“Gatherer’s Blog” is an invited feature that provides emergent as well as seasoned writers with opportunities to reflect upon aspects of their own writing processes.
The Sacred Limit
Ekiwah Adler Beléndez
To my father, for teaching me to hear the silences…
I gave my best poetry reading in a high security prison for men in Mexico City. The section I visited was the one reserved for prisoners with disabilities. I won’t name the prison or give its location, because it can stand for many high prisons in Mexico and around the world. In this way, I hope to honor other poets who have entered prisons to read poetry or who are writing poetry within them. I was able to give that reading thanks to Berenice Perez Ramirez, a social worker and teacher who heard me read poetry and invited me in.
The paperwork to allow me to enter with Berenice and her graduate social work students took many months to get approved, giving me the feeling, I was getting a Visa to investigate a remote island. We had a list of colors we were forbidden to wear. No blue. No beige. No white. No Brown. No light green or black. Nothing muted. To be granted entry, we had to wear loud colors: reds, pinks, yellows, oranges. The stark contrast between us and the prisoners would make it harder for them to camouflage themselves or escape.
The night before the poetry reading, I selected the loudest, most festive clothes I could find: a flaming red shirt with bright green and yellow cornhusks. You would think I was getting ready for salsa dancing, not poetry in prison. I checked the color code again and wondered: Who would I find behind those bared gates? I had a fleeting vision of young muscular men, tattooed to the brim, with deep and depressed scowls on their faces, gothic black clothes, arms and legs missing, as they dragged themselves slowly, maliciously toward me. What poems should I read to them?
My best poetry readings typically happen like this: I read for an hour-and-a-half, leaving some time for questions and comments from an audience. The time can go by surprisingly fast if I’m having a good time. I prepare some remarks to introduce my poems, but I am very fond of improvisation. The list of poems and my comments often change radically, as I am inspired and influenced by the mood of each audience. The nonverbal gestures of my listeners give me clues about what poem I should read or what I should say next. Their subtle expressions of amusement, doubt, or even boredom steer the journey of each reading.
Even many well-rounded readers perceive poetry as an obscure subject belonging to the literary elite. To fight that perception, in my readings I am usually quite chatty. I pepper my poems with jokes and personal anecdotes that in some way explain my poems, or others’ poems, and the events that might have inspired them.
To introduce my own poems, I’m willing to share very personal information, if I think doing so will draw someone closer to what I am about to read. My sexual experiences, my fears and deep joys as a poet and father with cerebral palsy, my struggles with love. It’s all up for grabs when it comes to seeking and finding inspiration. But the poetry reading I gave in that prison didn’t resemble any of my other poetry readings. I gave the reading six years ago and I am only beginning to articulate what happened there.
I was almost unable to enter because my shoes were beige and blue. Forbidden colors. But finally, at Berenice’s insistence, I was allowed into prison without shoes, which were held by the officer at the registration desk until the end of our visit. An irony, because being a person in a wheelchair, I have little use for shoes anyway.
We were asked to leave our passports, keys, earnings, rings and ID cards behind. The threshold of the prison reminded me of an airport, but with even tighter security: metal detectors and pat downs at various checkpoints, dogs trained to sniff, a large sign that said: “No drugs or weapons allowed.” If drugs circulated here (and Berenice told me prisoners reported they did), that could only happen with consent from the officers and guards at the entrance–perhaps the same ones that checked us now, making such a show of rectitude and vigilance.
Before entering, Berenice took us aside and in a lowered voice explained that many of the inmates we were about to meet became disabled by a gunshot to the legs or hips, a criminal car accident, or some missing body part due to gang violence and mutilation. It can take a very long time to get a wheelchair into a Mexican prison. Any new device or object that enters must be requested with external support. With a lot of time and paperwork. Many family members of the inmates don’t have the resources, or the knowledge to request wheelchairs, legal advice, or proper accommodations. Often a convict doesn’t want to burden his loved ones. He is aware that every trip through Mexico City is costly for his family. And the cost is even greater if his family lives in a small village or in a suburb many hours away. High attendance to recreational events can help a prisoner accumulate points of “good conduct,” which can, in some cases, shorten his prison time. But many prisoners with physical disabilities hardly go to the garden or participate in the prison’s external activities. They are ashamed to ask for help, and afraid to be bullied by stronger prisoners. Low attendance makes advocacy for the rights of prisoners with disabilities even more difficult. Prisons have their own crafts and trades, an economy that stays solely within the prison and is under tight vigilance and regulations unless corruption and gang power dictate otherwise. Inmates with disabilities are often forced to make their own wheelchairs out of whatever material is available. In the worst cases, prisoners with disabilities just drag themselves on the floor of their own cells, thereby doubling their confinement. But this time, since the event was intended for them, they would be wheeled or carried to the garden to listen to poetry.
