Gene Fowler lives in Oakland, California. Author of Shaman Songs (Dustbooks), he served five years in San Quentin in the Fifties for armed robbery. He writes, “I became a poet, or thought I did, because of this poem. Got out of San Quentin in September, 1959. . . . Had 3 on parole in front of me. Somehow, I drifted toward post-Beat Berkeley. . . . Everybody was painting or writing . . . and I figured one day I’d write a novel. But not yet. . . . So I wrote some poems, because they were short. One draft, no idea what I was doing. . . . Well, one night in December 63, after a party, wine sour insomnia, I sat down . . . and this thing came. All of it. One draft. Moving at a pace, like good music. And the Muse using what I didn’t know as well as what I did. The next day I read it. Knew it was something of a different order from what I’d been writing. So, I quit the last job, which was falling apart, anyway. Moved to San Fransisco, with about $75 in my pocket. Into a small, basement room. And settled down to learn what poetry was, how it worked.”

 
vivisection

INTRODUCTORY REMARK

One handful of dirt at a time
My mountains slide into my valleys
Overloading the rock mantle.

Some hidden fault yields
Some deep part slides against another
And the outflying waves throw you back.

This is my flesh I speak.

for the human beings held
in San Quentin: 1954-9

 

PROLOGUE

“You have sinned; such
Furies as we know shall
be set upon thee.”
— The Courts
Escape blossomed in the car
Freeway blood and me running down
Some endless, panting ditch; dreams
Die when the other end of the chain
Shrivels, snivels : God — me? Here?

The world singing, spinning, swooping
Through a point at the base of my skull :
To grey. To grey. Just four hours away.
Great stone grey.

                                           Such
Furies as we know shall
                 be set upon thee.

 

I

Ah, half curl and skulk; seventy feet
Tall    the door closes against my back

Crack! My back cracks, my soul swings
On hinges   behind my Death Mask

                                                 a pendulum
Penetrating the infinite steel
               the infinite steel    infinite steel

                                                      steel
                                                Ill; I am empty
My soul swings through infinite steel.
HELP! I bend about my cracked spine
Echo under a vanished

                                                ceiling.

Oh God, where are you? Damned, damned
. . . .

“Strip naked. Strip naked. Strip naked.
Strip. . . .” My legs are skinny; I am cold;
I am empty and naked; “What thin
Partitions” inside from outside divide?
Will I implode or explode? Why do you
Search my empty rectum with your Cosmic
Eye? You will see I am empty
And decide to collapse me, save a cell.
Hang me on your Warden’s wall: an   El Greco
Inmate. “Special exhibit here; came
To us from Hell, angry Hell.” Such
                        Furies as we know shall
                                        be set upon thee.

 

II

No. Why can’t it be a room?
Barred cave without even earth
Or water. Water. Water. Drowned
In parched hope; I still press
My white chest against steel, flat
Infinite steel, Bulge, damn it; bulge
In just one spot: be a cave —
I’ll carve a bison; I’ll color
It with pigments from eyes and bowels.
Let me see     somewhere    out. Let me
Let me

                 see
                          out.

My knee tastes salty. Shaggy beast
Remembering    being a man. Sham.

What peculiar affinity do I feel
For a soul swinging on infinite
Steel. Hinges. Was that nebulous
Food-stuff what made my Now-It

                                                    a man thing?

                                           Such
Furies as we know shall
                 be set upon thee.

 

III

The wind is so cold      blows
From all directions right now.

                                               My fur
Just not thick enough today —
Cold     cold
                             coooold.

If the therapists see my new fangs
They will call me recidivist, lock
Me at the other end of the hall
Past time; I must find and steal
A mask; I must look like a man thing.

The yard is so cold. So cold. I
Must find a mask with a red heart
On the forehead; every man thing
Has a red heart on its forehead.
The red heart bleeds.

                                               Here the blood
Coagulates too fast; but therapists
              laugh, nod knowingly, say “good.”

The mask will cover my fur (I must hide
Shaggy beasts become recidivists.
My eyes are turning red; they burn
The surrounding skull;
My breath is hot.

                                           Such
Furies as we know shall
                 be set upon thee.

 

IV

Dark. The cell is black dark
The tier lights gone with the storm.

The guards are teleologically afraid
Yellow bug in the chaos. They

Would call for man things if they dared.
Guards have no hearts on their foreheads.

They are beasts. Not shaggy beasts
Like me. They whine; their eyes run

All over. They are hungry beasts.
They hate man things   but lick them.

They bite my heels; I can’t walk;
I slip in my blood, forget in the pain.

The lights are all out.
Escape!

I cry to be naked in the storm.


                                                RAIN
           run over my nose

                                                MUD
           caress my loins

           run to explode my legs

God, let me smell my soul   wet,
Clean from my fetid sweat, Such

Furies as we know shall
                be set upon thee.

 

V

Stone and steel many foetus womb
Honeycombe    we are “encased in infinite
Array.” Listen to the beehive drone
Of us: Ha, we are a huge hum of hubris.
We buzz.

                       Our sound swirls; then, one
Is loud against the others, one bee thing
                                          alone

A bee thing smashes his body
Against the blood washed edges of his cell

Thinking he is the daughter he smashed against
The dim wall of another cell     private     past.

