Matthew Mendoza was awarded First Place in Poetry in the 2018 Prison Writing Contest.

Every year, hundreds of imprisoned people from around the country submit poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and dramatic works to PEN America’s Prison Writing Contest, one of the few outlets of free expression for the country’s incarcerated population. On September 13, PEN America will celebrate the winners of this year’s contest with a live reading at the Brooklyn Book Festival, Break Out: Voices from the Inside.

Grace Notes

If there is a place of grace
It is not here
Beside this seasonal stream.
The water does all the things
That water does—
Burble, trickle, rush and roar
Like the moments of our days become lives
Wearing us smooth.
We are not river stones.
There is no grace here.
This is just water.
Just like food is not love
And washing your hands
Of the heart’s stains is just a myth.
Forgiveness does not flow like water.

It’s fall. It’s always fall now.
Leaves are not hands.
Still I read their palms.
My fingers drift along
The frame of the still leaf.
I tell the leaf,
Sometimes you are outgoing.
Sometimes you are wary.
You find it scary to reveal too much.
The trees share decades
But their leaves are short-lived.
Forgotten moments
Frozen in an orange fire.

I practice forgiveness and gratitude
And mumble a jumbled prayer
As I set the leaf sail.
I follow the glassed glide
Of its early journey.
Then, as I stumble over
Dirt, beer cans, condoms
This becomes a mirror of my own life.
The stem, like dreams,
Make an impotent rudder.
The leaf drifts past a rock.
As my leaf circles
In the eddy of a near miss
A boulder becomes a matter of perspective.

My own hurt becomes the stream.
My pain wearing smooth
The lives of people I love.
I watch the leaf
Circle, circle sink.
I go back to the place I started
And find another leaf.
If this one sinks
I’ll find another.
I know that this stream is not
Or goodness
Or grace
But it is only water I have.