Jail Poems

Bob Kaufman

I am sitting in a cell with a view of evil parallels,
Waiting thunder to splinter me into a thousand me's.
It is not enough to be in one cage with one self;
I want to sit opposite every prisoner in every hole.
Doors roll and bang, every slam a finality, bang!
The junkie disappeared into a red noise, stoning out his hell.
The odored wino congratulates himself on not smoking,
Fingerprints left lying on black inky gravestones,
Noises of pain seeping through steel walls crashing
Reach my own hurt. I become part of someone forever.
Wild accents of criminals are sweeter to me than hum of cops,
Busy battening down hatches of human souls; cargo
Destined for ports of accusations, harbors of guilt.
What do policemen eat, Socrates, still prisoner, old one?

Painter, paint me a crazy jail, mad water-color cells.
Poet, how old is suffering? Write it in yellow lead.
God, make me a sky on my glass ceiling. I need stars now,
To lead through this atmosphere of shrieks and private hells,
Entrances and exits, in . . . out . . . up . . . down, the civic seesaw.
Here — me — now — always here somehow.

In a universe of cells—who is not in jail? Jailers.
In a world of hospitals—who is not sick? Doctors.
A golden sardine is swimming in my head.
Oh we know some things, man, about some things
Like jazz and jails and God.
Saturday is a good day to go to jail.

Now they give a new form, quivering jelly-like,
That proves any boy can be president of Muscatel.
They are mad at him because he's one of Them.
Gray-speckled unplanned nakedness; stinking
Fingers grasping toilet bowl. Mr. America wants to bathe.
Look! On the floor, lying across America's face—
A real movie star featured in a million newsreels.
What am I doing—feeling compassion?
When he comes out of it, he will help kill me.
He probably hates living.

Nuts, skin bolts, clanking in his stomach, scrambled.
His society's gone to pieces in his belly, bloated.
See the great American windmill, tilting at itself,
Good solid stock, the kind that made America drunk.
Success written all over his street-streaked ass.
Successful-type success, forty home runs in one inning.
Stop suffering, Jack, you can't fool us. We know.
This is the greatest country in the world, ain't it?
He didn't make it. Wino in Cell 3.

There have been too many years in this short span of mine.
My soul demands a cave of its own, like the Jain god;
Yet I must make it go on, hard like jazz, glowing
In this dark plastic jungle, land of long night, chilled.
My navel is a button to push when I want inside out.
Am I not more than a mass of entrails and rough tissue?
Must I break my bones? Drink my wine-diluted blood?
Should I dredge old sadness from my chest?
Not again,
All those ancient balls of fire, hotly swallowed, let them lie.
Let me spit breath mists of introspection, bits of me,
So that when I am gone, I shall be in the air.

Someone whom I am is no one.
Something I have done is nothing.
Someplace I have been is nowhere.
I am not me.
What of the answers
I must find questions for?
All these strange streets
I must find cities for,
Thank God for beatniks.

All night the stink of rotting people,
Fumes rising from pyres of live men,
Fill my nose with gassy disgust,
Drown my exposed eyes in tears.

Traveling God salesmen, bursting my ear drum
With the dullest part of a good sexy book,
Impatient for Monday and adding machines.

Yellow-eyed dogs whistling in evening.

The baby came to jail today.

One more day to hell, filled with floating glands.

The jail, a huge hollow metal cube
Hanging from the moon by a silver chain.
Someday Johnny Appleseed is going to chop it down.

Three long strings of light
Braided into a ray.

I am apprehensive about my future;
My past has turned its back on me.

Shadows I see, forming on the wall,
Pictures of desires protected from my own eyes.

After spending all night constructing a dream,
Morning came and blinded me with light.
Now I seek among mountains of crushed eggshells
For the God damned dream I never wanted.

Sitting here writing things on paper,
Instead of sticking the pencil into the air.

The Battle of Monumental Failures raging,
Both hoping for a good clean loss.

Now I see the night, silently overwhelming day.

Caught in imaginary webs of conscience,
I weep over my acts, yet believe.

Cities should be built on one side of the street.

People who can't cast shadows
Never die of freckles.

The end always comes last.

We sat at a corner table,
Devouring each other word by word,
Until nothing was left, repulsive skeletons.

I sit here writing, not daring to stop,
For fear of seeing what's outside my head.

There, Jesus, didn't hurt a bit, did it?

I am afraid to follow my flesh over those narrow
Wide hard soft female beds, but I do.

Link by link, we forged the chain.
Then, discovering the end around our necks,
We bugged out.

I have never seen a wild poetic loaf of bread,
But if I did, I would eat it, crust and all.

From how many years away does a baby come?

Universality, duality, totality . . . .one.

The defective on the floor, mumbling,
Was once a man who shouted across tables.

Come, help flatten a raindrop.

Written in San Francisco City Prison
Cell 3, 1959

Last updated December 15, 2022