Every so often, I'll be featuring a new poem, my thoughts on the work, and a conversation with the poet. I hope you'll enjoy and come back again for the next installation!
This week's poem from:
From the Inside Out: Sonnets
By Brian Daldorph
He needs this cell. It was getting cold
out there and he’d done all the drugs he could buy.
It was either jail or die.
Sometimes he thinks he’s getting too old
for this shit, but it’s too late to start over
with some sweet-eyed lover
who says, “You and only you are the man I love.”
He’d be late for his wedding again,
and what woman would choose a man with a cracked brain?
He sees the young punks in here scared
about what they’ve gotten into, not
the cocky kids they were on the street who dared
to run faster than the cops. He ended up in this cell
where it’s warm enough. And three hot meals.
“Most men lead lives of quiet desperation”
Henry David Thoreau
Brian Daldorph’s book of “From the Inside Out: Sonnets” utilizes many variations of the sonnet form. The sonnet form seems particularly appropriate for “Fall” and the other poems which are set in a jail cell. The poem, like the subject, must make do with a limited amount of space and breathing room. In the condensed lines we learn a great deal about the inhabitant of the cell: a sketch portrait in minimum of a habitual drug user, with a knotty life story at last taking ownership of his past actions. This is a poem of a man whose quite desperation has led him to an almost unthinkably constrained life.
In “Fall,” the tight construction of the sonnet requires a compression of the narrative but Daldorph manages, with some carefully selected modifiers, to imply quite a bit of the character’s back-story. One of the appealing aspects of this sonnet is the poet’s use of eye or sight rhyme that helps to reinforce the subject matter through the form: things are not always how they look. The reader doesn’t always get what he or she expects the form to provide, especially when the sonnet is read aloud.
Restraint might be the best adjective to describe the narrator’s approach; in looking quietly, Daldorph manages to fill the poem with an intensity of implied emotion. It would be easy to treat the convict with disdain for his ruined life, but somehow this portrayal is more sympathetic than one might expect. The sympathetic view succeeds in this poem because it is not didactic, the constrained form of the sonnet helps the poet to hold the emotional rein in check and prevent the all too easy slide into moralizing. One way the narrator builds this sympathy is through the contrast between the older inmate and the “young punks.” This portrayal shows the subject recognizing his younger self in the youth who aren’t so cocky now on the “inside.” The regret, although implied, is clear.
The way the inmate acknowledges his own faults and misgivings allows the reader a glimpse at how tenuous our civilized lives are and how difficult life must be when through addiction and poor choices the last way to provide food and shelter also means paying with one’s freedom. As Henry David Thoreau stated, “the cost of a thing it will be remembered is the amount of life it requires to be exchanged for it.” The cost for the inmate seems terribly high.
Q & A with Poet Brian Daldorph
Q: I’m interested in hearing about your work in the Douglas County Jail. How did you become a poet in the jailhouse? How has that influenced your work?
Brian Daldorph: I've been working at Douglas County Jail since 2001. Years go by! Two of my colleagues in the English Dept set up the program, and when they left, I took over. I've had many different teaching experiences in my career, including teaching in Japan and Senegal, but my jail teaching's been my best experience of all. It's endlessly exciting to see that the art form I love can bring so much to people in dire circumstances. I've learnt so much from my long commitment to jail work. My new book, Jail Time, is about my teaching there, and some of the people I've met.
Q: The speaker’s point of view in this poem is sympathetic in the manner it catalogs the inmate’s losses and lost opportunities. And there are so many hints towards a back-story that this poem feels like it might be a condensed version of a story. How did this poem come to be?
Brian Daldorph: This jail poem is really an amalgam of stories and characters from the jail. True of many of the poems. This is the artistic element, really. To take the raw material and try to transform it into something coherent, more than the sum of its parts.
Q: The photographs at the section breaks in your book show a ruined world that is fascinating in its decay; are you the photographer as well? Is your writing particularly inspired by the visual arts?
Brian Daldorph: These photographs are by my exceptionally talented former student, Matt Porubsky. (I collaborate with him in a number of different ways). I asked him for photographs that caught the mood of the poems rather than intentionally illustrated them, and these are the haunting poems he produced, visual poems really.
Q: For you, what are some of the advantages and disadvantages of the sonnet form?
Brian Daldorph: The title of my book, From the Inside Out: Sonnets, has several ideas. My idea about writing sonnets is that if you work with the form consistently, which I did, writing hundreds of sonnets over a 6 to 8 year period, then you can internalize the form and write out from the form rather than writing into it as though it's set out in front of you. I love the strong form of the sonnet, how it intensifies language, yet the poet can push against it and make use of it in any number of ways.
One more point I'd like to add: Jail Time published by Original Plus (England) and I'm very pleased with it. I think it catches a lot of what I've experienced with my jail teaching over the years. (purchase information: Jail Time)
I liked what Mike Caron had to say about Jail Time and it seems and apt description of “Fall” as well:
"What these poems do provide is something akin to dispatches from a nearby place we are far too conditioned to see as a foreign country. If we pay attention to Brian’s poems we may discover the inhabitants of that place are not so alien as we imagined. The distance is really not that great."
--Mike Caron, Programs Supervisor, Douglas County Jail
Three More Poems to Note:
Brian Daldorph teaches creative writing, literature, and writing at the University of Kansas. He has also taught in Japan, Senegal, England, Zambia, and the Douglas County Jail. Two books of his poems, The Holocaust and Hiroshima: Poems, and Outcasts, were published by Mid-America Press. Jail Time, a collection of poems written about his writing class at the Douglas County Jail, was published in April of this year.
For more about this poet see his page at Kansas Poets .
Purchase Information: Woodley Press and elsewhere on the web.
Brian also has an upcoming reading:
TWP POETRY READING SERIES @ THE JOHNSON COUNTY LIBRARY Tuesday, October 20, 2009 - 7:00 pmJohnson County Public Library, 9875 W. 87th, Overland Park, KSPoets Brian Daldorph and Bill Bauer. Brian Daldorph, teacher at the University of Kansas and Douglas County Jail, edits Coal City Review. Bill Bauer's Pear Season and The Boy Who Ate Dandelions, published by Mid-America Press, was selected by The Kansas City Star as one of its most noteworthy books of 2006.
Upcoming on Pages Rustle: work from Tim Mayo’s The Kingdom of Possibilities.