Between 1980 and 1994 the total number of people held in federal and state prisons and local jails almost tripled — increasing from 501,886 to 1,483,410.
— Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. Department of Justice
I am making a table. My hammer
is the keyboard of the computer —
tap tap — my nails are the commas
and decimal points that keep these legs
of numbers standing true.
The grain is the roundness of zeros and eights,
leaning spines of nines and percentage signs,
sharp angles of fours and sevens.
I will call this table (slightly
modifying its original name) Table 2:
Number of Adults in Custody
of State or Federal Prisons or in
Local Jails; and though it’s only
a copy, when I’m done it will be
a clearer, cleaner version of
the Bureau of Justice Statistics table
from which I copied it to include
in the Alaska Justice Forum.
But it’s not the ideal table.
Though I’m of that kind, a maker of poems
whom Plato had Socrates exclude
from his rational, perfect Republic —
an imitator of imitations, my work
one step from the carpenter’s table or bed,
but two steps from the idea of table
in the ether around God’s head —
for my day job I’m also of that kind
essential to the Republic. Sustained
by statisticians, I am a maker
of passionless tables that summarize
in numbers the reasoned philosophy
of this well-ordered State’s philosopher-kings.
But if this poem I make by night is a pale
faded imitation of the table I made by day,
the white spaces between my table’s columns
are paler copies yet of the concrete walls,
steel bars, control rooms, keys, and guns
of guards in towers. And its numbers in their
hundred thousands, the total in its millions
(seven digits divided by commas)
imitate in mere paper and ink the bodies,
the sweat and sheen and stink of bodies,
the rage and fear and anguish of minds,
the sorrow and grief and violent hatreds
of prisoners one mere step away:
embodying the closest approximation
of the ideal that waxes ineffable
in the ether around God’s head.
[April 15, 1997]
About this poem
Before 1990, most of what I knew about the American justice system came from fiction — books, movies, TV. Then I took a job as a publication specialist at the UAA Justice Center, which entailed amongst other thinks making lots of tables & charts on various aspect of the justice system. That’s the lens through which I became aware of the extraordinary growth of correctional populations in the U.S., especially due to the so-called “war on drugs” that began during the Reagan administration.
Sometime in about 2001, the U.S. surpassed the Russian Federation to become the nation with the highest rate of incarceration in the world. Here we are now (from an article in our most recent issue of the Alaska Justice Forum):
Makes you feel all proud & patriotic, eh?
As for Plato’s Republic: Plato didn’t much like poets, because the poetic imagination weakened the power & authority of the Plato’s idealized philosopher-king. As James P. Carse writes in The Religious Case Against Belief,
Plato’s Republic is a completely rational and comprehensive system. It is threatened more by the poets than by its military enemies — in fact, it needs those enemies.
Explains a lot, that does.
For my part, most “philosopher-kings,” idealized or not, go off the rails almost from the moment they achieve power & authority. Give me a poet any day.