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.”
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
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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