Two Poems by Leigh Sugar


In 1920 my grandfather received an American name:

Zucker became Sugar, now my own last name.

The Third Reich never tattooed on his forearm 

a number. I count myself lucky to have a last name.

Each April magnolias litter my parents’ front yard 

before Michigan’s spring blizzard exposes its silver face.

My oldest friend’s surname is Blessing; I know to consider

the potential for prophecy when giving a name.

At eight, we jarred petals with perfumes and spices

to capture that early-spring teasing embrace. 

I didn’t, back then, know cinnamon from cedar

those potions turned rancid on shelves; defined waste.

These days I scrawl 619754

on envelopes after a locked-up beloved’s last name.

He says, Leigh, I dream I’ve forgotten my number

and wake to realize I’ve forgotten my name.


I have wanted to leave you there

and never return. Never answer another OFFENDER 

CALL, never again disconnect at the 15-minute limit

that leaves me alone and flush from your imagined

presence after phone sex, never again take mouthwash

at the stop sign, dab oil on my wrists and neck

before the gate in preparation for our sanctioned hello

kiss. Never again ask to use the bathroom and, upon standing, 

be told to leave because the wet spot on my pants – 

because your fingers for hours playing in the soft place

between my palm and thumb has left me 

pink and dripping, unfilled. That is, if my body

can’t be our body unsurveilled

I want my body to be only my body again.


I want your body to be only my body

and not state property to be held and taxed.

To help, you drew a shirtless portrait

of yourself for me and called it prayer. 

Where does one display a verse like that? 

The body is the prison of the mind 

and the mind of the soul, etc. The page 

inerts the body – stasis foisted upon stasis.

I only ever want to move, afraid of the fester, 

of staying, of being made to stay. You say 

you keep my photos in a folder; mine of us

remind me of… I don’t want them displayed

on my walls at home. If I can’t see you

my mind can’t replace your face with a cage.


So I don’t confuse your face with a cage

I wield my mind as a scythe to cut the years

as if the years revolve around my desire,

an impossible thread from me to you pulled taut

across the country. When I watch a couple

holding hands while walking home at night

I wrestle my memory to create a memory

of walking home with you. When I pretend

I can walk away whenever I want

I know I’m claiming false power to soften

the wanting what I cannot have – your hand,

a home, some place to walk together. 

When I feel stuck I imagine you moving in circles.

Then I walk five miles in straight lines.


I walk miles travelling in straight lines

to remind myself I’m allowed to move

from here to there no matter where

there or here may be. I’ve crossed the country

a dozen times in the time you’ve been away.

In the time you have left one could start

and finish a law degree and a PhD

in literature and still have months to spare.

Why marry myself to my imagination

of a future you and me? No one asked me

to put myself inside a box, least of all you.

Is cruelty the box, or is the box the shape 

we need to have before we draw, then build,

then walk right through an open door?


Then walk right through an open door,

I dare myself when I get scared 

to stay; I’ve seen how staying people sink

into the floor, the locked windows, 

displaced inside an endless placement.

How to build a life in places built

to arrest life? A small child slams

against a sliding glass security door

upon seeing his father step inside.

Why are there no blooming fields nor skies

inside these poems? You sent me roses 

once, or rather, your mom did. They lived

until they didn’t; the flowers turned to

rotting stems inside a grime-streaked vase.


Rotting stems outside my grime-streaked window

signal another winter has come and is going 

despite not asking for permission. As time passes

we approach your out date but we lose

the months to age. I count my grays each week 

and pray to find a god to pray to. On visits 

we see couples joining hands and bowing heads 

with Bibles spread across their laps. The Ministry 

Fund on S&P is up today, we laugh, and prop a bible 

up across our laps to block the cameras 

from our grasping hands. Perhaps I should be grateful

just to have a love at all, I appeal, in case a God 

requires such a statement to configure. 

I’m bored of waiting, I’ll say if one appears.


I’m tired of waiting, I say to no one. 

He says he still remembers what it’s like

to drive, to swim, to run without a shirt,

to shirtless lay outside and look up at the stars.

I describe to him the eggs I eat for breakfast

and the strangers I nod to on the sidewalk 

so he can know my days and fill the space

between where I live and where he sleeps.

I’m sorry for all the poems I have not written;

silence is no way to elegize absence,

no way to keep an absence alive. 

He says he wakes up hard from dreaming

our togetherness. I smile and don’t tell him

I don’t dream about him anymore.


I don’t dream about him anymore, 

don’t picture that he warms the bed for me

at night before I slip inside, don’t feel 

his thick arm wrap around to steady me 

on dark tracks passing underground. No, I don’t

pull out two mugs for tea then put one back,

I don’t imagine calling him to ask  

which he thinks a better word for patience:

fossilize or cocoon. I don’t see collared

shirts in stores and wonder how he’d look in them,

blue or green, or black, crisp-creased slacks, 

a narrow tie striped white and gray, a leather belt. 

