In 1976, twenty-three-year-old Joseph Bathanti began his "walk away from [his] past" in Pittsburgh. That he'd earned a master's degree but "wished to spend [his] days among criminals" left his parents confused and hushed. Bathanti knew nothing of the place he was heading to — North Carolina — or of the place to which he'd been assigned — a prison in Mecklenburg County. For this newly minted VISTA volunteer, any road out of Pittsburgh, to freedom, he was glad to take. That "[his] life was just starting" left Bathanti "near euphoria". Driving south, he could never have guessed that it would take him more than three decades to articulate one of the most important lessons he learned as a "fugitive from [his] former life" up North: that we all, in our way — some by our choices, others by the misfortune of our circumstance — put in some "felon time".
* * * * *
It was not until the fall of 2013 that Joseph Bathanti, currently Poet Laureate of North Carolina, published Concertina (Mercer University Press), a remarkable collection of narrative poems that, in language both colloquial and lyrical, relate his true introduction to life, not only inside prison but also outside the razor wire.
The world that Bathanti enters while "still on the green side of life" is rendered as sharply as the concertina is "ribboned with scalpels / that incise vertically and horizontally at once" so that
[. . .] once snared, the convict, reflexively
as it flinches into him), ravels himself through
a meat grinder. [. . .]
As we trace with him the arc of his VISTA experience, as embodied in the themes of memory, identity, time and place, and love, Bathanti shares with us readers the insiders' view of
[. . .] The Death House, in a grassy side yard
spilling with pink primrose, [. . .]
[. . .] the gas chamber: an oak chair bolted
to the floor in a glassed confessional. [. . .]
He pulls back the curtain on the "condemned", the men who were "mere likenesses of one another / amnesiacs, ghostly in their whites, // that odd gleam pooled about them— / not wholly there, but evanescent, [. . .] ("The Wall")
He leaves us to imagine the fear rising in the "escapes" as a pack of "chain gang bloodhounds", usually "caged in a skirmish of wire lots— / the same wire than penned the convicts—", were loosed "to run down" their "prey". ("The Dogs at Salisbury")
He does not spare us, the way an unnamed inmate was not spared, the shank that
[. . .] doubled
as a toothbrush,
to a pointed hush
by scraping it
on the concrete
cellblock floor. [. . .]
The conclusion (omitted here) of "Shank" is stunning, the image and the words that follow it indelible.
Nor does Bathanti allow us to turn our eyes from the boy who "stuffed pillows under his prison greens, // duct-taped his arms and legs / with mattress batting, then crabbed // up the fence like a movie creature". The boy "[h]ung in the wire all night" and in the morning, after "the tower man shot him", he could be seen "hemorrhaging red feathers". ("Angel")
At the point that Bathanti adds to that poem the line "One is tempted to whisper angel—", we understand that something profound is at work in the twenty-three-year-old who traded a predictable life in his working class neighborhood in Pittsburgh for time in a prison in the South. The initiate with his college degree whom no one in Charlotte knew, who'd never before heard the word "recidivism", who was living where "[i]t was safe to be poor and dirty and radical, / to declare prisons cruel and unusual punishment, / that the death penalty be abolished" ("Faccia Tosta"), is growing up, beginning to lose the wide-eyed innocence protecting him from "the world that was so utterly strange" ("Freedom Drive") on arrival.
* * * * *
Time does not temper the truth Bathanti distills and documents on every page more than thirty years after his VISTA assignment ended. As he declares in another profound moment, "So help me God, there is no whole truth." ("Jury Duty")
Yet there is respite from the ugliness and violence, for truth is never one-sided and life is never all-bad. Indeed, the brilliance of Concertina lies in its skillfully ingrained and repeated refrain about the dualities present in all of humanity, whether a "mother, shackled to a sweatshop / Singer in a dim downtown tailor shop" ("Faccia Tosta") or the inmate "too exhausted to life his heavy hands to protect himself" from the blows of his keeper ("Cletis Pratt"). "A guard is not much different than a convict. / One hates the other, loves the other." ("Transfer Day")
The concertina, after all, can be played, too, and it's possible to enjoy, as Bathanti does, the intermezzos — the downtime with Joan, the woman whose hand Bathanti clasped on "[his] first Sabbath out of the penitentiary", who "lived in a boxy mill house on Moonlit Avenue" ("Moonlit Avenue"), with whom he enjoyed "miso soup and Roastaroma mocha, / the verse of Kim Chi-Ha" ("This Mad Heart"). With Joan, the woman who was to become Bathanti's wife, "[e]verything was crucial".
The love that passes for poetry between Bathanti and Joan prevents hardening and cynicism. It makes it possible for Bathanti to draw on poignant moments for sustenance: visits to the women's prison of children "in their perfect innocence and self-possession, / toddling dutifully into the arms of anyone // who reaches for them" ("Women's Prison"); the sight of "project kids" practicing etudes in a church cellar while, upstairs, ex-cons partake of "soup kitchen food" ("ECO"); a reading lesson with an inmate whose "tragic flaw" is "the presence / of an extra 21st chromosome", who, "[w]ith childish wonderment, / [. . .] whizzes through the drills" ("Teaching an Inmate to Read").
What comes clear in Concertina is this: where there is room for love and understanding, there is a place for hope and the possibility of redemption.
* * * * *
Concertina is a terrific collection of personal stories and portraits rendered in verse that is as eloquent as it is unfussy and down-to-earth. It is full of insightful and memorable lines — one of my favorites is, "Dirt is not permitted / the amnesty of forgetfulness" ("Huntersville Prison") — and its metaphors are brilliant and sobering. The depth of feeling evidenced for the down-and-out is profound. The voice that speaks in the vernacular is pitch-perfect and, even as it fails to insulate us from the suffering it must address, it is capable of moving us deeply. Its owner, more than three decades on, shows us the consequences of choice, which, in his case, leaves him forever to bear witness to what it means to be alive and not.
* * * * *
Joseph Bathanti, profiled in my Monday Muse post of October 15, 2012, continues to do volunteer work with prison inmates. Like his project with veterans and his instruction of creative writing students at Appalachian State University, Bathanti's prison teaching is more than an avocation; as Concertina shows, it is a calling that this wonderful poet cannot and does not ignore.
VISTA = Volunteers in Service to America, Now AmeriCorps VISTA
Concertina is available in paperback from MU Press, online book-sellers, and book stores around the country. A number of poems in the collection have been published elsewhere, and some may be found and read online.
Bathanti has a number of recently published or forthcoming books, including Half of What I Say Is Meaningless, a book of creative nonfiction (MU Press), The Anthology of Black Mountain College Poetry (Jargon Press / Black Mountain College Museum) of which he is a co-editor, The Life of the World To Come, a novel (The University of South Carolina Press), and, in addition to Concertina, This Metal, a reprint of a 1996 collection (Press 53), Sonnets of the Cross, poems (February 2013, Jacar Press), and Anson County, a March 2013 reprint of a poetry collection first published in 1989 (Press 53).