Free As A Bird

The breaking sun flashes
Off the razor wire
That slinks around
The edge of the prison yard
Like a crown of thorns.

The inmate begins his lifework,
Searching laconically for any
Undisciplined scrap of paper
That defies the order
Of the close-clipped commons.

He wishes his wish that the
Arm he uses to pinch papers
Could telescope beyond
The silver snake whose coils
Squeeze the lifebreath from his every day,
And grab some green growing branch,
Some gene of a promise
That life goes on on the other side.

A strident scree splits the silence,
And a white dove flashes into mind
Disguised as a solitary seagull.
He watches it wheel and wills it
To be mail call from the free world.
It lands not far from him
And birdwalks coyly closer
While he smiles appreciatively.
His smile flips as he figures out the bird
Wants something in return
But he has nothing.
He curses loudly and the seagull
Takes exception and takes flight.
The inmate follows its flight, and
“Free as a bird” flashes through his head.
“Free as a bird,”
And he vows that next time
He will have something to trade
For the feel of freedom.


Another day, another day.
He lies in waiting, denying anything more,
Afraid to be gulled by childish expectations.
Yet his pocket carries contraband,
Bread from the chow hall,
Staff of life to trade for
A sign of life.

Breezy morning and a single bird
Sails high above,
But its boomerang wings bend
To bring it back to earth.
The inmate’s spirit soars
As the solitary seagull settles to earth
The inmate, inured to deference
To those who can leave,
Waits for the bird to accept him.
He tosses bread, and
The bird runs to snatch it and retreats,
Snatches and retreats,
While the tosses get closer and closer.
The inmate holds the last piece
And tries to approach the bird,
To whom everyone is suspect,
And the seagull flies.
Its wing flaps familiar slaps
Of blind justice to the inmates’ soul.
“He’ll be back,”
The inmate says to himself,
Nevertheless.
He knows the allure of
Danger and the deal.

The solitary seagull comes again,
Takes the bread, takes flight,
And comes again.
Then, indistinguishable others come,
And they become a flock.
Other inmates join the feeding frenzy,
Amused at first, but
Before long bored.
The birds, however, refuse to leave.
Scatter when challenges,
But refuse to leave.

“Trap ‘em live,” one expert says,
“And take ‘em someplace else.”
“That won’t work, they’ll just come back,”
Another authority objects:
“You gotta poison ‘em, kill ’em dead,
And then your problem’s solved.”
They argue the point, back and forth,
Back and forth.
And then an inmate says,
“If you take away the reason they come,
They probably won’t come back.”
The authorities try the last thing first,
And despite the common source
Uncommon sense prevails.
The order goes out:
“Don’t feed the birds!”

Enforced by bird shit on the walks
And on an occasional head,
The order serves its purpose
The birds are starved out
And fly away--
Down to the last solitary one.

The inmate hears a flock of geese
Honking overhead, and
He looks up briefly to check
Which direction is north.
Then he turns back to the ground
And his work.

Chris Brockman

Views: 16

Replies to This Discussion

I'm curious to know your motivation for this poem.
I teach college classes at a federal prison complex. One of the prisons has had a flock of seagulls in its compound of late, and I just HAD TO WRITE a poem about it. By the way, did you see Bill Moyers Journal last night? If you didn't, try to watch it (maybe online?). I'd like to hear your coments on it.
I did not. I just looked it up. I suppose you mean the prison segment?
That for sure, but its the premise of the whole thing about what's going on in cites and the underclass in our country. My students have been talking about this stuff as truth for a long time.
So you're talking about the segement with the crime show writer? That is posted in video format.
Well, it looks like that segment isn't posted for viewing, for some reason. I would agree that the number of people we have imprisoned is an issue, but to be honest, it is not something that is really on my radar screen at this time, with so many issues I try to deal with now.
That's it, David Simon. I'm not sure how you make it work, either, but it's worth listening to or even reading the transcript, which is available. Prison is an interesting place to visit; it says at least as much about American society as it does about the prisoners. Are you aware of Michael Santos's book about prison? He also has a blog now, and he's still in!
I can understand if you're not interested in things about prison, but I still go there five days a week, and I'm very aware of some glaring needs for reform.
I am not aware of Santos' book. I bet you do see things that need to be reformed, since you see it every day.

I'm not too interested in that topic, though I did watch a documentary a few months ago about a prison that put on Shakespeare's The Tempest. It was moderately interesting.

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