My Father’s Poem in Inmates and Street Sleepers
I hear about how uncomfortable everyone feels around Robert right off. He talks about all the women like they’re meat, and I picture him fucking a pot roast. “He’s a murderer, just out after twenty years.” Twenty for murder? Doesn’t sound right to me. Turns out it’s attempted murder—of a cop—and he says he was defending himself. I probably believe him. “I never hurt anybody in my whole life—except in prison, and prison’s different.” I want to believe him, but I know he made Carlos cry to the nurses in the clinic. They called Margarita up to translate, and she told me how it went; how every time Carlos tried to pee in his bedside urinal his new dorm-mate, Robert, would yell in his face—threaten him. “You just don’t whip your dick out and piss in front of your cellie.” We have to tell Robert that, yes, you do, that this is a medical facility and these are sick people and not all of them can get up to make it to the men’s room in the middle of the night. We tell Robert that this isn’t DOC and prison rules don’t apply. We tell Robert what we tell everyone that stays with us—all coming from the street, the emergency shelter, psychiatric, prison, whatever kind of homeless—we tell him everyone gets dignity and respect here; it’s in our damn motto. We’re all here to heal, to rest, we say, but Robert can’t get it.
He won’t wear orange, and I get that. “Anything but orange,” he says when I get his clothing sizes. We take all their clothes—if they have any—when they get here. We run them through our hot box to kill bed bugs, or lice, and then we wash them and give them back, but all that takes some time, so we set them up with a few changes of clothes when they arrive. I don’t like to hear special requests, but this one is fair. All they wear in prison is orange—pants, shirts, jackets, hats—everything but shoes. I go there (Florence Complex, South Unit) every Friday and teach a poetry class as a volunteer. I walk the full yard, through a swath of orange bodies, in and out of sky-blue buildings against a clear-blue sky—making them nothing but their glints of razor wire—to the back, swing left past the rec field, take a right after the sweat lodge, have a seat, in education, in front of a room of orange men. I’m not allowed to wear orange—any shade.
I try to imagine Robert there, in my class, reading a poem piled with breasts and pubic hair, his dick through a hole ripped in raw skirt steak.
He wouldn’t write that poem though—he talks to women that way because he doesn’t understand them beyond his own lust. When he talks to me, he’s a person and I’m a person and I’m truly sorry to those he relegates to meat, but I can’t judge him—not to his face at least; not in the way I treat him, but I know I’m judging when my imagination puts him in front of that pot roast. It’s the same with my students. I don’t look up their records, but South Unit is for sex offenders, and when I meet with them and talk with them they’ve committed no crimes, but humans are judgmental and I know, somewhere in my head, I’ve given them their own pot roasts.
But when Robert is a person he talks to me about nostalgia for his days as a nomad. His poem would be for the love he once had for a good woman, for nature, and for the truck he shared with both. He would try to make it rhyme at first, even though I’ve recommended he does not. His sentences would war against logic in order to end with sounds that make me giggle at his bared soul, which does not deserve scrutiny or belittlement. Or maybe his poem is a blob of words—a formless, structureless, punctuationless stream-of-conscious rant detailing all of the things that have been taken from him.
I try to imagine Robert in my class, but Robert has an aversion to rules, and education is a privilege for good behavior. These students are sober and Robert is high. They are empathetic and contemplative, while the world has it out for Robert. He’s like my father—there’s nothing but malice in a world you can’t understand, when everything you want to do breaks some rule because it will hurt someone, but you can’t see it. Maybe I do all of this because of him, because of how much compassion he didn’t have, or didn’t know how to express. It was just after my father died that I began to work with the homeless, and shortly after that, the incarcerated. I learned empathy because he had not. I learned self-expression because he had not. I learned to care for others because he thought care and those who needed care were burdens. I see him in these sick men. Robert has his strong, work-worn hands; skin that seems thicker than it should be, stippled a shade darker with hair follicles; purposeful movements that make him big and dangerous; smell of cheap bar soap and cigarettes.
The other men there are my father as a dying man: aged twenty years beyond their lifetimes, wasted to skeletal frames which barely carry their huge, fluid bellies and fat, dead livers. They are my poem now; the first I share with my students, because I need to show them my pain if I am to be deserving of theirs. I write of a man who shit himself in the night. My night shift is often mundane—I wash laundry, I clean the dining hall and stock condiments, I talk with the nurse and security and patients that can’t sleep, I make coffee before the sun comes up so that I can lure half-sleeping patients over to me and take their vitals—but some nights there’s shit, or blood, or piss, or all three because dying is very ugly. The man in my poem was my dad and a stranger. He walked out from the black of B-Dorm and into the dim light of the hall. He was nude, and staggering—hardly balanced, holding his pregnant, knotted gut. Weeks later, when all the toxins, which his liver had failed to filter, broke his brain, he became violent. He hurt and he didn’t understand what hurt or how to stop it. He spoke angry nonsense slurs and alternated between raising and lowering his pants, and smashing his fist into a painting on the wall. When my dad got to this stage it was just before he died, and he was trapped in a reclining chair, in a hospice facility, with his food tray secured over him like a seat belt. I sat with him, both of us drunk, and tried to talk with him while he writhed and mumbled and passed in and out of consciousness.
I built my first piece of furniture out of wood because that is what he did, and he was very good at it. He never wanted to teach me because he thought I should work with my brain rather than my hands. I thought that once I had proved I could work with my brain, he would teach me and we could use the hobby to bond as two adults who hadn’t known how to bond as father and child. I built the bench, while he was dying, out of my imagination, and it felt like painting a piece of art. I knew a new pride for him, and I wanted to show him what I had done. I flashed pictures in front of his face and described them. He looked at me once, but couldn’t articulate a response.
I wish I had known Robert’s poem, or my father’s, before they left. Poetry is an art accessible to everyone. When I take it to the men of the South Unit, I think it’s a religion. I think I’m a preacher—not of how they should live their lives, but of how they should write them down, how they can see themselves and the world, and interpret it, understand it, and communicate it to others. When we talk of poetry, we talk of our deepest selves. I want to know Robert’s poem because I want to know Robert—the one beneath getting kicked out of the facility for drugs and sexual harassment and threats to other patients. I want to know how he would understand the world, and himself, if he could take the time to look at it with a poem.
Robert’s been gone for some time now. He was caught with weed, and that may not have been such a big deal, but the security guard confiscated it and Robert stole it back out of the security office and got caught with it again. I guess that was the last straw. I don’t know where he is now, but I hope he’s doing OK.
It’s strange to see my dad in the homeless and the incarcerated more than I see him anywhere else, but that’s what this is. I’ve always wanted to do good for others—to feel good about myself because I can make others feel good—but I used to care for special needs children, developmentally disabled adults, an elderly stroke survivor with paralysis. Now I care for my dead dad every day. I learn to like him by liking the antisocial, alcoholic, abusive, mentally ill, traumatized, criminal men that I see him in so strongly. He was all of those things and he was still good. I hated him for a very long time, but he was still good.
DERIK ROOF studied poetry at Arizona State University and works in Human Services, primarily serving the unhoused and recently housed out of chronic homelessness. He taught poetry to incarcerated individuals at Arizona Department of Corrections, Florence, South Unit, as part of the ASU Prison Education Project, for two and half years, before COVID prevented entry into the prisons. He has served as poetry editor for Iron City Magazine, which primarily publishes the work of incarcerated individuals. More of Derik’s work can be found in The Oakland Review, as well as Four Chambers Press, Write on Downtown, and online at Grey Matter Magazine.