As I listened to Berenice, I felt a surge of admiration for her. This middle-aged woman, I thought, is an unsung hero. She works tirelessly to make the lives of prisoners more dignified and fun. She lowered her voice even more: “I believe prison itself is an ineffective system that must be slowly and carefully abolished. Punishment teaches us nothing.” Her curls and eyes the color of black clay gleamed with a quiet but unmistakable force as she spoke.
Once we were inside the gates, the first prisoners I met asked me where I was from, shook my hand, and said “good morning” brightly. A few offered me food and water. Before meeting them, my imagination had made them into a cartoon of evil that I now watched crumble. Shame on me!
Filberto, a young staff member in charge of coordinating the prison’s external activities, greeted us with the air of a schooled diplomat. But when I asked him what motivated him to work in prisons, his response made me feel uneasy. “I am fascinated” he said “by the human mind and its great perversity.”
He led us through a narrow corridor with very high, barbed cement walls. At the end was a small gate, and behind it an enclosed garden. Geraniums, lavender, bougainvillea, and roses.
The inmates sat down slowly in rows of plastic chairs, leaning on their canes, crutches, or rudimentary wheelchairs. Most of them were in their fifties, sixties, or older. They wore pale blue, beige, or white. They opened their newspapers slowly and chewed on their ham sandwiches. They wiped their glasses with the rims of their shirts, taking in the sun, the fresh air, and the scent of flowers. Where had I seen men like them? In the zocalo of my own hometown. They were old enough to be my grandfathers, their tanned and weathered faces and grey hair holding the tenderness that comes with age when life has had its way with us. I could detect no visible traces of anger or resentment in their eyes or bodies. Instead, I saw their necks and shoulders leaning slightly forward, signaling their curiosity.
Later I learned from Berenice that most of these men had been imprisoned in their twenties and thirties and, after remaining there for decades, still had many years to go before completing their sentences. Most had committed crimes of passion. In a sudden rush of anger and despair, they assassinated their beloved or “the other lover.”
What could I ever say to them? After my reading, it would be unlikely we would ever meet again. Could I say anything that would be relevant to them? I had such loving parents, I knew about solitude, anger, joy, disability sadness, fear and despair, but I didn’t know anything about real malice. I reminded myself that they did, even as they looked gently up at me, smiling and waiting for me to speak.
Through all this, I was electrified. What was the odd phenomenon that distorted or expanded my senses? Even my explanations of it now feel inconclusive. The walls of the prison, the bit of sky I could see, the sound of the inmates grabbing their lunches before sitting down to listen, their footsteps, the roses and geraniums, slowed and sharpened in color, texture, scent, and sound. In prison, there was nothing to divert and diffuse my concentration, nowhere I could go to escape. The task of reading poems there commanded me to place my undivided attention within the prison’s limits.
The vivacity of life emanated from everything, no longer diluted by a thousand small distractions. That small garden and sky stood in defiance of grayness, harshness, and solitude, becoming almost large in my magnified senses. In the uniform and pervasive dimness of those concrete walls, every orange and pink petal burned with a particular distilled brightness that can only be felt by contrast. Stage lighters and chiaroscuro painters know why they must use darkness and hard boundaries to illuminate a face. Shadows make lights blaze. Darkness and light cannot be extricated from each other. Locked in place, even the sound of my voice seemed to resonate and bounce slowly back to me. I had entered a sacred space, one that existed separately from the ordinary flow of time, arrivals, interruptions, and departures.
I think of the poet Tomas Tranströmer’s masterpiece poem, “Vermeer.” in which he writes:
It’s the pressure from the other side of the wall/that leaves every fact suspended/ and holds the brush steady.
The poem urges us to consider the possibility that the tension and suffering of Vermeer’s life allowed him to access and forge a spectacular composure and tranquility that gave his brushstrokes a resounding firmness.
It hurts to go through walls/ it makes you sick/but it’s necessary. The world is one/ But walls …
Beyond the garden and the limits of my visit “on the other side of the wall,” I could speculate and sense the chaos of gang violence in prison, bullying, crime and punishment, addiction and poverty. I have no way of knowing if I’ve glorified these prisoners or demonized them, as I inevitably attempted to imagine their lives. But here, poetry was a haven of language, scent, and flowers. The garden was one with our own cultivated inner wilderness. Life beyond this poetry reading, this garden, the pressure of it all, held our words and poems steady in a sustained collective concentration. I could feel my own words resound with the weight of that silence.
