27 June, 2023

Two Books I Read This Spring

In the first chapter of Walter de la Mare's 1922 novel Memoirs of a Midget, the female narrator says, "It is true that my body is among the smaller works of God." (A journalist, we are told, once wrote this about her.) She adds, "But I think [the journalist] paid rather too much attention to this fact."

Indeed, Memoirs of a Midget runs from front to back with that sentiment. It imagines the life of a little person and her closest associations. The title today sounds outdated; at worst, even offensive. Such is the fate of a lot of literature that's fortunate enough to survive into subsequent centuries. Moving past the wording of the book's title, though, I found a lovely, bittersweet, compassionate story that treats its narrator's minuscule stature as secondary to the point that she's a complicated person with a deep inner life. Yes, Memoirs of a Midget encroaches at times on the borderlands of twee, owing mostly to its sentimentality characteristic of a lot of books of its time but it never quite goes over the edge. I'm glad I took the recommendation of the New York Review of Books on this one.

Toiling over the works of John Berryman for months gave me an appreciation for the poet, as well as for the origin of the Nick Cave lyric, "Bukowski was a jerk; Berryman was best / He wrote like wet papier mâché / but he went the Hemingway / weirdly on wings and with maximum pain" (from the excellent song "We Call upon the Author"). This is not to say that I enjoyed what I read, but I respected it.

The volume that I combed, Collected Poems, 1937-1971, edited and annotated by Charles Thornbury, brings together what I can only call the lesser work of this tortured, enraptured soul. It includes Berryman's collections The Dispossessed, Sonnets to Chris, Homage to Mistress Bradstreet, Love & Fame, Delusions etc of John Berryman, as well as excerpts from Short Poems, His Thought Made Pockets & the Plane Bukt, Twenty Poems, and Poems
a veritable Berryman trove. Conspicuously absent is The Dream Songs, which won him the Pulitzer Prize. Thornbury writes that he omitted that work because Berryman didn't personally select and arrange that collection. I'm skeptical. Thornbury's introduction employs a quote from the poet Elizabeth Bishop, in which she writes of Berryman, "I have been struggling with these sonnets many beautiful lines but I do find him difficult." If Thornbury intended to (as I suspect he did) emphasize how challenging this work can be, avoiding Berryman's most read, highest-awarded, and, arguably, most respected work makes good, strategic sense. Accordingly, this collection feels at times like a test. Berryman owes a debt to Shakespeare, and his reliance on form and frequent use of bardic language give his poems a trying air of fustiness. I get the most out of him when he seems to try the least hard. In spite of how stuffy the fourteen-line structure can feel in other poets' hands, Sonnets to Chris, the 117 sonnets written for his mistress over the course of just six months, seem to mark Berryman at his most relatable, probably because the sonnets expose his humanity amid a torrid extramarital affair he was having at that time. I won't likely be reading the fantasies or children's books of Walter de la Mare. If I read anything more by John Berryman it'll be his much-lauded Dream Songs (and that probably not for several years). These high-flying books have put me in the mood for some very grounded nonfiction.

13 June, 2023


Within a couple of days of D.R. moving into the wing, I got to see the range of this young man's talent and humor. We met when he leaned his lanky frame through the open doorway of the production studio where my coworkers and I had just taped another episode of our in-prison cooking show, THIS IS FIRE. D.R. had been lured away from the basketball court by the smell of a Tex-Mex pizza our host had just made.

"What goes on in here?" D.R. wanted to know. In the dreary, do-nothing environment of prison, the bright lights and big green screen of our studio attract a lot of attention. Clipboard in hand, oversized headphones around my neck, I explained THIS IS FIRE's premise, then summarized the other TV programs that we create and broadcast. "Man," he said, "you're like a real producer!"

He and I ended up talking for a half hour, right then. I learned that D.R. was twenty-three years old about the same age as I was when I came to prison. He was an aspiring rapper from Saint Louis. He showed me, on his tablet, some clips of music videos that feature him rapping about being broke, having personality crises, and living as a young black man in a mad world of biases and belligerence. The kid had bars. I expressed sincere praise.

D.R lived upstairs in my wing. The administration moved him in as part of the mentorship program recently begun here at ERDCC. He was a mentee, a first-time offender who staff believed could benefit from being housed in an honor dorm, undertaking a regimen of self-reflection, and being advised by older prisoners with a good deal of experience doing time. It's weird to think that I now meet the criteria and have been made a mentor. I took a genuine liking to D.R. and spent some time with him, talking about his music, his ideas about living, his dreams, and making TV. He could rap off the cuff as well as write solid rhymes, and was serious about honing his skills. He also had a mischievous streak. As he told jokes, he slung his limbs around with an artless grace that I admired. He laughed freely and often. But I saw anger in him, too. When a guard asked him, more gruffly than necessary, why he was taking two dinner trays at the serving window, D.R. copped an attitude. He could've instead just pointed to the guy on crutches he was helping out. Just as it seemed as if a shouting match would develop, D.R. evidenced some restraint. I told him later that he handled it all right but had enough wherewithal to control his temper better in the future. I knew that involvement with positive activities now could set the stage for his whole sentence. It was all the more important because of the long road that D.R., fresh to prison, now faces. After he and I got better acquainted, I approached my boss to see about inviting D.R. to cohost a show we're developing, The Karaoke Threat, which is basically our answer to Wild'n Out. The boss said yes. I was thrilled to tell D.R. the news. Here was a chance for him to get in at the ground floor and establish himself as a personality with plenty to offer the ERDCC community
an opportunity that, had it come my way, might have changed the whole trajectory of my early years in prison. Like an excited kid, D.R. went around, crowing how he was going to be XSTREAM's first megastar. A couple of days after I introduced him to his cohosts, Luke and Kenny, my XSTREAM teammates, D.R. brought me a crude little illustration of himself onstage with an XSTREAM octopus logo behind him. He couldn't wait. "Just be patient," Luke told him one day. "We're waiting for a couple more people to sign up. Then we'll start taping." D.R. was itching to flaunt his hip-hop chops to the population. Meanwhile, life in the wing was tedious. There's only so much pinochle a guy can play every day before he needs to get out and start doing something. D.R. wanted a job. I advised him to wait until something better came along, but he got antsy. Since the kitchen's always hiring, that's the job he went after, to work the lunch shift. I wanted so badly for D.R. to outshine the image of the angry young black man that some people perceived him as. He could use his talent to such great ends. But when the guards hoisted him off the kitchen's greasy floor and took him to the Hole, D.R.'s first day on the job, any immediate hope for that disappeared.
It's been a week; I still don't know what exactly transpired that afternoon, why the guards used force to restrain him, or what initially sparked the conflict. I might never find out. I do know that we tape Episode One of The Karaoke Threat on Saturday. It won't be nearly as good without D.R. and his freestyling. I hope he's doing okay.