail of the kiln uphill underground for another twelve feet. A large, open-air tin roof shelters kiln and wood supply from the elements.

Though there are many other ways to fire pottery with wood, the anagama process is unique for the extremely high temperatures that are involved – up to 1300 degrees Centigrade during the last day of the 5-day firing. No glaze is needed; ash from the burning wood lands on the pieces in a random pattern and then melts and flows over them. The chemicals in the wood as well as the currents and eddies of the flames determine the look of the finished work.

Jack uses hardwoods exclusively – oak, cherry, maple and black locust – because of the complex colors they can yield. Pine and hemlock produce nothing but greenish tints; only deciduous trees, with their high calcium content, can reproduce all the shades of flame. Most of the wood comes from a local saw mill’s scrap pile, so there’s a high proportion of bark to wood.

Jack fires the kiln only once a year, in late spring. During this time the fat snake turns, of course, into a dragon. The anagama consumes roughly a cord of wood a day, and needs to be tended around the clock. Firing is thus of necessity a cooperative affair, with many potters sharing the labor and the rewards. Barry Lopez wrote a lyrical piece for Harper’s a few years back in which he described the experience of helping with an anagama firing: it was like watching over a river of fire, he said. Peepholes in the side allow the tenders to gauge its condition with the help of special cones designed to wilt at precise temperatures.

Concentration is essential. To keep the tenders alert and entertained, Jack has rigged up what he calls an “Amish video game”: a long cord with a two-inch-diameter metal ring tied to its end. The cord is suspended from the eaves midway between two of the support posts, and a hook protrudes from one of the posts about five feet up, right at the end of the cord’s swing. The idea is to stand next to the opposite post, grasping the ring, and let it go with just the right trajectory and momentum to make the ring drop down over the hook.

Jack’s delight in this simple game was infectious. He managed to hook the ring after ten tries, Luz after eight. It was difficult to gauge the role played by accident, as opposed to skill. I quit after 15 unsuccessful attempts, though I think I could have gone on trying the rest of the afternoon. Luz and I were impressed by the way that an activity so addictive could have such a calming effect.

The anagama method militates against any consistency in appearance; Jack’s resistance to assembly-line standardization extends to every facet of his work. He takes his motto from Moby Dick: There are some enterprises in which a careful disorderliness is the true method. Barry Lopez’ river analogy reminds one of Heraclitus’ famous dictum that you can’t step into the same river twice. Accident and surprise animate the anagama potter’s art.

“I’ve never been a lizard,” says the generally silly Random Surrealism Generator at the bottom of the page when I go to fetch the Heraclitus link from my archives.


Up at 4:30 and out on the porch at 5:00. The fourth-quarter moon, horns pointing to the right, hangs low over the ridge. The only other celestial object visible through the thin mist is Venus, caught in the crown of an oak. A yellow-billed cuckoo breaks the silence – or tries to. It falters, two notes short. The moonlight is so weak and diffuse, one can just as easily convince oneself that it is rising from the earth, from the tall grass where the insect motor goes on running day and night, from now until first frost.

I am thinking about my attraction to magic and hermeneutics, the fallacies of world-as-altar and world-as-text. But why privilege logic – an artificial system of rules if ever there was one – with this talk of fallacies? Keep your eye on the little pea, says Venus. Keep imitating the oroborous, says the moon. Watch me catch and swallow my tail until there’s nothing left!

Ennightenment never lasts. Already, as I type these words, the hour hand creeps past 6:00 and I can see out the door how belighted grows the world, how green and decadent. I am remembering the wondrous series of photos I looked at last night on Paula’s blog: up close and personal with a common milkweed, from bud to empty pod. If I had a macro lens like hers with the pen to match, I too would kneel in near-worship before what Blake might have called the lineaments of gratified desire.

He whose face gives no light, shall never become a star, says the infernal proverb. Eternity is in love with the productions of time. Now you’re talking!

And the planet, let’s remember, has two hemispheres. From January in July we come to February in August. If I were Australian, this would be the month of my birth instead of my parents’ wedding anniversary. But I particularly like the idea of the two-faced god having two stations in the course of a year. In July, his warm and cold eyes trade places. The moon, after all, is a crescent twice. And the poet, with a mind of winter, argues always from the particular to the particular, case by case. Midwives, you know.


Every newborn follows its own map into the world:
I know them all.
So many ruts have been worn into my palms
there’s hardly any space left.

When the moment arrives I can see everything.
The womb is a Möbius river for its blind fish
swimming toward the net of my hands,
a sun always at zenith for its melon
ready to part from the vine.

Neither fish nor melon
the slick chrysalis peels open
& a newborn tugs at its tether like a kite,
I cut it loose & it lurches,
wheeling toward the breast.

Listen, these images are for
your benefit, not mine.
I want you to see how this work
is never routine.

I’ve yet to lose one: the Lord’s been with me–
whether or not the husband helps–
there’s always a voice saying Now.
A voice saying Breathe.

I quote myself [PDF], chasing my own tail: how shameless! Hoping thereby to disappear behind the rhetorical flourish, the sleight-of-hand. My recurrent fantasy, which comes to me unbidden right before sleep, is to saw myself open – to commit seppuku without dying or feeling pain. Is it a birth fantasy, I wonder? I would like to hold my own viscera in my lap and read the future. But this chronicle inside me – I fear it won’t give up without a struggle. Joys impregnate, says Blake again. Sorrows bring forth.

