I wanted to understand Alcatraz.

I wanted to know the horror and despair

That ruled there. I took a boat. I took

The tour, headphones and all—narrated by

Prison guards and convicts. It didn’t work.

All it was was interesting, which isn’t.

I read two books about it, which helped me some,

But I never really contacted that hurt.

I was not unlike, perhaps, the window licking

Snobs who show up at the end of this poem

To end it. On the wharf I looked at photos:

Mustachioed Confederates and local

Fans of slavery, not too worried;

A group portrait of renegade Indians

Posed in rows like a paleo rugby team.

They hadn’t done anything worse than try to go

Home, and shot back when they were shot at—

Desert folk who had never seen the sea,

Or a city, or boats. They’d never seen a camera,

So didn’t know their souls were being stolen.

It didn’t take them long to realize

That reservations about reservations

Paled when faced with The Rock. On docking one reads

The original welcome sign: When you break the rules

You go to prison. When you break the rules in prison

You go to Alcatraz. A Dantesque wink.

The headphone tour is a whitewash, and the cells,

Though tiny, are tidy, only one con per.

The headphones list escape attempts—how many

Men were shot or drowned or both. Just one

Made land, but was easy to collect. Just one

Escaped, which means they never found his body.

The tour doesn’t tell you but books testify

That if you didn’t carry a shiv you got stabbed,

And if you got caught with a shiv, you got the hole—

Round-the-clock darkness, water, and four slices

Of bread a day for up to forty days.

And days on Alcatraz was all there was—

No weeks or months or sentences for life.

You had to be a “daddy” or a “queen.”

There was no in between, no opting out.

How can you sentence someone to sodomy?

We, the people, do it every day.

Both cons and prison guards agreed: the worst

Thing about Alcatraz was its drop-dead

View of the City. Not even Dante punished

Lifers with visions of the afterlife.

Most murders took place in the showers or in

The Recreation Yard as Frisco looked

Away, aloof, a golden odalisque.

A favorite pastime of city socialites

Was sailing their yachts as near to The Rock as they dared.

The nearer the better. They thrilled in thoughts of thugs

Behind bars—“Scarface” Capone (who, in prison,

Became a skillful cobbler, according to the tour),

“Machinegun” Kelly, “Creepy” Karpis. But

The lethal cons were not the super-stars.

The scary guys were backward losers, psychos,

Guys with IQ’s smaller than their hat sizes,

Who’d never had a moll or limousine.

The Rock was more of a lethal loony bin

Than prison, and correction wasn’t on

Anybody’s mind. So sailing yachts

Around The Rock became a popular game.

If they drew too near some shots were fired from the??tower,

In jest, to shoo the revelers away.

But from the Recreation Yard, if wind

Was right, inmates could hear the shallow banter,

The laughter of girls, the clinks of Champagne toasts.

They could see the white outfits and jaunty caps

And sunglasses. They could see the perfect teeth.


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