Hard Time

This Prison Where I Live begins by leaving the outside behind (the first step into the cell, the first meal), travels through time spent on acts trivial and essential (such as observing the play of shadow and light), and finally moves toward an end, which can be either release or death--as in Wang Ruowang's closing account of a young prisoner who commits suicide by leaping face-first into a concrete hole. Aside from such fatal drama, these works are about mundane deprivation: stomach empty, skin untouched, feet without miles, time that is lightless, motionless, endless. While it may be popular to mistake prison for an incubator of imagination--as if all that solitude and structure were a respite from society's maddening demands--Dowd's collection testifies that real prison is more likely to be deadening, and for a writer that means no writing. As Joseph Brodsky points out in his introduction, "By and large, prisons are survivable. Though hope is indeed what you need least upon entering here: a lump of sugar would be more useful."

Despite the odds against it, this crucial anthology exists, and it shows how confined lives can somehow be lived. Last week, in a post-class conversation, I asked one of my inmate-students how he maintains his good attitude. He said it's taken a lot of practice--26 years of practice. Sometimes he talks to the younger guys and realizes he's been locked up for longer than they've been alive, and sometimes he looks in the mirror to remind himself where the time has gone.

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