Thursday, April 18, 2019

30 Great Poems for April, Day 18: “Invoking the Muse in Cell Block B” by Nancy Miller Gomez

Read “Invoking the Muse in Cell Block B” in the literary journal Rattle here.

This poem is from Nancy Miller Gomez’s chapbook Punishment, which won the Rattle chapbook prize* last year and details her life teaching writing workshops in prisons. When I got the chapbook in the mail, I had some trepidation, expecting it to be relentlessly grim. But while the book is powerful (as this poem is) all the way through, Gomez has such a deft touch that she can show you facets of the experience you never expected to see—images like the “Doppler shift of footsteps / as guards come and go, their shapeless voices rising / and falling in the halls.” Or that “greenish paint slopped onto cinderblock / so thick it looks like molded cheese.” Sights, sounds, smells—she really puts you in these places, distracted by the details as if you’re sitting there with her. And the people she’s teaching are, well…people. Flawed, vulnerable, sometimes funny. Not monolithic, which, I think, is one of the points she subtly makes.

I particularly like the way she doesn’t try to end the story in this poem; she’s doesn’t look for closure when describing the men in her workshop and the painful circumstances that brought them here: “Each scar provides its own dark facts. / What if the thesis is a bottle smashed / on a body? What if the body / can’t grow wings?” She knows better than to try to tell their tales or predict how their lives might turn out; she’s really just telling her own story of what this world looks like, specifically to her. 

This poem, and others in the book, walk up to that distasteful line that some poems of witness violate—the line of appropriating other people’s stories, mining them for emotion that is second- or third-hand and shouldn’t have been borrowed in the first place. But this poem and this book don’t cross that line. As the reader, you never forget that this writer is a stranger in this land, and that she gets to leave it whenever she wants, and she knows that that privilege sets her apart. And yet we’re not clubbed with that message; the message is embedded, along with a bounty of humanity, in these remarkably graceful poems.

* A tough feat, since that contest gets more than 1,500 chapbook manuscripts submitted each year. I lost again this year and am in good company.

[All through April, I’m featuring a favorite poem every day, along with a link where you can read it. Some are classics, some are newer, but each one is the kind of poem that I read, love, and immediately want to tell all my friends about. What better to time to share them than National Poetry Month?]

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