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.