Freed Minds and Imprisoned Bodies

Monday Morning Musings

“And as imagination bodies forth

The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen

Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing

A local habitation and a name.”

–William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act 5, Scene 1

“The system here is rigid, strict, and hopeless solitary confinement. I believe it, in its effects, to be cruel and wrong. I hold this slow, and daily, tampering with the mysteries of the brain to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body.”

–Charles Dickens, 1842

A prison taint was on everything there. The imprisoned air, the imprisoned light, the imprisoned damps, the imprisoned men, were all deteriorated by confinement. As the captive men were faded and haggard, so the iron was rusty, the stone was slimy, the wood was rotten, the air was faint, the light was dim. Like a well, like a vault, like a tomb, the prison had no knowledge of the brightness outside, and would have kept its polluted atmosphere intact in one of the spice islands of the Indian ocean.

–Charles Dickens, Little Dorrit

 

In the deep soft blue of night,

a full bright moon murmurs

which path would you stroll

always night

or beautiful dawn?

Would you breath the sweet air of ancient breezes?

 

I ponder mysteries of life and time,

the paths we choose, the where and when

the roads that make us who we are

the journeys that lead to discoveries,

do the words I write,

the forms of things unknown,

take flight across the world,

in a poetry chaos theory

to effect change?

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One of my writer workout shirts.

 

I’m at a book fair,

I don’t sell many books,

my profits come from knowledge gained

or reaffirmed,

books have power,

the reason why slaves are not taught to read,

they release the minds of those bound by ignorance

they free those imprisoned by walls of stone

or by barricades of bigotry,

they build bridges of enlightenment,

people are drawn to them

in excitement, wonder, and surprise

I watch the boy’s eyes

open wide at the thought of reading magical adventures

then disappointment,

“My mom doesn’t have any money.”

“Today is your lucky day, says the author,

“I have something special,

a free book for you–

see, the cover is slightly damaged.”

 

He signs the book for the boy

who takes it,

holds it reverently,

a treasure.

I hope he remembers this moment.

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West Deptford Township Book Festival. Yes, I did bake cookies, too.

 

My husband and I visit the art museum

not for any particular exhibition,

“Sunday at the museum,” someone says,

people there from all over the world

(even though the “Rocky Steps”  are closed)

I hear many languages: French, Chinese, Russian.

We walk through the Impressionists,

see the real and surreal,

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View from the Duchamp Gallery, Philadelphia Museum of Art

 

look at art and people,

adults and children,

viewed and viewers.

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Reading at the Museum—Mary Cassatt, Family Group Reading (c. 1901) Philadelphia Museum of Art

We walk from the museum

 

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across the Parkway to Fairmount

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and on to Eastern State Penitentiary,

 

 

the world’s first penitentiary,

conceived with a purpose–

to induce penitence in its prisoners,

the original building completed in 1836,

though the process began earlier

with efforts to relieve the conditions of the Walnut Street Jail,

in 1787, Dr. Benjamin Rush founded a group to reform prisons,

The Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons,

an organization that still exists,

the new penitentiary is thought to be humane,

a wonder of technology and innovation,

a central hub with spokes,

cells with plumbing and heat

designed by architect John Haviland,

but prisoners were cut off from human contact

and sometimes went insane.

Charles Dickens wrote of the torture of solitary confinement

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and later the prison became too crowded for the concept to continue,

a second tier of cells was built

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and prisoners shared cells.

We listen to actor Steve Buscemi

tell us about it in the audio tour,

we’ve been here before,

but it is good to be reminded,

and there are new exhibits we haven’t seen

there are other visitors and tour groups,

but when it is quiet, without other visitors around,

I feel the ghosts around me

there amidst the rubble

 

Prisoners

in dark fevered air

decayed concrete and old secrets,

a dirt home

listen to who was

they live not

but almost open,

in time

 

It is a reminder

of good intentions gone wrong,

yet there are traces of beauty and goodness,

even here,

the tales of good and humane guards

the art created by inmates,

the synagogue

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The original synagogue door. (For my blogger friend, Robin.)

 

but still there are ghosts,

the imprisoned,

some died here,

and I have no answers for those who are imprisoned still

but I hope they have books and art

and that their minds can roam, even if their bodies cannot

do they wonder about the paths of their lives?

Which path would you stroll

always night

or beautiful dawn?

Would you breath the sweet air of ancient breezes?

 

Tonight I dream of wide-eyed boys

of beauty and art

amidst decayed walls

a cat purrs softly in my ear,

I am home, but my mind roams free.

 

The kind author was Ben Anderson, who shared a table with me at the West Deptford Township Book Festival at Riverwinds Community Center. His books are chronicles of Irish fantasy, targeted for middle grade readers, but suitable for “eight to eighty-eight” he says. You can read about them here .

We joke about the Magnetic Poetry Oracle, but she gave me this poem (incorporated above) the morning of the day we went to visit Eastern State Penitentiary. She also came me part of the opening.

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You can find out more about Eastern State Penitentiary here.   Here is an article on programs for prison literacy.   And a list of additional resources here.

The Philadelphia Museum of Art is always worth visiting, even with construction going on.

 

 

 

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31 thoughts on “Freed Minds and Imprisoned Bodies

  1. Where to start? There’s so much here. I did click on the link to the Literacy Project for prisons, a good intention gone right. I love the story of the kind author and grateful boy. And more: Your book display with cookies, both good images of your life’s work. Oh, and the posting near azaleas (?). Quite a thesaurus!

  2. Such a fabulous post Merril. Beautiful quotes, your own amazing words, awesome photographs! Thank you for taking us along. You look fabulous too btw. 🙂

  3. The Oracle gave me chills today.
    We have yet to figure out what to do for/with those convicted of crimes. There is definitely too much vengeance in the air.
    The book fair made me smile. (K)

    • Thanks so much, Kerfe.
      The Oracle is mysterious indeed!
      I agree with you about too much vengeance, but it’s interesting to me that ESP was started with good intentions to help prisoners.

      • I do think there are good intentions around…but somehow they seem to always get lost, or caught up in other concerns. I have very little to offer in ideas myself, except that too many people are in prison who might be better helped by less harsh and more helpful programs (like rehab, job training, education…) Of course those are difficult and take time, money and energy. Much easier to just lock them away.

  4. A tour with Steve Buscemi in your ear had to be a treat!
    Prior to closing in 2004, the Missouri State Penitentiary, here in the state capital, was the oldest operating prison (from 1836) west of the Mississippi. Taking a prison tour, it’s sobering to think that prisoners were housed in those conditions during the 21st century (or at all, for that matter – at times, there were as many as six to a cell).

    • Thanks, Ken. I had to look up the Missouri State Penitentiary. I doesn’t seem like it was built with the same ideas in mind as Eastern State. It is sad to think of so many crowded together.

  5. I am so sorry that I ran through the week and missed this one on May 8th. It was the week leading into Mother’s Day.
    Thank you for showing the worn, weathered synagogue door. It is very meaningful for the prisoners to have their faiths recognized and am glad there are those who visit to spread their Words.
    The Oracle was awesome in your ability to produce a perfect accompaniment to the art museum, prison and book sale.
    I agree that prisoners need to have books to help their minds go freely into the worlds they may imagine.
    Ben Anderson sounds like a really nice man, so glad he gave the boy his book. I think he will remember this kindness and keep the signed book. (Maybe treasure it, too.) hugs for mentioning me! xo

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