Women's Prison Every Week

Lockers, metal detectors, steel doors, C.O.
to C.O., different forms, desks—mouth open, turn—so
slow I use the time to practice patience,
grace, tenderness for glassed-in guards. The rules
recited as if they were the same rules every week:
I can wear earrings. I cannot wear earrings. I can wear
my hair up. I cannot wear my hair up. I dressed
by rote: cords in blue or brown, grey turtleneck, black
clogs. The prisoners, all in grey sweatshirts, blue jeans,
joked I looked like them, fit in. I didn’t think about it,
until I dreamed of being shuffled in, locked
up in there, hustled through the heavy doors.
In the dream the guards just shook their heads, smirked
when I spelled my name, shook the freezing bars.
Instead of nightly escorts out, I’d stay in there
forever. Who would know? So I went to Goodwill,
spent ten bucks on pink angora, walked back down those halls
a movie star. When I stood at the front of the class
there rose a sharp collective sigh. The one
who said she never heard of pandering
until the arraignment said OK, I’m going
to tell her.
Then she told me: freedom is wasted
on women like me. They hate the dark cotton, jeans
they have to wear, each one a shadow of the other
their whole sentence. You could wear red! she accused.
Their favorite dresses, silk slips, wool socks all long gone,
bagged up for sisters, moms—maybe Goodwill,
maybe I flicked past them looking for this cotton candy pink
angora cardigan, pearl buttons. They can’t stop staring, so
I take it off and pass it around, let each woman hold it
in her arms, appraise the wool between her fingers,
a familiar gesture, second nature, from another world.

Jill McDonough teaches incarcerated college students through Boston University’s Prison Education Program;  her poems appear in The Threepenny Review, Poetry, The New Republic, Slate, and elsewhere.  Her first book, Habeas Corpus (2008), is a collection of 50 sonnets, each one about a legal execution in American history. The winner of a Pushcart Prize and fellowships from the NEA, the Fine Arts Work Center, Stanford’s Stegner Program, and the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers, McDonough is a 2010 Witter Bynner Fellow at the Library of Congress, and always looking for work.  She blogs at www.jailnotyale.blogspot.com (jilljill@bu.edu)

Boxcar Poetry Review - ISSN 1931-1761