01 December, 2018

A Poem


"I remember your son well," says one.
"We weren't friends but worked great together. He

was the perfect man to manage the front desk —
handsome and always willing to go that extra mile

for a guest." The mother smiles and nods
in the way one does, accepting condolences.

The elderly woman he's with looks elsewhere.
"How long has yours been gone?" the first mother

asks her, wincing, knowing the wound's too fresh.
The second works her toothless mouth in preparation,

then mutters, "Fifteen years last January."
She still burns a candle almost nightly,

lights a little flame for him, her youngest,
taken in his prime. And the mothers

look around them then and apprehend
the gathered. Those come to pay respects

are brothers, daughters, sisters, sons,
pals, partners, mothers too —

everyone attired for this occasion
differently. The charity jog freebie T-shirt,

the patterned dress, the hipster jeans, the inevitable
blue suit. Conversation ranges. Insurance, love

lives and lacks thereof, TV, illness, children —
one of whom looks up to see, in a flash like

a fish in an aquarium, his father's face
in the window glass. He cries out,

"Daddyyyyyy!" and the whole assembly turns
to watch him pass with Mama through

the waiting room's double steel doors.
Another family reunited for a few hours on

the prison's visiting floor.

* * * * *

The term visitation is defined by Oxford thus:

n. an official or formal visit, in particular: • (in church use) an official visit of inspection, esp. one by a bishop to a church in the bishop's diocese. • the appearance of a divine or supernatural being. • a gathering with the family of a deceased person before the funeral.
Multiple meanings of a word are like catnip for poets. I wanted to play with this one because its use by prison administrators has seeped into the vernacular. A lot of everyday people use "visitation" when they're talking about going to see little Johnny in the slammer. A lawyer or politician going to see a prisoner is one thing, but not Mom and Dad. The formality of this usage always put me off, the same way that saying "utilize" does, when "use" works perfectly well.

There are of course parallels between someone dying and someone going to prison. In the event that the sentence is life without parole (as mine is), even the courts formally acknowledge the similarity, employing the grim term "civil death" when addressing one's diminished Constitutional rights. So I set out to write "Visitation" as a poem that upends the reader's expectation — it starts out with all the trappings of a funeral gathering, then reveals the true circumstances only in the final lines. Whether or not it's successful I'll leave for you to decide.

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