                                                     This time
He smashes himself against man’s unyielding
    beeswax. He dies. Again. Again. Again.

*

Music hour. The cacaphony of musical
Catharsis starts. The buzz is gone   replaced:
A mad myriad tongued voice makes a requiem

For the red and white thing carried off.

My stomach hurts. Such
   Furies as we know shall
                    be set upon thee.

 

VI

We sit in a long line
Beneath a frowning future that hates
Us. Inside is The Board.
They devour us one by one and spit
Out the chewed carcass that walks
Away with chunks
Gouged out of it.

They kill us each year; I have been
Killed twice before. Once last year
Once the year just before last year.
Each year they kill me a different way.
Maybe this year they will decide I
Have been killed enough times. Killed
Enough times.         Such
Furies as we know shall
                 be set upon thee.

 

VII

Once I was a little boy
Who leaned against a tree and cried
Because I had to go to school

The blanket is rough; the earphones
Just died.

                       Stopped telling me
Man things are still in the world.

It is quiet and once I was a boy.
Once I was a man thing, too. Now
I listen to feet on the tier above.
The feet are counting us one by one.
A tiny window lies distant across a chasm.

In it lies a tiny moon
The moon I knew as a little boy  but
grown small somehow    a model moon.

If they find it, they will collapse it
Hang it on the Warden’s wall beside
An El Greco inmate. Such
     Furies as we know shall
                     be set upon thee.

 

VIII

Domino players on the yard
Lined on the tables: wooden faces
With white and black eyes — players
And pieces alike without expression.

Rain comes; it is whipped around
The tables and under:

                                                  an angry wind
          A dervish mystically dancing pain.

Domino players on the yard
Don’t see the rain; their ritual
Belongs to a God of the servo mechanism.

      My coat is thin, tugged about blue
      Ears. Click. Click. Click.
      Domino players on the yard
      Lined on the tables. Such
          Furies as we know shall
                           be set upon thee.

 

IX

There never is another body
In my bed. Why can’t the lovers
Of my fevered dreams be solid:
Solid enough to touch me in love?
I hurt
              with the rigid need.
All those inappropriate needs rise
Leap like ghosts to haunt my soul.

Is man after all a pre-set pattern
of responses

                             robbed of meaning
When the glow of flesh comes? Emotion cries

Empty in the night. The dark is sexual.
But the lovers are all ghosts; they melt
In my fevered grasp and leave me cold:
“A black sheep with a crumpled horn.”

                                          Such
Furies as we know shall
                 be set upon thee.

 

X

Jute Mill. Jute Mill. Jute Mill.
4500 Voltaires burned the god damned Jute Mill.
Down. Down. Down. Down in the fiery dawn.

Oh ho! Authority has built a super steel
Monstrous. Stubborn. INFINITE Jute Mill.

It’s fire proof. Love proof. Life proof.
IT EATS US. IT EATS US. IT EATS US.

It eats us.                    Such
Furies as we know shall
                 be set upon thee.

 

XI

My knee tastes salty. Steel wall
Against my side tastes acid    cold.

                                              Knee, buttock,
Shoulder, ear. Touch this shaggy beast.

We denizens darken and somehow dream:
                        I squat among my clothes
                        Before the fire; fire’s tongues
                        Echo among the ruins; Night
                        Laughs; still I decode
                        Dead concepts, tracing formal
                        Symbols forever to know
                        A dead man. I see no sign
                        Of his world. Do not know him.

Morning light falls dead on the tier.
We stand to the bars — dream only of food.
Forgotten, the paleontological task and
Night fade and are lost; every morning
The task is lost.       Such
Furies as we know shall
                 be set upon thee.

 

XII

Have they killed me again? Or will I
Get my time? Finish your one by one count.

                                             Have mail call
And give me my notice of life or death.

At the bars: I am a leper looking into a
                                              mirror.

Will my evil show? Will the House of Lazarus
Disgorge me? Where is your dream Walt Whitman?

                                                Will I taste in a week,
A month, a quarter      the sweet juices of your
Rich grasses?

Have mail call: give me my notice of life or death.

Please let me breathe. Such

Furies as we know shall
                 be set upon thee.

And you will wait
To know the sight of their faces

                                           Such
Furies as we know shall
                 be set upon thee.

 

XIII

Two months passed     one month more.
Two months since they told me what prize
I might lose in one minute. A hundred
And twenty nine thousand and six hundred
Minutes of terror. Now only forty three
Thousand and two hundred more to sweat.

Each drop of sweat plots its track
Leaving a livid snake scar where it runs.

I am criss crossed with down turning
Trails of acid sweat. Such
    Furies as we know shall
                     be set upon thee.

 

XIV

Ah        I am beautiful

                                               today.

                                                             What colors

In this new skin wrapped about my dead soul.

Today I go to heaven. Judgement is passed.
But I fear heaven more than I feared judgment.

                             I AM AFRAID

My bladder runneth over   almost. I will die
                        when first I see that light.

I cannot live out there. I AM AFRAID.
I remember four years and nine months ago.
I remember Authority, its face bruised with guilt.


                                                          “You have sinned; such
                                                         Furies as we know shall
                                                                       be set upon thee.”

 

Copyright 1971 by Gene Fowler