Huntersville Prison: Winter, Early Lockdown

Joseph Bathanti Click to read more...

Joseph Bathanti is former Poet Laureate of North Carolina (2012-14) and recipient of the 2016 North Carolina Award for Literature. He is the author of seventeen books, including The 13th Sunday after Pentecost, a volume of poems, released by LSU Press in late 2016; and the  novel, The Life of the World to Come, from University of South Carolina Press in 2014. Bathanti is Professor of Creative Writing at Appalachian State University.

(after the photograph by Alan Kincaid)

They’re still sitting there,
doing time, in the cellblock –
convict-cut and canted quarry rock
from the Depression – after evening chow,
at the picnic table, until lights out.

Shutter-stilled, forty years ago,
in crude monochrome,
they glance up from their work:
Curtis Lee, giant pick in his afro;
Avon Redmond, known as Arapahoe;
Shake’n’Bake; Q-Tip; Irby; Winchester;
Darrell Furr, assassinated by Hell’s Angels
mere weeks after parole.
Long johns and Honor Grade caps,
instant coffee cooked with tap water,
red Bible, rusty chain-gang ashtray.

Smoke from their tailor-mades wreathe the light
bulbs dangling from black ceiling wires.
Black on the yard, but for the perimeter
lamps trembling in concertina.
Shadows from the dying elms
splash the barred windows.

Night after night, they piece together with toothpicks,
blue-tipped Diamond matches, popsicle sticks
and Elmer’s glue, a ship – big as Noah’s Ark,
into which will fit two of everything.
Long ago they reckoned two of everything:
those who escape time,
those who take up its cross.

Bunks, three-tiered, circle them,
guys getting their shit together for the next day:
tar squad, unit and county maintenance,
work and study release, chow hall, canteen.
Some read; write letters. Try to sleep.
Showers and shit jackets trickle. Pipes moan.

The Lieutenant, whistling Chinatown,
paces the concrete block slab:
long black Department Duster,
like a cassock, silver badge and Meerschaum.
Convicts call him Creeping Jesus.
Sergeant Kline in the lintel of the sally port –
shell-shocked from the Battle of White Horse,
in Korea, never sure where, who, he is –
cradles the shift clock, fixing to count them.

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