Silence is a hard thing to describe to those who are not there to behold it. But if we listen to it, if we can sense its imprint on our bodies and voices, we can tell that a bored silence is radically different from one that comes after a kiss, a blow, or a poem. Our words resound within it, as flowing water changes and fits whatever shape contains it.
During the reading, I had no great need to speak about my poems or the poems of others, as I so often do. Any explanation felt trivial or superfluous in the face of poetry shared out loud–a song that moves our bodies and bones even before we understand it. I was interrupted occasionally by laughter, loud applause, the prisoners shifting in their seats, slow tears, and the request to hear another poem.
I noticed the inmates were far more excited by joyful poems or funny ones than by those charged with shadows. A bittersweet tonic is usually what I go for in my selection of poems. That’s the taste that gets closer to life. But whenever I read a poem that touched on hope, humor, or love, they wanted to hear it again. And I was delighted to repeat it.
Robert Bly and Fran Quinn have each spoken of beginning their readings by reciting the work of poets they admire. Quinn puts it this way: “When we get on stage, we are ambassadors for Poetry. When we begin our own readings with the poems of others it opens the spirit of generosity. In ourselves and in the audience. We are no longer standing alone on stage. The voices of other poets are there with us, getting our egos out of the way, expanding our range, far beyond what our own poems can reach.”
I take so much of their advice to heart and start most of my readings in the same way. So I began the reading with Octavio Paz, Wislawa Szymborska, Breyten Breytenbach, Rosario Castellanos, and Jaime Sabines. The greatest hit of that reading was a poem by the Mexican poet, Jaime Sabines, called “The moon.” The fragment I have chosen for English speakers is borrowed from a translation by W.S. Merwin, but the remix is mine:
by Jaime Sabines
You can take the moon in spoonfuls
or in tablets every two hours.
It works as a hypnotic and a sedative
and also provides relief
for those who have overdosed on philosophy.
A piece of the moon in your pocket
is better luck than a rabbit’s paw:
The moon can help you find the one you love
and make you rich without anybody knowing
A moon a day
keeps doctors and hospitals at bay…
Always carry a little bottle of moon air
when you’re suffocating
and give the moon’s key
to prisoners, and to the disenchanted.
For those sentenced to death
and those condemned to life
there is no better stimulant than the moon
in precise doses.
I had once thought the verses about giving “the moon’s key to prisoners” was a fantastic and dreamy image. But in prison, those lines rang with a rebellious force. The moon in that moment stood for everything that was good, medicinal, and beautiful shining in a harsh world. Beyond utopia and idealization, that moon, celebrated out loud, became imagination itself slipping through the prison bars. The brightness of distilled language reaching the ineffable soul in each of us that can’t be easily incarcerated. In that moment, I slowly understood that joyful, hopeful poems aren’t just about joy and hope. They are joy and hope. Words wed two lovers, or speak at a funeral service, or declare a divorce. Words have the ability to be what they speak of. So the moon entered our blood, however fleetingly, through sound, imagery, and emotion. It materialized there, in our voices and bodies, and we were drenched for a few moments in moonlight.
At the end of the reading, we gave each other a standing ovation. The funniest standing ovation I’ve experienced, because our disabilities made it hard for us to stand. The irony of it felt like a sort of poetic justice. I had entered prison with a dubious philanthropic attitude, hoping I would give something of value to others. Instead, I was humbled by their listening gift that shaped my words. I could go and on about the poems I read, the poems the prisoners read back to me, the reaction of the social workers who stood watching. But in honor of what they taught me, I raise my glass to them and let the silence speak.
July 5, 2021
About the Author
Ekiwah Adler-Beléndez is the author of Soy (I Am), Palabras Inagotables (Never-ending Words), Weaver, and Love on Wheels. Ekiwah is a graduate of Bard College at Simon’s Rock and Hampshire College, where he studied poetry, theater, and world religions. His life story and poetry have been featured on NBC Dateline, he was awarded an Honorable Mention for the contest Premio Nacional de la Juventud, (National Prize for the Youth), and he was twice granted a six-month scholarship by the FONCA (the National Institute for Support of the Arts). Ekiwah has given numerous talks, readings, and workshops at colleges, high-schools, and festivals in both Mexico and the United States.