Women’s Prison by Joseph Bathanti

prisonyardTwo Sundays a month, darkness still abroad,
we round up the kids and bundle them
into a restored salvaged Bluebird school bus,
repainted green, and make the long haul

to Raleigh where their mothers are locked
in Women’s Prison. We pin the children’s names,
and numbers, to their coats, count them
like convicts at lights-out. Sucking thumbs,

clutching favorite oddments to cuddle as they ride
curled in twos on patched sprung benches,
they sleepwalk bashfully, the little aged,
into the belly of the bus, eyes nailed to its floor.

We feed them milk and juice, animal crackers, apples;
stop for them to use the bathroom,
and to change the ones so young, they can’t help wetting.
We try singing: folk tunes and strike ballads –

as if off to picket or march with an army of babies –
but their stony faces will not yield and, finally,
their passion to disappear puts them to sleep,
not to wake until the old Bluebird jostles

through the checkpoints into the prison.
Somehow, upon reopening their eyes, they know
to smile at the twirling jagged grandeur
surrounding the massive compound: concertina –

clotted with silver scraps of dew and dawn light,
a bullet-torn shroud of excelsior, scored
in dismal fire, levitating in the savage
Sabbath sky. By then, their mothers,

in the last moments of girlish rawboned glory,
appear in baggy, sky-blue prison shifts,
their beautiful hands lifting to shield their eyes,
like saints about to be slaughtered,

as if the light is too much, the sky suddenly egg-blue,
plaintive, threatening to pale away, the sun
still invisible, yet blinding. Barefoot, weepy,
they call their babies by name and secret endearment,

touch them everywhere like one might the awakened dead.
The children remain dignified, nearly aloof
in their perfect innocence, and self-possession,
toddling dutifully, into the arms of anyone

who reaches for them, even the guards, petting them too.
When visiting hours conclude, the children hand
their mothers cards and drawings, remnants
of a life they are too young to remember,

but conjure in glyphic crayon blazes.
Attempting to recollect the narrative
that will guide them back to their imagined homes,
the mothers peer from the pictures to the departing

children – back and forth, straining
to make the connection, back
and forth until the children, already fast asleep
as the bus spirits them off, disappear.

Bathani

Joseph Bathanti was born on July 20, 1953, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He grew up in East Liberty, an Italian neighborhood in the city. Bathanti earned an M.F.A. in English Literature from the University of Pittsburgh. After graduation, he joined Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA), a national service program designed to fight poverty. In 1976, Bathanti was placed in North Carolina as a volunteer for the state’s prison system. Since then he’s spent 35 years teaching writing workshops in prisons and is the former chair of the North Carolina Writers’ Network Prison project. Bathanti is the author of eight books of poetry: Communion Partners; Anson County; The Feast of All Saints; This Metal; Land of Amnesia; Restoring Sacred Art; Sonnets of the Cross; and Concertina. From 2012 through 2014 Bathanti was Poet Laureate of North Carolina. His writing draws heavily on his life, ethnicity, religion, and personal experiences. His latest collection, Concertina, revolves around his experiences volunteering in the North Carolina penal system and features “Women’s Prison.”

Bathanti’s work in the prison system has greatly impacted his writing. Throughout the poem “Women’s Prison,” Bathanti depicts bringing children to their mother’s in prison on visitor’s day two times a month. The poem’s opening stanza says, “we round up the kids;” the phrase “round up” draws a parallel between the mothers in prison and their children. The second stanza continues this parallel with the simile, “count them/like convicts at lights-out.” Here Bathanti captures how entire families are impacted when one person goes to jail. Though the children of convicts have done no crime, they are rounded up and have numbers pinned to them when they go to visit the women who have given them life.

Bathanti continues the poem by calling attention to the innocence of these children by referring to their “Sucking thumbs” in stanza two, “clutching favorite oddments to cuddle” in stanza three and their being unable to “help wetting” in stanza four. These children are innocent before entering the prisons, but Bathanti hints at their eventual loss of innocence throughout the rest of the poem.

In stanza five, Bathanti refers to the children of convicts as “an army of babies,” saying their “stony faces will not yield.” Comparing these children to armies strips them of their individuality and turns them into men and women who know they are about to face horrors that will change them for the rest of their lives. This sense of loss of innocence continues in the next stanza when Bathanti writes of the children “reopening their eyes.” These children walk into the jail and are forced to face seeing their mothers behind bars. They have the opportunity to see their mothers and talk to them, but they must do so in a prison compound. Walking into this new environment may be new and exciting for them, on some level, but this new place is a “bullet-torn shroud of excelsior.” This place has the excitement of familial reunion, but it is surrounded by violence.

