with critique by Jendi Reiter
"Get in. Come on. Move it!" The urgent tone of guards,
Sparks a volley of abuse, and lights the shortened fuse,
From prisoners soft and hard.
Our prison van moves off, It's human cargo seated
With toughened hides, we sway and slide,
On seats of steel—butt heated.
Some sit silent, some converse, some talk of sentences far worse.
While I am frightened, others scorn, some make fun, some look forlorn.
Each one is tagged: "Society's curse."
We dwell upon our morbid fate, our future home ahead:
Our enemies, and mental state, the prison staff, the bars, the gates—
...A place of living dead.
Then huge steel gates, like giant Jaws, swing open at our sight
Then swiftly they enclose their prey, before the darkness swamps the day,
And some give thought to flight.
Heads down we shuffle from the van, in single line we go.
Names are called, numbers given, no offence is deemed forgiven,
and then the nudist show!
Naked and bent over, our rear ends are displayed,
and inspected for the drugs they bring, and many an unlawful thing,
inserted in that way.
They march us off in single line, to yellow-lighted cells,
Where sweat & odours fill the air, and peep-holed doors have eyes that stare,
And mouths that yell & yell.
A talking door with puckered mouth, whispers for a smoke,
And sneakily I offer one: the guard explodes and spoils my fun,
... The Con thinks it’s a joke.
Then comes the clash of steel on steel, as my cell is unlocked.
I see a bed but little more: a toilet pan, a stony floor.
The walls close in and mock.
The lonely cell exudes, a heightened sense of woe.
Barred windows cast their shadows in, reminding me that crime can't win,
And youth is my real foe.
Dazed, I sit and contemplate, my thoughts escape the bars.
I dream of things that could have been, of sights and sounds that are unseen,
of women and fast cars.
As darkness falls, I hear the steps of guards that walk on by,v
The jangle of their keys resound, and echo through the prison ground,
And slap against their thighs.
The clang and squeak of opened cells, announce the morning's noise.
My eyes are jolted wide awake...I give my head a final shake...
Breathe deep to regain poise.
Tier upon tier of human flesh, like ants descend on down,
My feet clang on the catwalk, my ears feed on the small talk,
The violent wear the crown.
In shower blocks the weak look scared, afraid of being groped.
My soap brings forth a crimson flood, that looks suspiciously like blood,
…A blade is in my soap!
Then someone grabs and mauls me, you can't believe the fear.
I scream, I punch, and then I kick, I feel so helpless and so sick.
No one to help me here
In fear I grab an offered knife; though weak and short of breath,
I strike until I make a kill, then dazed they march me to a cell,
And charge me with the death.
It was cold and awful damp when my body hit the floor,
And I felt the hot tears drop, and I wept and couldn't stop,
Though I'd never cried before.
Then blood-guilt came in horror waves, condemning all I'd done,
Hell flashed before my sleepless eyes; I agonised with sobs and sighs,
And cried out to God’s Son.
"I don't deserve your mercy, Lord, do with me what You will."
The anguish almost crushed my heart, I felt like someone torn apart,
How could I maim and kill?
A voice inside said: "Peace, be still. My blood was shed for you.
I died the death that you deserve, and I forgive without reserve,
My peace I leave with you."
Next morning when they saw me; they marveled at the sight:
For there I was, down on my knees, cleansed of sins that tortured me,
My face was bathed with light.
Yes, even though I'm still in jail, the jail is not in me,
My chains have all been snapped, Jesus Christ has borne my rap,
And I have been "Set Free"
Copyright 2003 by Barry Goode
Critique by Jendi Reiter
Barry Goode's "Set Free" is a compelling prison ballad that reminds me of the songs of Johnny Cash. The swift-moving rhythm and rhyme propel the story along. I especially like the interior rhymes within the second line of each stanza, and the fact that each stanza ends on a shorter, punchy line. These choices add variety to the sound of the poem. However, Goode should revise the third stanza to bring it into line with the pattern he has chosen. The first and third lines are too long. For instance, consider changing the last line to "Each tagged: Society's curse" to eliminate extra syllables.
The poet Edwin Arlington Robinson (1869-1935) was a master of this type of melodramatic story-poem, a genre that nowadays has taken a back seat to the modernist free-verse lyric. Read Robinson's poems at Bartleby.