Thanks to Everyman for reminding me recently about “ennightenment.” It was Paula, again, who blogged about “a mind of winter” a while back, but I couldn’t turn up the post just now. The phrase comes from Wallace Stevens’ famous poem “The Snow Man,” which concludes with
“…the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.”

Missing notes

I was a Phebe – nothing more –
A Phebe – nothing less –
The little note that others dropt
I fitted into place –

Six-thirty. The treetops glow with the first rays of sun. A hummingbird circles a bull thistle’s purple tuft – all looks, no substance – then zooms over to the bergamot with its washed-out, scraggly heads.

Aside from the background trill of crickets and the sound of cars and trucks on the interstate highway a half-mile to the west, I’m struck by how silently the day has dawned. Early August is always a sad time of the year for me: the dusk and dawn chorus has dwindled to almost nothing. No more phoebe, wood thrush, Baltimore oriole, indigo bunting, scarlet tanager, catbird, great-crested flycatcher. Their young have fledged and learned their parent’s songs, and some have already begun the journey to their true homes in the tropics. Without such stalwarts as the cardinal, song sparrow and especially Carolina wren, the morning would arrive completely unheralded eight months out of twelve.

Already, the early goldenrod is blooming, and by the end of the week the whole field will have turned to gold. The season’s final generation of monarchs is on the wing. A dry high has settled in, bringing clear skies and autumn-cool temperatures. My niece is in heaven – she can spend almost every waking hour out-of-doors if she chooses. She spends the nights apart from her parents, sleeping up in her grandparents’ house in what had been my bedroom when I was growing up. And though she sometimes seems to wish that every adult were as facetious as her daddy and uncles are, there’s no question that her serious, naturalist-writer Nanna is still her main role model.

Yesterday morning the two of them went for a walk down Laurel Ridge, and Eva discovered a box turtle that her Nanna had walked right past without noticing. It was half-grown – only a few years old – and completely unafraid, even when Eva picked it up. After a careful examination of the eyes and plectrum, they decided it must be a female. Eva was so excited to have been the first to spot it, she ran all the way back to the house to tell her grandpa – and anyone else who would listen.

After lunch, without prompting from anyone, she sat down with a clipboard and legal pad and began to write what she proudly predicts will be her first published nature essay. We were astonished by the neatness of her hand and her fantastic spelling for a second grader. Mom reported the following conversation from earlier in the day.

Eva: “Are you famous, Nanna?”

Nanna: “Well, no, not really.”

“But do people know who you are?”

“Well, in Pennsylvania, I guess some people know who am.”

“That’s what I want! I want to write about Nature so people will know who I am!”

Yesterday afternoon my cousin Heidi stopped over with her three-year-old daughter Morgan in tow. Eva immediately took her under her wing and managed to coax her into walking much farther than she ever had before, showering her with praise for the feat. It was amusing to see these two only-children relate to each other in a big sister-little sister fashion.

As for me, I’m just happy for the company of two spontaneously affectionate and imaginative children – even when sudden storms of temper blow in from nowhere, as sometimes happens. Most of the time I am content to play Thoreau without regret for my single, childless state. But then I get a hug from a little kid and am reminded suddenly of just how much I’m missing.

The missing All, prevented Me
From missing minor Things.
If nothing larger than a World’s
Departure from a Hinge
Or sun’s Extinction, be observed
‘Twas not so large that I
Could lift my Forehead from my work
For Curiosity.


Both quotes are from the R. W. Franklin edition of The Poems of Emily Dickinson: nos. 1009 (first stanza) and 995 (complete).

This post brought to you by Halliburton

What would you do if you received an e-mail from a friend announcing that he had obtained four one-piece work suits (a.k.a. union suits) that had formerly belonged to Halliburton employees? Each sports the Halliburton logo as well as the first name of the person to whom it was issued. Best of all is a suit with “Richard” on it (think “Vice President”).

I’ve never been much for street protests, but the opportunity to borrow one or more of these suits seems just too good to pass up. So I’m thinking, maybe I should organize some sort of “Poets Against the War” reading? If the emcee of such an event were outfitted by Halliburton, that might make for a compelling five seconds or so on local television.

Poets Against the War have designated September 11 “An International Day of Poetry” – presumably in commemoration of the CIA-sponsored coup that brought Pinochet to power in Chile in 1973, as well as for the events of 9/11/01. But as I thought this over today, it occurred to me that we would be better off titling a September 11th reading Poetry for Peace. Being “for peace” is just a lot more inclusive and disarming than being against war. I don’t want veterans, for example, to feel unwelcome. In fact, I don’t even want to presume that everyone who reads would be “anti-war.” Just pro-peace.

I am not especially interested in emceeing a rally or demonstration. I’m not a big Kerry supporter. But when a man can be publicly derided as a flip-flopper simply for seeing both sides of an issue, you know, that gets my back up! In this atmosphere, simply holding an event where people have to actively listen to those they may disagree with cannot help becoming a political act, I’m afraid. Even without the Halliburton suit.

(Remainder of post removed for violating Via Negativa’s ban on self-promotion)