I trained myself to not imagine him at all, not 

write ourselves into a life that doesn’t yet exist.


Through letters, we wrote ourselves into existence.

Forged a shared history amidst the void.

Became – ourselves, each other – characters

for the other’s story. It’s too much pressure

to be your symbol of freedom, I said, and knew

I was projecting. I don’t know how to love you

other than to tell you of my days, my meals, 

everything you cannot see. What if it’s not enough?

What if writing you my life is a distraction 

from some other writing I should, could, 

would be writing? I’m afraid to be a woman

waiting. I’ve always lived with hunger. 

I’m more afraid of your presence, afraid

of what will happen when the lack is gone. 


The lack happens at family dinners,

in the car driving to and from anywhere,

in the shower, the body and its bony cage

of law. I used to think my life was a performance

and the audience appeared according to my will

whenever I did something beautiful – 

my hair perfectly curling while making the bed; 

my flirting smile at the newly walking baby

on the street. Now I know you can’t see me

when I’m not beside you in the place I hate.

I really hate it, going there. Freeland. 

Where people fish off the highway overpass.

It’s not the strip search but its everydayness.

When you leave, what will you bring home?


When we leave for the first time

I’ll have to drive, but maybe we will stop

for gas and you can hold the card and pay.

I don’t mean to patronize, just, how long 

has it been? You behind the wheel

on the highway driving home? Notice 

the gas gage creep toward a quarter tank? 

Pull into a station? Pull your wallet 

from your pocket? Swipe your card, enter

your zip code? Choose a gas grade, 

fill your own car with your own money?

This is what I think to call freedom: you

paying for our gas, me in the passenger seat

waiting, waiting for you to return.


Waiting for him to return, I search for pleasure

in other bodies. We agree this is only reasonable.

One body was so attractive my teeth hurt. 

The man looked like Brad Pitt, who I’d never liked

before. This is what I told him later: we walked 

to my place down the middle of the empty midnight 

street holding hands. I also told him about the sex

but it was the street, its emptiness, the midnight

walking, that haunted him most. I don’t feel

guilty. I want to forget his reality, 

the one where he carries his own toilet paper 

to the bathroom. I don’t understand most of what 

goes on there, where he is, and why. Sometimes 

I need to not understand in a way that makes sense.


I need to know:

What is the worst thing you’ve ever done?

I can pull him up on the state’s database

anytime and read about his case;

what can he ever know about me? –

not the way I forget to remove my keys

from the lock outside my door; not that I sneeze

when I look directly at the sun; not

that I used to steal candy from the bulk bins

at the organic food co-op, stashing handfuls

of malt balls and chocolate covered cherries

in my pockets. I didn’t want to pay, 

to legalize my craving. If no one ever saw,

I thought it didn’t count. I was never caught. 


If you were never caught is not a game

we play. We play card games from the stash

in the visiting room and marvel at our chance

meeting. We wouldn’t have met if not in here.

If I wasn’t caught when I was caught

I’d still have gotten caught, he means. I’d do it 

all again for you, he says. I used to catch

fireflies in jars to keep beside my bed.

I wanted to see wings but in the morning

they were always dry and coiled. I like

the keeping part. The part of me that feeds

on order is relieved to always know where he is.

In five years, he will still be here.

In five years, we have never been alone together.


Because we’ve never been alone together

I learn to be together with myself

alone. I hold myself to fall asleep

and know it’s not him holding me.

The world out here extends beyond my mind

extending itself to him. I know I am not guilty

for enjoying the sky, the stars, the moon’s light

and not thinking of his view – obstructed 

by floodlights. I walk, I dance, I run, I learn

how the language I was born into can’t

disappear a law already enacted, not even

when uttered with love, and I am ok.

Words only sometimes feel imprisoning.

The sun rises and I only sometimes think of him.


Sun unlocks day and I picture you 

awake in your cell with your bunkie, planning

your next workout, how many hundreds of pounds

you will lift or resist against; you lunching

at chow hall, piles of conglomerated meat

baked into slices; you studying your case

at the law library; you hand-writing me

a hundred letters; you locked in your cell

for count time three times every day. 

Alone, we silent ask if love is leaving a part 

of oneself with your love whenever you’re apart. 

In the visiting room I try to reconcile the you

I love with the jumpsuited you beside me.

I confess I want to leave and leave you there.


The body and its bony cage of law is from An Explanation of America by Robert Pinsky. 

About Leigh Sugar

Leigh Sugar (she/her) holds an MFA from NYU and teaches writing at the Institute for Justice and Opportunity. Her work has appeared in (or is forthcoming from) POETRY, jubilat, Pigeon Pages, and more. She is currently editing an anthology of writings by artists who’ve taught in prisons, and pursuing graduate studies in the field of criminal justice. She lives in Brooklyn with friends and her puppy, Elmo.