The Barrett Brown Review of Arts and Letters and Jail: The Poetry of William Blake

Ever since I was a young boy growing up amid the hardscrabble streets of Highland Park, it has been my fondest dream to write a bi-monthly column for D Magazine’s website focusing on the literary life of North Texas jail inmates. Having now spent some 16 months incarcerated at three different federal detention facilities while awaiting trial on charges I’m not legally permitted to discuss, I am finally in a position to write such a thing.

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Each jail has its own modest library made up of a few shelves of paperback books. Most of these seem to have been cast off from civic libraries over the years as they replace their stock — or, as seems more likely, as they simply get rid of shitty books that don’t belong in real libraries. As such, the jail library possesses a certain inimitable and melancholy character, consisting as it does largely of literature deemed to be devoid of any real timelessness. It can be jarring to come upon an entire shelf of such books without being emotionally prepared for the encounter.

By way of an example, I present White Ninja, a New York Times bestseller from the late ’80s or thereabouts. As best as I can tell from the back cover summary, which is itself hauntingly vague, White Ninja is not actually about a Caucasian practitioner of ninjitsu, but rather a Western businessman living in Japan whose exploits are filled with intrigue and whatnot. Now, the first 63 pages of our copy of White Ninja are missing (which makes the book all the more representative of what one finds here), so I shall quote the first passage that appears on page 64 — and I note this circumstance simply to emphasize that what follows is an entirely random and thus presumably representative sample of the manner in which the author of White Ninja chooses to write:

She opened her thighs, redirecting Branding’s gaze. She arched her back. “Come here, Cook. I do not think that I have finished with you — nor you with me.”

Isn’t that awful?

Still, there is something to be said for having access to the literary detritus of several decades. It is always amusing to come across a copy of M*A*S*H Goes to Miami or a book by some Amway executive about how Amway isn’t really a scam. I was especially pleased to find a disco-era sci-fi novel set amidst a dark future in which a Mormon has become president and established a theocracy (we certainly dodged a bullet in ’12, eh?). I also discovered Dave’s Way, the 1992 autobiography of the late Dave Thomas, founder of Wendy’s. I actually read this one and found it edifying; Thomas makes some rather strong arguments in favor of quality and value.

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Currently I’m being held at the Federal Correctional Institution at Seagoville, 15 minutes outside of downtown Dallas. Back during World War II, the site was used as an internment camp for Japanese and German residents. Sometimes I like to pretend that it’s 1941 and I’m a detainee. “You cannot do this to me!” I’ll suddenly shout out in a German accent. “I am loyal American person! How can you lock up my children?” German accents are funny.

The jail itself is made up of several dozen two-man cells arranged on two floors looking out onto a huge table-filled “day room,” which itself functions in practice largely as a casino, being used for endless games of poker, spades, and dominoes in which postage stamps serve as currency. Additionally, a number of inmates run their own elaborate gaming systems involving football scores and raffles and other such things; they roam the room, presenting these schemes to each other on notepads like so many liberal college girls bearing petitions. Otherwise they pass the time mostly by preparing and eating Ramen Noodles, which are referred to invariably as “soups” and which serve as an alternate currency, sort of like Bitcoins but not really.

Of course, there is also a great deal of television viewing, with jail-specific attributes I have described elsewhere. Here I will simply add that the white inmates are forever watching programs in which tacky people with beards buy things from garage sales and resell them or alter motorcycles in order to make them into better motorcycles or harass ducks for reasons that remain unclear to me, and that a disquieting number of these shows appear on The History Channel and A&E.

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Strewn amongst the textual rubbish of the jail libraries are the occasional gems, all the more appreciated for being so incongruent. The other day I found The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake, the 18th-century Englishman who is also widely known for his bizarre engravings of fallen angels and that sort of thing. What immediately strikes me upon reading Blake is that he’s clearly insane and that there exists a vast conspiracy of English professors and assorted men of letters intent on covering this up. Here’s a line from “America: A Prophecy,” which we are assured is about the American Revolution:

Reveal the dragon thro’ the human; coursing swift as fire
To the close hall of counsel, where his Angel form renews

Now, I don’t maintain that this line is not picturesque, or even that it doesn’t mean anything. I’m sure it meant something very substantive to Blake. But I note that this volume includes commentary by the venerable old Westernist Harold Bloom, who seems to have gone to a great deal of trouble to pretend that he is not simply rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic while afloat upon a sea of nonsense. Here he is explaining away an incoherent passage from Blake’s “Milton”:

This sequence depends for its power and excitement on Blake’s daring in manipulating his perspectives. The reader’s immediate problem is to keep up with the apparent shifts in continuity.

