Four Poems by John Brantingham

These for poems by John Brantingham are a part of a sonnet sequence where he tries to remember and understand moments of his life since he began to teach college writing classes in a local prison…
by: John Brantingham
The Return

The geese fly back in March, and when I come
in to work they are perched on a roofline
of the prison staring at me. I take time
to watch them. I never thought of them
as roosting birds, but I know why they’ve returned.
My students are given 12 pieces of white
bread a day, more than most of them want
to choke down, so they feed their avian friends.
The geese come and go as they like, and I
and the guards do too. We’re here to work
although sometimes I feel like a tourist.
Before class, the students mention the geese.
No matter how much they’re fed, geese want more.
They’re outside our window, voicing endless complaints.
Prison Ice Cream Club

A guard tells me that on snowy days like
this some of his prisoners have bad reactions
to K2 and lose basic bodily functions.
He’s had to watch men he loved, men he talks
to everyday go into spasms, collapse,
or die, and somehow it’s worse when it’s cold.
He says spring is lighter. He wishes it would
always be warm, and no prisoner would relapse.
This guard who is 60 years old tells me
that he can’t hold down 20 year-olds anymore,
that sometimes it’s only old guys guarding.
He says he’s started an ice cream club, and he
and the guys gather between shifts, before
they go back. Soon, they’re just eating and laughing.
Talking in Prison about Viktor Frankl Who Is, After All, Dead

My student talks about Frankl who he says was
wise and good, but who is after all dead now,
that Frankl’s ideas might be a good way to go,
but you have to go beyond that always;
our world isn’t Frankl’s. It is shifting.
I think about it a moment, and then
grasping a little, nod slowly to my friend,
and ask if not meaning, then what’s the thing
that we need to get through everything here,
and he watches me a moment and says
I don’t know. Maybe there’s not a word,
and I catch sight of the edge of what’s there
in his mind, and it is beyond me,
out of reach, but big as an endless wood.
After Leaving the Prison for the Day, My Thoughts Wild Themselves

I can hear the geese complaining both
in the prison yard and out in the woods
nearby as I get in my car. I wish I could
see into the yard. I wish I could know
what’s going on in there, but I’m outside
of that world. I just come in a few times
a week to teach. That is a private kind
of place. They’re already watched by enough eyes.
So I think about the geese complaining
in the woods. I leave my windows down
and hear them again as I am driving home.
They’re my chorus today as I’m thinking
about men who are never not watched. Geese point
at my luxury. They scream “shame, shame, shame.”

John Brantingham was Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks’ first poet laureate. His work has been featured in hundreds of magazines. He has twenty-one books of poetry, memoir, and fiction including Life: Orange to Pear (Bamboo Dart Press) and Kitkitdizzi (Bamboo Dart Press). He lives in Jamestown, New York.

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