Reginald Lewis is a playwright, essayist and poet who happens to be living on
Pennsylvania's Death Row (at SCI-Greene, the same facility where Live from Death Row author Mumia Abu-Jamal is housed). His poems,
collected in the book Inside My Head, are painful vignettes that depict life for poor men – mostly black
men – behind prison walls. Those prison walls may or may not be actual walls of brick and concrete. Sometimes they are the prison of poverty, ignorance, and the myths caused by racism and media brainwashing. Sooner or later, however, they lead to prisons of concrete.
The poems are primarily about black men. But it is also about the bonding that takes place between lost souls with no hope, of creating their own myth,
of men locked away from the world who share experiences and bond through the outside world's media, as in the poem, "Before Howard Stern" which deals with the author's bonding with a "dope fiend white boy" who died of hepatitis C. Death is everywhere present in
prison. It is present in communal and personal memories, in the death of hopes, in murders and rapes behind prison walls.
Poems like "Come back Johnny," which tells the reader that "Little Johnny the child of a dirty white trash ho' was found on his mother's lap when a pimp blew her brains out" are powerful. Even more powerful is the depiction of Johnny's fate.
He is sent to live with an aunt who calls him NIGGA, is described as an "exotic bird" who "lived in cardboard nests" and "who never learned how to fly" was used by various people and then hanged himself. Another poem, "Silky got shot" tells us of the "transformation of a tender young psyche festering in the crucible of some interminable shuttle in and out of one juvenile facility after another." This is painful political stuff. But it is reportage.
The poem "Scenes from an execution" ponders racism in the death penalty
system. A reader might raise her eyebrows because this is the nearest the poet ever gets to discussing his own troubles on death row. And yet... the political natures of these poems seem like discussions one might hear on National Public Radio
– "the industrial prison mills," for example.
My favorite poem in this collection shows Lewis' wonderful ability to encapsulate characters in crisp poetry. In "Mizzuz Johnson's emails" a boy writes to his daddy's new girlfriend on the school computer. His mother found the girlfriend's phone number and email address in his pocket one night
"Just in time cuz she was gon' stab Him." One stanza reads as follows: "Dear Mizzuz Johnson...My daddy left. You seen him, Mizzuz Johnson? When you do tell him he cain't say I ain't his cuz everybody know I look jus'a like 'im. Mama say he owe chile s'port." In short, insightful lines he shows how strange bonds are created. In so-called normal life, a child would not be writing to his father's mistress. But in Lewis' world of poverty, anything is possible. I say Lewis' world because I live in an urban environment and I don't quite believe in Lewis' world. But perhaps I am protected.
As protected, for instance, as the white female lawyer who encounters the Black male myth in actuality, outside her own head in the poem, "A marvelous Black male specimen". Lewis writes "Suddenly violations of his/Civil rights is not really why/She's here /It's to break loose from the chains." Whether this white female lawyer's realization is actually outside of the poet's head and exists in common reality is hard to figure out. She might be a wish inside the poet's head, a place where real and stereotyped images of black men are in constant battle. Or she might be a real love affair. In the long run, the romantic occurrences inside his head are all he has. But what about belief? Does the poet want us to believe in the actual occurrence? Does the daydream help ease the pain of isolation if it is believed by his readers? And what are black female readers to think about this tall tale in which an imprisoned black man frees the mind – and sexuality – of a white woman? One wonders what the game is.
This wondering continues as one reads poems like "Dinner with white liberals," "On Oprah," and "profiling,"
where good depictions of the World Outside are weak. They are powerful, yet they seem borrowed. His examinations of the lust for black men and its counter-lust of blonde worship don't seem to be his own examinations.
They're more like a retread of sociology books he might have read in the prison library. It feels like posing. But what wonderful and informative posing!
I highly recommend these 69 poems written in four chapters by a man who has spent almost 20 years in death row, although the heavy scent of martyrdom and victimhood and the poet's political view of everything is so predominant that a real life flesh-and-blood man is hard to find. Lewis' poems are about social guilt. They aren't even about personal innocence. Lewis has repeatedly stated that he is innocent of the crime for which he is slated to die. One's attitude towards the poems will depend on whether one believes him or not. I found the poems a stark non-flinching documentary of life inside the prisons of imprisoned minds, prophetic and distant, telling much and yet telling little. But I found the politicizing suspect. Perhaps that is my failing. I've read political poems, rarely
were they written by falsely-imprisoned black men. Oscar Wilde's "The Ballad of Reading Gaol"
is quite personal in its philosophical way. But Wilde's poem links personal and universal guilt. These poems about things inside and outside Reginald's head made
me want to tell the poet to stop talking about all these important issues and to start talking about himself.