The Poet in the Box

Martín Espada
Poet, Essayist, Editor & Translator

The Poet in the Box


             for Brandon


We have a problem with Brandon,

the assistant warden said.

He's a poet.


At the juvenile detention center

demonic poetry fired Brandon's fist

into the forehead of another inmate.

Metaphor, that cackling spirit, drove him to flip

another boy's cafeteria tray onto the floor.

The staccato chorus rhyming in his head

told him to spit and curse

at enemies bigger by a hundred pounds.

The gnawing in his rib cage was a craving for discipline.

Repeatedly two guards shuffled him

to the cell called the box, solitary confinement,

masonry of silence fingered by hallucinating drifters,

rebels awaiting execution, monks in prayer.


Then we figured it out, the assistant warden said.

He started fights so we'd throw him

in solitary, where he could write.


The box: There poetry was a grasshopper in the bowl of his hands,

pencil chiseling letters across his notebook

like the script of a pharaoh's deeds on pyramid walls;

metaphor spilled from the light he trapped

in his eyelids, lamps of incandescent words;

rhyme harmonized through the voices

of great-grandmothers and sharecropper bluesmen

whenever sleep began to whistle in his breath.

So the cold was a blanket to him.


We fixed Brandon, the assistant warden said.

We stopped punishing him. He knows

that every violation means he stays here longer.


Tonight there are poets

who versify vacations in Tuscany,

the villa on a hill, the light of morning;

poets who stare at computer screens

and imagine cockroach powder

dissolved into the coffee

of the committee that said no to tenure;

poets who drain whiskey bottles

and urinate on the shoes of their disciples;

poets who cannot sleep as they contemplate

the extinction of iambic pentameter;

poets who watch the sky, waiting for a poem

to plunge in a white streak through blackness.


Brandon dreams of punishment,

stealing the keys from a sleepy jailer

to lock himself into the box, where he can hear

the scratching of his pencil

like fingernails on dungeon stone.


from Alabanza: New & Selected Poems


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