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December at Faribault Prison

Michael Torres

When the evening sky loses
its blue, the dead trees are only that.
                                                       We become what
                                                 we endure. I left
every homie, every person I loved. Five years ago.
I study maps. Routes to return me. How odd, the necessity
of this venture: the unending study
                                                       of the past’s magnitude.
And yet: each of us carries a kind of scale.
                                                                 Once a week
I gather in a room full of men who measure
the lives they wanted
                                  —and still want—
by writing it down, men who do not know
they remind me of nicknames and handshakes
from back home. Despite this or because of it
                                                                     we laugh.
                             We talk poetry, and do not
bring up how we got here.
                                      Beyond, a barbed fence carves the wind
countless. Only snow enters unquestioned—without ID,
metal detection, hand stamp—
                                         parachuting through
          cyclones of razor wire.
How solemn each blade
                                 must be. After class
                                                              I want nothing
than to stray from my escort’s side. His baton
and badge.
                I understand the infraction.             And yet
I imagine my glove tossed,
                                         so that I may graze one blade
             with an index finger
                                          warm and crowded
                                          with my blood.

“December at Faribault Prison” began around this time last year, while I travelled through a gray Minnesota winter on an airport shuttle. I was headed home for the holidays and found myself staring out at the landscape, thinking about friends and life and all the things poets think about. I’d just finished my first term teaching creative writing at a state prison. On that shuttle, I thought about the men in my class, how much they reminded me of boys I grew up with, and the weight of that realization. For some reason, I couldn’t get the image of the prison building out of my thoughts. It had intimidated me each week for fifteen weeks. No matter how much I believed I was reaching my students through poetry, when each class ended, they’d walk one way and I another. I would feel angry, sad, and helpless every time my escort walked me through the ribbon-wired gates.

Michael Torres was born and brought up in Pomona, California, where he spent his adolescence as a graffiti artist. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Ploughshares, The Sun, and Water~Stone Review, among others. He has received grants from the Minnesota State Arts Board and the Jerome Foundation. A CantoMundo Fellow and VONA alum, Torres has been a finalist for the Jake Adam York Prize and a semi-finalist for the A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize. Currently he teaches creative writing at Minnesota State University, Mankato and through the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop.