Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsSpring 2016  Vol. 15 No. 1
an online journal of literature and the arts
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Mercy Songs

He heard them in the weight room, in the white
expanse of the courtyard covered in snow,
the way it reminded him always of Sundays,
waking up late in the empty apartment at noon,
pulling his socks on, holding a cold can
of Steele Reserve to his chest. He heard them
in the mess hall, in the empty machine shop walls,
the drone of the late-night stations on faith,
the pop of the ping-pong ball in the background,
the gorgeous prayers of Emanuel Paine
when he really got going, when he drowned out
and slipped into tongue. He heard them in heat-pipes,
in checkerboard back-slaps, dip-spit sloshing
around in the can, shuffling decks of cards,
the high-pitched scuff of the bald guard’s boot
on the painted-blue concrete floor. The one
they called Tee-Do. The one who wore crosses
and belted out lowly, my savior and sinnerman
the way Nina Simone had sung it live
at Carnegie Hall in ’65. He heard them
in the stuttering tick of the wall clock, the sound
of a freight train crossing the county line,
the snoring gestures of big Jack Wheeler who shared
the room for a year, who lied about women
he couldn’t have slept with, murders he didn’t commit.
But mostly, he heard them in the private hours
of waiting to fall asleep, when everyone else was alone
in their dreams and the whole penitentiary seemed
to be floating, like one of those city-sized cruise ships
you take to the Arctic, or the Cape of Good Hope,
or those Indian islands with lions and dragons,
where pirates had one time divided their treasures,
and slept in the mouths of caves.  

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