Some books enter through the eyes, making their way straight to the forebrain. Some touch the reader’s heart. I’m writing today about a book you will want to read because it wraps itself around both mind and spirit, drawing the lucky reader into the Great Conversation, that exchange marked by the search for truth beyond categories and the willingness to be revealed.
By Heart: Poetry, Prison, and Two Lives is by Judith Tannenbaum, a writer I am proud to call my friend, and Spoon Jackson, a writer whom I have never met. Reading their alternating chapters in By Heart has made me feel as if I know them both, though, so I will use first names.
Judith and Spoon are very different in almost all respects: man/woman, living in prison and in the world beyond its walls, black/white, romantic/careful. The book is about their separate journeys, intersecting first at San Quentin, where Judith taught and Spoon studied poetry, then bobbing and weaving through their contrasting worlds, life inside and outside, shaped by literature and longing.
By Heart touches on many subjects that are—and ought to be—central to our national conversation now, when punishment has expanded so far into our understanding of public purpose that it might as well be our name. We learn how one child is beaten into a corner that lasts a lifetime; and another finds a way to resist being cornered by fear. We see the waste and cruelty the dominates our prison system, and the resilience that sometimes flourishes despite it. We meet poets and prison officials and movie stars, and read about great adventures of the heart and spirit.
Above all, we see two people whose very different lives were saved by art, by the awakening of their capacities for social and personal imagination, by their separate and mutual embrace of the word and its power to heal, reveal, scold, seduce, illuminate. Watching Judith and Spoon become poets, we see them awaken to life’s possibilities, despite very real restrictions and constrictions. We see them becoming.
In his one-paragraph story, “On Exactitude in Science,” the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges describes how cartographers’ quest for absolute accuracy produces a map that is exactly the same size as the territory it covers. Just so, a book that represents in total accuracy the complete trajectory of two lives would take exactly as long as those lives to write and to read. Of necessity, much is omitted from By Heart. In the fashion of all humans, both authors’ stories are shaped by the intensity of the gaze they direct at certain aspects of their experience, and by the times they look away. The map cannot be the territory. What both authors have chosen to include has a magical, expansive quality I associate with water, each episode flowing into the next, each written sentence hinting at what has been washed away between the lines. As I read it, I had a feeling I have previously experienced only in face-to-face dialogue, where the timbre of another’s voice sets up a subtle answering vibration in the reader’s own throat. I didn’t want it to end.
There is a wealth of material online. You can hear Spoon read from an early chapter about his childhood in the Mojave Desert, or read an excerpt from one of his chapters on the Community Arts Network, or see a video trailer for the book with Judith and Spoon reading over images of San Quentin and Barstow.
Every day, I think about what we will do to turn away from our collective obsession with punishment, investing instead in our boundless creativity. The first step to any antidote is to free the social imagination, shattering the embedded categories that keep us from seeing fully human beings when we hear the word “prisoners” (and maybe the word “poets” too). When we allow the texture of a life to emerge from generalization into full dimensionality—and it is art that makes this possible—we can no longer think of that life merely as a thing, a number, a problem to be dispatched.
All of us are no more than a degree or two from the choices that have made the United States Incarceration Nation, with more prisoners, often in horrific conditions, than any other country. If we don’t know someone who works in the courts or criminal justice system, we know someone who has been taken into that system, or someone who supplies it with food or builds prisons or profits from it in another way. And all of us uphold it with our taxes. So after you buy a copy of By Heart: Poetry, Prison, and Two Lives and finish reading it, you can give it to just about anyone you know, in serene confidence that they will need to read it too, and that your giving it to them will make a difference—and not just in their own experience.