Jason Centrone was awarded first place in Poetry in the 2020 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.

This piece is also featured in Breathe Into the Ground, the 2020 Prison Writing Awards Anthology.


Writing is a sooty gem
-cut lavender glass knob that should have opened something by now but it hasn’t—a skeleton key—

A skeleton key is certainly interred—lost in a bed of cream soda bottle caps I’m guessing—from Summers at the farm—before the fire—when a hayride could—

When a hayride could draw life in close enough to kiss—the sweetness is—a feather cap along the bare back of memory whose tickle marshals so great an arch—those times that were—

Those times that were come curling ‘ round—traverse a circle—forge a tributary to—these times that are when

Writing is a scorched to black cobblestone foundation that should be supporting something by now but it’s not—what little sentiments emerge—oh, ephemera mostly—slight ringing in the sudden silence—that tingling head-to-toe—

That tingling or the tractor fumes—buoyant and a bit slow to go—still—the briefest souvenirs—all traverse a circle—meaning one more ride won’t bring us ‘round—

Meaning one last ride won’t bring us ‘round but to where we started—to whatever comfort there survives—same old country lane—same lumbering bale-laden flatbed—it’ s not hay at all—

It’s never hay but the straw for every stable and the palomino, why she even has your name—oh, whose bottle is whose, but the very nature of thralldom keeps so much as a swig missing from my own—ease you down—brush you off while the ribbon—

Crouch to let you on while the ribbon—

Waltz you piggyback along while the final ribbon of tired laughter seals the circle—whoa—the ground feels like it’s moving but it’ s not—our horizon quietly stretches ever out of reach and no amount of writing seems to draw it any closer—

Further Reading

Illustrations by Students at Parsons School of Design