As the poem continues, Bathanti references the children’s “perfect innocence, and self possession” as they first see their mothers in the prison in stanza ten. Though his wording makes it clear these children are still innocent, the words throughout the poem hint that this innocence will soon trickle away. Though they are visiting their mothers, they are quickly forgetting these mothers as they were before going to jail. Bathanti writes they bring their mothers cards and drawings of “a life they are too young to remember.” Drawing these pictures is their attempt to remember the lives they had before their mother’s went away to jail and left their families in shambles.

As Bathanti words it, these children are trying to “recollect the narrative/that will guide them back to their imagined homes.” In these lines, Bathanti uses the word “homes” instead of houses. Since a home is distinguished from simple being a house by the fact that a family lives inside, this specific word choice emphasizes that these children are attempting to find a path back to the families they used to have. This poem ends with these very children “straining/to make the connection” until they all eventually “disappear.” These disappearances not only show how the children leave the prison, and their mother’s worlds, but also show how from these experiences these children lose a part of themselves, their innocence.


What My Father Knows by Nancy Naomi Carlson

Cup_of_tea_(High_Speed_Photography)-MJMy father knows his mind is leaving,
Cells fleeing a mineshaft’s dark.
My father remembers the color of Laddie’s coat –
first of a long line of dogs – but forgets the shade
of my mother’s eyes when she leaves the room.

How long before he forgets her face
and the fire of her auburn hair?

Each night she pours him Jiuqu Wulong tea –
dragon brew – to head off the growing chill,
and chides him when he spills a drop –
from highest mountains come finest teas.

She invents a tale of an emperor – K’ang Ha –
who seduces a red-haired beauty beneath a gingko tree.
A pot of water simmered nearby.
As she finger combed her shimming hair,
three strands broke free to ride the wind
into the steaming brew –
now transformed into liquid amber, jasmine-oiled –
a dynasty of song.

My father inhales the scent of her words.

450px-Ginkgo_Trees_Oguni_Kumamoto01

Nancy Naomi Carlson received her B.A. from Queens College and her Ph.D. from the University of Maryland. She is currently an instructor at the Bethesday Writer’s Center, and a senior translation editor for Tupelo Quarterly and Blue Lyra Review. She is the author of three poetry collections, as well as the critically acclaimed Stone Lyre: Poems of René Char. Her work has appeared in print over 290 times in various publications, including, Poetry, The Georgia Review, Prairie Schooner, and The Iowa Review and has won her grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Maryland Arts Council, and the Arts & Humanities Council of Montgomery County.

Right at the opening of Carlson’s heartbreaking poem, the encroaching threat of a life forgotten consumes the reader. Carlson writes of the heartbreak of watching a parent, presumably one suffering from Alzheimer’s or dementia, and their struggle to remember basic life details. In the opening stanza, Carlson writes, “My father knows his mind is leaving.” This minor detail, that the person who is slowly forgetting everything knows they are slowly forgetting everything, brings to mind the tragedy of people knowing they are suffering from dementia, but having no way to stop the progression. Throughout this poem, Carlson captures how this is often harder to face than the actual memory loss itself. The first stanza continues by calling on minuscule details of life, the specifics that many people take for granted, but that make life complete. She writes of the “shade of my mother’s eyes.” The very eyes the narrator’s aging father has looked into presumably every day for decades are quickly erased from his memory.

In the second stanza, Carlson presents the idea that eventually the disease will make the narrator’s father forget not just the color of his wife’s eyes, but his wife entirely. This type of tragedy is something that people have become more aware of in recent years, from books like The Notebook and so forth. As this stanza continues, the “Jiuqu Wulong tea” the wife serves him to “head off the growing chill” can be seen as her trying to slow the progression of his memory loss.

Then, in the fourth stanza, the wife “invents a tale” to tell him, which seems reminiscent of how the two probably met as well. As the tale continues she alludes to her husband’s mental state saying, “three strands broke free to ride the wind.” The “three strands” of hair can be seen as a metaphor for the memories slowly leaving her husbands mind. Just as the strands land in the tea and are “transformed into liquid amber,” his thoughts leave his mind and become forever lost. Carlson ends the forth stanza by writing, “a dynasty of song,” and although “song” is not capitalized and could just refer to musical sound dissipating in the open air, the earlier mention of an emperor named K’ang Ha brings the Chinese Song dynasty to the reader’s mind. The Song dynasty reigned over China from 960-1279 and ended abruptly when 8-year-old emperor Emperor Huaizong of Song (along with Prime Minister Lu Xiufu and 800 members of the royal clan) committed suicide. The father in the poem seems to have led a long life, but, like the Song dynasty, his life quick fades away.

This poem is overall evocative of a lifetime slowly being lost in the mind of an old man and reads like the father inhaling “the scent of her words” in the last line. The lines of the poem put a heavy weight on the readers heart, like smelling a loved ones perfume after their passing.