I submit that this claim could be made with equal validity about the ravings of any common madman. And to prove it, I shall take random phrasings uttered by an actual madman and show them to be every bit as poetically sound as anything Blake ever wrote.

But where, you might ask, will I find any such madman in a federal lock-up? Surely they don’t prosecute mentally ill people as if they were of sound mind and then lock them up in a regular prison where their disabilities would make them especially vulnerable? This isn’t the 18th century, after all!

Ha. Ha. Ha.

Meet Charlie. Last year, Charlie, a resident of a local homeless shelter, handed a note to a bank teller demanding money. The teller told him to take a seat and she’d get it all ready for him. He took a seat and waited patiently until the cops showed up. Upon arriving here at Seagoville, he attempted to pay for commissary items by drawing a picture of a check. Presumably upon the request of his lawyer, Charlie was transferred to the federal jail unit at Fort Worth for a psychological evaluation to determine whether he was competent to stand trial. He arrived back here two weeks ago, after it was determined that he is indeed competent.

Still, Charlie didn’t strike me as quite right for this project. Orwell once wrote, discussing Yeats, “Even a half-lunatic view of life will do as literature provided it is sincerely held,” and it is hard to disagree with him. But, of course, it doesn’t necessarily follow that any half-lunatic is inherently literary. Sorry as I am to say it, Charlie lacked that certain something.

So I settled on James. James is a black guy with matted dreadlocks and a pleasantly bovine face who spends the great majority of his time sitting up against the wall in the day room and talking, usually quite jovially, to various imaginary colleagues. James is generally regarded as the happiest fellow in the jail, which was certainly a black mark against him; I like my poets melancholy. Still, he possessed that indefinable “it.” (By way of a biography, James also robbed a bank and, having likewise been found competent, did his time until his eventual release to a halfway house, from which he immediately wandered home. Thereafter charged with escape, he was re-arrested and brought here two years ago to serve out the remainder of his sentence.)

Having chosen my control poet, I selected a representative passage from Blake. I am particularly fond of the following line, taken from a woodcarving of a mysterious robed figure:

I have said to the Worm: Thou art my mother & my sister

Fuck me if I know what it means, although if you put a shank up to my throat and made me guess, I’d say it has something to do with death or God or perhaps some sort of death-god. Anywho, it was now time to determine if anything James uttered while not actually attempting to compose poetry could outdo something Blake wrote with that very intent. If so, then, by golly, we’ve got that sonofabitch Blake right where we want him for some reason!

The problem was that it’s difficult to eavesdrop on James, who tends to cut his etheric conversations short if he notices someone nearby. Probably this is out of concern that some imprisoned journalist may try to compare his unguarded utterances to the output of a pre-Victorian English poet in order to make a convoluted point about the archaic nature of the U.S. justice system’s treatment of the mentally ill. An astute fellow, that James, and no easy quarry. But it’s for occasions such as these that a journalist cultivates sources. One of these, who has been here long enough to have overheard James holding forth on this and that, reports him as having once made the following proclamation:

“Bitch wanted the dick, so I gave her the dick!”

I didn’t think this was going to do for our purposes. Granted that it displays a touching altruism, but it’s more prose than poetry. Had he said, “Bitch wanted the dick, so unicorn gum!” we would be in business; I could go all Harold Bloom on everyone and claim that this is an opaque but stylistically legitimate protest against the 1790 partition of Poland or some such thing. Rather than metaphor, James has presented us with something more akin to a logical proof; you could practically throw an “ergo” in there between the two clauses.

Thankfully my source had one more of James’ inadvertant submissions. It seems that on another occasion, James pulled back the hammer on his imaginary glock, pointed it at an incorporal comrade, and shouted:

“Say that again, motherfucker!”

I really can’t make heads or tails of this insofar as literary merit may be concerned. In fact, it would probably be best to just concede at this point that William Blake is a better poet than some mentally ill bank robber I came across in a Texas jail. I suppose that sounds sort of obvious when you write it all out like that.

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Bible Verse of the Day: Numbers 11:1 – 11:3

And the people complained in the hearing of the LORD about their misfortunes, and when the LORD heard it, his anger was kindled, and the fire of the LORD burned among them and consumed some outlying parts of the camp. Then the people cried out to Moses, and Moses prayed to the LORD, and the fire died down. So the name of that place was called Taberah, because the fire of the LORD burned among them.