“I can’t see ’em coming from my eye, so I had to make this poem cry.”
—Jimmy McMillan, an incarcerated poet in California’s prison system
You can chain the body, the face, the eyes,
the way hands move coarsely over cement
or deftly on tattooed skin with needle.
You can cage the withered membrane,
the withered dream,
the way razor wire, shouts, yells, and batons
can wither spirit.
But how can you imprison a poem?
How can a melody be locked up, locked down?
Yes, even caged birds sing,
even grass sprouts through asphalt,
even a flower blooms in a desert.
And the gardens of trauma we call the incarcerated
can also spring with the vitality of a deep thought,
an emotion buried beneath the facades
deep as rage, deep as grief,
the grief beneath all rages.
The blood of such poems, songs,
emotions, thoughts, dances,
is what flows in all art, stages, films, books.
The keys to liberation are in the heart,
in the mind, behind the cranial sky.
The imagination is boundless,
the inexhaustible in any imprisoned system.
And remember—we are all in some kind of prison.
If only the contrived freedoms
society professes can flow from such water!
The path to peace is art,
arrows puncturing the phantoms
that haunt ghettos, barrios, trailer parks,
reservations, migrant camps,
forcing poverty of things into
poverty of spirit.
Drugs, belief-systems, illusions
of a world magnitude,
are not as powerful or lasting
as the solidity of dreams.
So, when you can’t see a tear
drop from an eye,
let a poem cry,
the paper bleed,
an image or chant exorcise
the demons of despair.
The lifeline is inside each of us.
Luis J. Rodriguez was poet laureate of Los Angeles from 2014 to 2016. He’s the author of eight books of poetry and the founding editor of Tia Chucha Press, the publishing wing of Tia Chucha’s Centro Cultural in the San Fernando Valley area of Los Angeles.