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- PEN America Prison Writing Award Winners: 2022
Variations on an Undisclosed Location
Alex Tretbar was awarded 1st Place in Poetry in the 2022 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.
wasn’t. All of the other & inward
voices came out: my neighbor
summoned summer with his absent eye
-tooth: perfect mimic
of a lost-in-basement cricket. I carved Lou
Reed lyrics into my concrete rhomboid
exoskeleton. I found a letter toothpasted
to the ceiling claiming
I had written it. I responded:
Dear Alex, dear paper, dear ceiling
I know you’ve been confused
since figuring out adulthood
is just a bead curtain you part
like hair before the yearbook picture, but I tore
the letter to twigs. The ensuing fire
clarified things: the vague & desperate
runes charged with protecting
past tenants. The hundred
I wuz heres. You’d think
every human who walked
the earth was born in that room
the way it trembled
with scuttled memories
some of which I recognized.
In addition to archaeology
solitaire with breadcrumbs,
brushes with psychosis.
And sometimes I forgot my name
was also a word:
But now in this hour of our
lord h two oh black snow
comets down in a mute staccato
duet with bardo HVAC. The ants
I pretend to command haul grief
over nightlight years & colonize
the future where Super
Bowls will be held on Ash
Wednesday. If I find a stone
-shaped hollow in the mind’s eye’s
self-portrait I’ll plant
an amethyst there in hope
the Greek root rings
true: “not drunken.”
I offer alms of nectar to the mirror, say:
Beauty’s in the eye of the bee.
Beneath a bare tree
in a straitjacket of wind
I mouth sweet nebula of the winter
orange’s heart, which is its body.
I trace the fine line in the snowdust
between dysphoria & his dead
I reject the djinn’s three wishes
& all bad magicks
but palm the planet when
God isn’t looking.
I echolocate audible manna
in the brown recluse’s heirloom
violin. I sing said
manna to the expectant
showerhead’s teared-up eyes.
I seek an audience with deposed
& extinguished species, myself
a dumbstruck hummingbird pinned
between two panes of air.
in silos, syringes,
sickness for the sake
of getting well again.
I am a word, of or relating to
what tries to turn around but can’t
stop turning, dizzy dervish.
I demand the panopticon crown
my oatmeal with an orchid.
I deny my body
bread sugar heroin
& die over spilt milk
But if the milk spills
into my lungs
I alchemize it
When I remember my name
is also a word, the smell of pulped
wheat grass rises like a green moon
from things I forget to do.
Did you know that omens
come in odors?
Where was the fragrant
timber of jacaranda when
I needed it? Described
in a book. When did flowers become
my primary weapons? Second grade:
the judge pronounced it perry
winkle so I lost the spelling
bee. Downmountain since then & now
in one particular corner of my tripolar I
pile up philosophical
proofs & conclude
Pound was right:
no one who’s lived in prison should believe
in cages for beasts. This is
the cell where I argued with my cell
-ie about the weather
silence is audible. I think you know where
I stand in that arena. This is the cell
where I argued that Black
people don’t deserve enslavement, the cell
where I barely balance
standard labwork she said
I told her I knew
a better place she smiled
& somehow her smile was reflected
in her needle
trust me it won’t hurt
a bit & it didn’t but
the lack of red plume
augured a miss okay let’s
try this one more time which turned
& then moved on
to the other arm. her eyes
on the elbow crooks
as though she might find
my soul there & solve
finally she asked where
is this better place
I showed her
a valley between scars
& when she
thumbed it she whispered
so you are alive
[a combined excision of Shakespeare’s sonnets and the EOCI Inmate Orientation Manual]
When the maiden closed in 1984,
the state reviewed several potential uses
for the maiden, including use of the maiden
as a grain elevator or a shopping center.
It was finally decided to use the maiden
as a medium-security state prison—
the first such maiden outside
the Willamette Valley.
Today, the maiden houses about 1,700
fires, a crisis, and a target
on your back. Because the maiden’s
doctorlike walls can’t support a swan,
you must practice love
To ensure prompt & orderly apology,
shots are required.
Flowers are available 24 hours a day.
If a medical emergency arises,
If you don’t cause a change
to your appearance,
you will be issued
a permanent sea.
Loss or destruction of your beauty
will be used to direct your progress
here at the maiden. If you have been
mistakenly identified as a stone,
if your world goes up in honey,
you will be subject to ornament.
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Purchase the collection of all winning works in Variations on an Undisclosed Location: 2022 Prison Writing Awards Anthology here.