Love and Friendship by Emily Brontë

hollyLove is like the wild rose-briar,
Friendship like the holly-tree —
The holly is dark when the rose-briar blooms
But which will bloom most constantly?
The wild-rose briar is sweet in the spring,
Its summer blossoms scent the air;
Yet wait till winter comes again
And who will call the wild-briar fair?
Then scorn the silly rose-wreath now
And deck thee with the holly’s sheen,
That when December blights thy brow
He may still leave thy garland green.

Bronte

Brontë’s attitude toward love in this poem is telling, given how much she distanced herself from others in her own life. While Emily was very close with her sisters, Anne and Charlotte, she did not venture far outside of her family circle. Emily preferred the company of animals to people. She had a mastiff named Keeper, whom she adored. She never married, dying a single woman at the age of 30, an age that, at the time, was enough to deem her an “old maid.”

Besides her poetry, Emily Brontë wrote one novel in her lifetime, the famous Wuthering Heights. The novel, ironically, also focuses on love, detailing Heathcliff’s infatuation with Catherine and the impact her loss had on him. For someone who avoided love in her own life, Emily certainly enjoyed exploring the topic in her work.

Emily starts “Love and Friendship” by comparing love to a “wild rose-briar,” a comparison used many times thereafter (e.g., “Every rose has its thorn”). While love is beautiful, it can also bring pain. She then compares friendship to a holly tree, which is “dark when the rose-briar blooms.” During times of romance, she is saying, friendships fall to the wayside, and love takes over all feelings and emotions – “its summer blossoms scent the air.”

However, she says, during hard times – “winter” – the rose-briar does not hold up; it dies, leaving none of the beautiful flowers behind. Holly, however, lives on even in the coldest of months. Holly is the plant that will “bloom most constantly.” Friendship, then, lives on even when romances fade away.

The idea of love’s cruel sting in this poem is illustrated in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. Heathcliff’s anger and sorrow come from his inability to have Catherine, his true love, for his own. Love scorns him, hurting him like a rose thorn. As beautiful as he thinks Catherine is, the pain she brings to him leads to his downfall.

While Emily avoided love, her compassion for and closeness with her sisters must have motivated her portrayal of friendship in this poem. The three girls grew up together, using each other for support after their mother and sisters’ deaths – “when December blights thy brow” – and bonded through their writing.


Robert Browning, “Home-Thoughts, from Abroad”

Oh, to be in England
Now that April’s there,
And whoever wakes in England
Sees, some morning, unaware,
That the lowest boughs and the brushwood sheaf
Round the elm-tree bole are in tiny leaf,
While the chaffinch sings on the orchard bough
In England—now!

And after April, when May follows,
And the whitethroat builds, and all the swallows!
Hark, where my blossomed pear-tree in the hedge
Leans to the field and scatters on the clover
Blossoms and dewdrops—at the bent spray’s edge—
That’s the wise thrush; he sings each song twice over,
Lest you should think he never could recapture
The first fine careless rapture!
And though the fields look rough with hoary dew,
All will be gay when noontide wakes anew
The buttercups, the little children’s dower
—Far brighter than this gaudy melon-flower!

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robert browning image

Victorian poet Robert Browning grew up in South London with ties to familial heritage in St. Kitts. His widespread family history includes an extensive musical background, literary exposure, and an evangelical faith. This path led him to pursue a career in poetry following his education at University College London, most famously through his work on dramatic monologues. With a life that spanned nearly the entirety of the 19th century, Browning’s work encompasses poetry on his travels in Italy (where he lived with wife Elizabeth Barrett Browning, a fellow poet) and throughout Western Europe.

Among Browning’s better-known works is Home-Thoughts, from Abroad. The poem opens with a reminiscence of England in the spring: “Oh, to be in England / Now that April’s there” (lines 1-2). This tone of wistfulness develops into praise for the author’s home, as can be when Browning assures that, “though the fields look rough with hoary dew, / All will be gay when noontide wakes anew” (lines 17-18). Browning does not idealize the land so much so that it appears perfect, but rather acknowledges the continual hope for better weather and a better future.home-thoughts, from abroad image

The poem progresses from April to May in the second stanza, and the result is a development that hints at the passage of time. Given Browning’s travels throughout Europe, this work of rhymed stanza (see “follows” in line 9 and “swallows” in line 10) aligns well with the author’s focus on his physical journey with his wife. Despite their comfortable lifestyle, however, “Home-Thoughts, from Abroad” suggests that Browning’s heart will always remain in his home nation of England.


Isabella Zuroski is a senior English and Sociology double major from Bemus Point, New York.  She is the president of W&L’s all-female a cappella group Jubilee, and she has a special fondness for A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, as well as anything written by Frank McCourt.