The first thing you ask for is a map
but they won’t give you one.
The road out here has a number,
a star route, and each sparse house
a p.o. box. The neighbors are told
not to stare. You took a bus from a named city
to get to this stop, a crossroads on the plains
at the edge of a mountain range, then climbed aboard
an old school bus, gray painted over yellow.
A visitor, like you, gives up
license, car keys, money,
and you are given a number
like a star route yourself, a latitude
and a longitude and twenty minutes
to sit in a locked room
and talk. They don’t want you to know
where you are, as if you were blindfolded
and spun around, without the blindfold,
with no point of reference,
no point of origin, or destination.
They won’t tell you the name of this corridor,
the entranceway you are standing in,
waiting in one gated box inside another box,
as keys clang, wheels spin within locks,
the tumblers turn through their stages.
At last count the one you visit
can’t describe where his cell is.
They don’t want you to know either.
A window up high, 4 by 4 inches,
like a truck’s rear view mirror reveals
a wash of gray or, on lucky days, robin’s egg blue,
no movement, not even a bird’s wing.
Can he almost pretend to read the clouds?
He is allowed thirty minutes a day
outside in a recessed well, angled
so deep he can’t see over the lip.
Maybe, raising his head like a horse
he can smell the licorice scent of sagebrush.
The clock is ticking.
You and he sit on either side of the table.
Off kilter yourself, you have brought him
what you can, a skein of color
(even the TV is black and white)
and the fleeting exchange of names.
He knows the mountains are out there.
The mountains have turned into questions:
Could he see them once? Could he name them?
Colorado a state of what? The names used to
mean something. Now they are reduced to syllables.
He is forgetting his capitals,
how to point left or right.
No compass. Even if he knew true north
and could head in that direction,
where would he go?
The syllables are fading like a page left out
too long in the sun
he has to strain his eyes to see.
Prairie dog, tumbleweed, plateau,
what they taught him in geography.
This land could be called beautiful or desolate
if he could choose the one word he was looking for,
the adjective to explain
what they deprive him of, what the thick manual says
to withhold, what they will deprive you of, too.
The few things left he can count
on his fingers, a sense of the senses,
key, lock, steel door
being slammed, every sound memorized
and cherished, eight footsteps
coming for him.
Helena Minton‘s chapbook, The Raincoat Colors was published by Finishing Line Press in 2017. She has also published The Canal Bed with Alice James Books, and The Gardener and the Bees with March Street Press. Poems have recently appeared in Sou’wester, The Listening Eye, The Tower Journal, and Ibbetson Street; and in the anthology, Nasty Women Poets: An Unapologetic Anthology of Subversive Verse, from Lost Horse Press. She has taught English Composition and Creative Writing and worked for many years as a public librarian. She lives near Boston.
2 thoughts on “A Poem by Helena Minton”
Chilling and powerful. Yes, it’s like that. I’ve visited prisoners, too.
Wonderful story telling by way of concrete images and clockwork syntax–tic, tic, tic–like you have entered prisoner time! I see that your MFA is from LaGrande, where I taught ten years. My chapbook will be published here. I’m thrilled to be in company of authors like you. Hope you will look me up on FB at Pamela Yenser in Albuquerque.