The strong point of "Set Free" is its detailed evocation of prison life. Goode takes the reader through the gamut of emotions experienced by these imprisoned men: sullenness, humiliation, escapist fantasy, the violence of caged animals turning against one another, and finally contrition. The stanza beginning "Tier upon tier" is especially powerful, in terms of both imagery and sound.
The poem brings to life the prison's nightmarish daily routine, showing how the prisoners' cruelty to one another and the dehumanizing constraints of captivity are mutually reinforcing. While the poem clearly has a moral, Goode allows the message to arise implicitly from the facts he relates— at least until the conversion scene, which I think is weaker to the extent that it follows a formulaic script.
Goode makes effective use of metaphor to show how the protagonist of "Set Free" moves from passivity to moral agency, and from a hellish state to a heavenly one. The prisoners at first are undifferentiated "human cargo," tagged and numbered, shuffling like zombies. In a rape-like scenario, they are strip-searched for contraband. Then a first-person voice emerges. At the outset, the narrator is trapped within himself, escaping into fantasy as a way to avoid the solitude of his own thoughts.
He is galvanized into action by the blade in his soap, but the action is still unreflective, an animal lashing out in self-defense. The people around him are impersonal forces, not other selves. "I strike until I make a kill," he says, identifying neither his victim/attacker nor the person who hands him the knife. Finally, when he is able to confront and feel remorse for his act of violence, he breaks the cycle and is "set free" from the dehumanizing effects of his surroundings.
Images such as "a place of living dead" and "huge steel gates, like giant jaws" create a picture of damned souls filing through the gates to Hell. This sets up a contrast with the protagonist's vision of Christ later on.
While the conversion scene provides dramatic resolution, making this more than just a depressing snapshot of prison life, it doesn't ring as true as the earlier scenes of the poem. I'm not really concerned about the storyline's lack of originality. Ballads are all about retelling some archetypal human story (a tragic love affair, a criminal's repentance) in a catchy, melodic way. There's just something formulaic about the last two stanzas that comes as a letdown after the gritty realistic detail of the preceding verses. Perhaps the shift from natural to supernatural is too unexpected.
It's hard to quarrel with the stanza beginning "A voice inside," which elegantly translates a familiar Biblical text into the poem's rhyme-scheme. My biggest problem is with the penultimate stanza. "My face was bathed with light" is a cliche from sentimental "inspirational" literature. And who are "they" who "marveled at the sight"? It's hard to believe that the rough guards and prisoners we met in the beginning of the poem would have the sensitivity to notice the narrator's change of heart. It no longer feels like we're in the same setting, but rather in a much tamer and more generic one. I also find "Jesus Christ has borne my rap" in the last stanza a little too glib.
Overall, to be more believable, the protagonist's spiritual change of heart needs to be slower-paced and display more of the psychological complexity that makes the first part of the poem so dramatic. We move too quickly from Christ's reassurance to "my face was bathed with light." We don't know what the narrator was in jail for originally, but by the end of the poem, he's killed a man, albeit in self-defense. He's a mass of conflicting emotions, fear and rage contending with pangs of conscience. Wouldn't the miracle of divine forgiveness be harder for him to comprehend all at once? Perhaps, for one more stanza, he should wrestle with feelings of unworthiness or disbelief that things can change for him.
We don't hear anything about the narrator's spiritual beliefs until suddenly, when he's thrown in solitary for killing the other prisoner, he "crie[s] out to God's Son." The poem leaves us unprepared for this moment. What was his spiritual state before this? If raised a Christian, why did he fall away from it? Why, at this moment, does he turn to Jesus, when he seemed to be without a spiritual compass during the first part of the poem? A few clues to this aspect of his personality would make this poem stronger.
Where could this poem be submitted? Most mainstream literary journals would find it too sentimental. It's more likely to find a home in a Christian-themed magazine (pick up the latest volume of the Poet's Market from Writer's Digest for a list of these). Also try submitting to the Utmost Christian Poetry Contest, deadline February 28.
I imagine that "Set Free" would make an effective performance piece at open mike nights, storytelling contests and poetry slams, if the author has any inclinations in that direction.
This poem and critique appeared in the September 2003 issue of Winning Writers Newsletter (subscribe free). If you'd like a chance to be critiqued, please email your poem to email@example.com. Please send your poem in the body of your email, rather than as an attachment. One poem per month only, please.
Several of our critique poets have asked me whether their poem would be considered "published", and therefore ineligible for most contests, after appearing in our newsletter. My guess would be yes, but check with the contest coordinator just in case, because some publishers may treat print and online publications differently.