Volume 68, Number 2 · Spring 2019

Prison Suite

1. What he Did in Solitary


Named all the state capitals

Sang as much of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill as he had tattooed on his eardrums, which was all of it

Tugged, instead of magician’s scarves, blinking Christmas lights from somewhere deep inside him

And strung them in spirals up and down his prison bars

Realized Edmund Dantès, in the Château d’If, was imprisoned in the Castle of Possibility

Listed the five best Mexican places he’d eaten at

Thought hard about the first love he ever touched until the scent reappeared on his index and middle

Pared his nails with his teeth and kept going until he bled

Used the blood to paint the butterfly from Papillon on his breastbone

Laid his ear on different parts of the floor and walls to see if footsteps or earthquakes might transmit from somewhere

Plugged the drain with two fistfuls of hair and filled the sink with water because every garden walling in an innocent should have a birdfeeder

Played with himself

Lost interest

Listed all the Presidents

Palmed his scalp to feel his hair grow

Thumbed his eyelids up so his helium-filled eyeballs could float out of their sockets on yellowish neural tethers

Scraped the bricks with his teeth to fill his navel with brick grit so that one of his fingernails, potted, might grow into a hand

Did a hundred squats

Imagined himself in his boyhood’s public library so hard the bricks became the spines of Tolkien novels stacked to the ceiling

Hunted the corners and under the cot for a spider to talk to

Monologued mightily, making appeals to logic and mercy that would have gotten him acquitted

Prayed, hands together, on his knees, for deliverance from his own company

Shouted at the ceiling

Took a deep breath, pursed his lips, pinched his nose, and blew out, bursting both tympanic membranes with a sound so gunshotlike it reminded him of home

Made shapes with his tongue in the mirror until his tongue, finally, after hundreds of attempts, forked

Stood on his hands until he got a headache


Realized he’d left out John Tyler and listed all the Presidents again

Whistled and patted his thighs as if his beagle Ben were running back to him

Spoke both parts in a stage play of his own making about the Rodney King riots

Lunged at the Saran-wrapped sandwich slid through the slit in his cell door, hoping hungrily to glimpse his jailor’s human hand

Congratulated himself on making it to lunch

Peeled the Saran wrap off the sandwich




2. What he Dreamed in Solitary


A windowless shed the size of an airplane hangar where birds were bred flightless

Twenty treadmills in a row and twenty rich men running

His old house in East Cleveland, seen from the backseat cage of a slowing cop car, his mom sitting on the lawn

And she got up and rushed to him arms out but her choke chain jerked taut

A prayer rug made of flowing water

A kufi made of his brother’s caul

Bees crawling in and out of the windows of Terminal Tower

His brother fetal position kicked by six cops, but his clever body smoking into its own atoms all around them, rising like dust beaten from an old mattress

His old house in East Cleveland with the snow on its roof dyed the color of rocket ice by cop-car lights

A prison island off the coast of Sweden where murderers were whittling owls and rapists were doing collages

A state-of-the-art walkway over an abyss, its floor made of one long glass screen that showed the drop below it once a day

So when cracks shot through it and he started screaming, everyone else thought it was part of the experience, laughing and getting it on their phones

Twenty lounge chairs in a row and twenty rich girls sunning

Him dressed in boy shorts and ankle shackles, balancing their wine coolers on a tray, forbidden to sip

The old house in East Cleveland with his brother sitting astride the roof in a captain’s hat, face to the wind, excelsior

A concrete mixer with bodies mixed in, pouring a public sculpture where the bodies, trying to emerge, harden into place in attitudes of anguish grasping skyward

Twenty rich couples strolling their kids through this park to teach them about civil rights

And him equipped with nothing but a hammer and a pen, checking the faces of these figures for his brother

Until the light changes and the concrete bodies softening to marble become those unfinished sculptures of Michelangelo known as The Prisoners

Only they aren’t emerging, they’re returning to their blocks

As he is now, a catnap Rip van Winkle, twenty minutes and his beard is past his knees

Awakening in solitary yet again



3. What he Drew in Solitary


An occult chalk outline of his brother on the floor, a gap where his mouth should have gone, for black ants to file through like song notes

Illustrations for a pop-up book for blinded boys, you turn the page and run your fingers airily along a wall

Crooked white fences between himself and despair, four finger-length fenceposts and a cross slash, repeated all the way around

A single eye on a single brick, his brother keeping watch through an observation slit

Dashed lines of a flea-flicker from John Madden Football they played as a boy

One of those dashed lines wandering off toward the ceiling, X marks the spot

A treasure map from the Château d’If to the island of Only

Shin-high sunflowers seed-stippled with Vicodins

A sun for those sunflowers, too, so ghostly pale it turned into a moon at night

And made the water level in the toilet bowl subside and rise in tides

A shin-high cross beside the dead-end road where boyhood crashed, killing his brother, leaving him the sole survivor

Cursed to grow into a grown man slack-limbed on a prison cot

Quadriplegic, unable to stand, unable to stand this

Wanderlust butane-torching ulcers in his flesh

While lust expresses, expels itself in chalk-dust teardrops on his palm

Drawing him deeper into self-erasure, gaunt body, hunted skin, drawn face

Illuminating the scripture of his solitude, in which there is only one God, one way

And that way, inward

To the fund of images he draws on, replenished every evening by a distant indulgent father

Making up for his longlostness with these lengths of chalk, these drawings in the dark

Basilica Basquiats in his brother’s nightstick-fractured skull

Exposed to sunlight by a pipe bomb laid in his boy body’s inviolate Vatican

Illustrations, lustrations in the cloister, bareback Jackson-Pollocked with a penitential whip

Here in his cell, in solitary, fighting himself to a draw

Drawing sustenance, drawing from the well, drawing his family like a treasure map from memory, drawing in the face of faces turned away forever




Amit Majmudar is a widely published poet, translator, novelist, and essayist. His forthcoming poetry collection is Kill List (Knopf, 2020), and his most recent book in the United States is Godsong: A Verse Translation of the Bhagavad-Gita, with Commentary (Knopf, 2018). Recent and forthcoming novels published by Penguin Random House India include Sitayana and Soar. Ohio’s former first Poet Laureate, his poetry and prose have appeared in multiple The Best American Poetry anthologies, The Best American Essays 2018, and The O. Henry Prize Stories 2017, as well as The Norton Introduction to Literature among other textbooks. He works as a diagnostic nuclear radiologist in Westerville, Ohio, where he lives with his wife and three children.