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Exchange of Values

Exchange of Values
acrylic on board 48'X96'

"Structure of Color Perception"

"Structure of Color Perception"
48'X96' acrylic on board

Friday, April 12, 2013


***  “Poetry heals the wounds inflicted by reason.”  Novalis (yeah, maybe, sometimes).

***  It seems that many of us may have forgotten Leonard Peltier. (If you don’t know who LP is you may not want to bother reading any further).  It is understandable that other concerns would crowd Leonard out of our awareness.  War is again looming (North Korea, Iran, South Ossetia), and any of these wars could escalate and result in the total destruction of human life on this planet.  Unemployment has risen now for two months in a row.  I have also noticed that women’s *wardrobe malfunctions* are a daily feature of many of the on-line news sites that I read and peeping a nipple ranks right up there with tracking North Korean mobile missile launchers.  There is no use in feeling guilty about all of this, it is hard to really care about strangers, and I don’t know how much good it does anyway.  My wife and I have corresponded with, supported, donated to, protested for, and written letters to politicians and BOP officials supporting Leonard  Peltier for 25 years.  I confess that I have lost hope that he will ever get out of prison alive.

All this was brought to mind again when I was looking through my poetry library for a friend and I came across Leonard’s 1999 book “Prison Writings: My Life Is My Sun Dance.”  It was then that I remembered for how long I had forgotten Leonard.  And that I have also forgotten many other suffering people and worthy causes that I vowed to remember.  I am wondering if maybe that is what my old age is going to be about, unfaithful forgetting, remembrance, repentance.   Here is the first poem in Peltier’s book:

Doing time creates a
demented darkness of my
own imagination

Doing time does this thing
to you.  But, of course, you
don’t do time

You do without it.  Or
rather, time does you.

Time is a cannibal that
devours the flesh of your

Day by day, bite by bite.

Leonard had been in prison for 22 years when he wrote that.  And he has been in prison 14 years since then.  One can check on any federal prisoners status at this website:

Leonard will be eligible for parole in the year 2040.  He will be 95 years old.

***  The procedures and protocols for visiting day at the Washington State penitentiary in Monroe are daunting and dehumanizing.  First, all of the visitors are crowded into the induction area and watched over by armed guards and patrolled by drug and firearm sniffing police dogs.  The children alternate between being bored and scared.  Small children are usually happy at first when they see the dogs coming, but as the dogs get closer and the guards snap at the kids and tell them not to touch the animals the kids see that the eyes of the dogs are not friendly and they start to cower behind their mothers.  The dogs are prisoners too.  Everyone is scanned and searched and often the women are taken into a room for cavity searches.  Of course smuggling goes on all the time in all kinds of ways.  sometimes it is the guards themselves that are the smugglers, but on visiting day even a baby’s diapers are opened up and checked.  Baby bottles and formula confiscated.  All our pockets are turned inside out.

This is really hard on those inmates trying to maintain some sort of family life.  Most prisoners are poor, and so are their families.  It’s hard for a woman by herself to schlepp 2 young kids on a long series of bus rides from Seattle to Monroe.  Having to explain all about the guns and guards, and why visiting this virtual stranger should be important to them.  Once visitors are allowed to enter the visiting area the family’s table might be right next to some sort of gangster having virtual chair sex with his woman.  Maybe at the table on the other side sits a white-supremacist who keeps making obnoxious remarks about mud people or whatever.  Some visiting rooms are segregated for just this reason, but Monroe’s wasn’t.  It was always the family tables where everyone was really trying to act normal that saddened me most.  Dad was asking about homework and what’s new at school.  Mom is trying to smile and not burden her husband with money or home problems that he can’t possibly fix.  Usually by the time the kids are 10 or 12 or so they hardly know ‘Dad’ anymore and they either stop visiting or else just sit quietly and answer every question with a shrug.  Prisoners long for and dread visiting days.

I worked with the Black Prisoners Caucus and most all the inmates were lifers.  At the time a life sentence meant that the first parole hearing came only after serving a minimum of 13 years.  And parole is rarely granted the first time.  Not many families survive prison.

***  This is an old poem/song I wrote doing time while waiting to get through the visiting room.

The Visitation

What came you out to see
A reed shaken by the wind
A prisoner and penitent
In a penitentiary
The C O’s and the dogs
Can smell that somethings wrong
My baby won’t stop crying
No matter what the song

What came you out to see
A man in fine arraignment
Lifers and short timers
Hold their friends and families
Orifices have been searched and seen
Declared legally clean
My mother won’t stop crying
My fathers long disowned me

What came you out to see
A prophet and what more
Saints and sinners being punished
Shut away with lock and key
There are no secrets here within
Every soul’s turned inside out
My lover won’t stop crying
My heart is filled with doubt

What came you out to see
A man of miracles and faith
Or a prisoner on death row
Who’s been denied his final plea
His children are all strangers
Every man has turned his hand
Against the killer of his brother
Cursed is he and cursed his land

What came you out to see
A man broken and ashamed
Trained for taking orders
Unfit for life with decent company
No touching skin allowed
And every word is written down
Faces changing year to year
As the man you knew is drowned

What came you out to see
Someone with skin black or brown
Who crosses deadly borders
Transgressing walls of poverty
Every soul does time alone
Not just the ones in solitary
But we will try to keep some peace
For just one hour on visiting day

What came you out to see
A man atoning for his sins
A scapegoat or a monster
Untouchable unclean
Broken down to smaller pieces
Brothers hardly recognize
The picture in their mind begins to streak
Wait with him for just an hour
Watch justice roll down like dice
Innocence has a price

***  This would be a good place to go on a righteous rant about the prison industrial complex, but I won’t, at least not here.  That sort of ineffectual prattling is more suited for my facebook wall.  Poor people go to jail, always been that way, and it’s getting worse.  I think that if your interested then watch this video put out by the BOP (bureau of prisons) about career opportunities within the prison system.  Most everything you need to start understanding the relationship between capitalism and incarceration is in this 3 minute video.

Leonard wrote at the end of his his book.  “I don’t know how to save the world. I don’t have the answers or The Answer. I hold no secret knowledge as to how to fix the mistakes of generations past and present. I only know that without compassion and respect for all of Earth’s inhabitants, none of us will survive—nor will we deserve to.”  And then he ended with this poem:

In the shadowed night
I become spirit
The walls, the bars, the gratings dissolve into light
and I unloose my soul
and fly through the inner darkness of my being
I become transparent
a bright shadow
a bird of dreams singing from the tree of life.

Leonard has spent 14 years of shadowed nights since he wrote that.  I pray his soul is loosed.  Obliged.


  1. I am struggling with stories of Leonard and other male Aim leaders involvement in Anna Mae Pictou's murder. Hard to read his words with those thoughts in mind. Any thoughts on that mess?

  2. Thoughts? Keep struggling brother. Pine Ridge is the locus of so much tragedy that like some other places in the world it is hard to imagine anything short of a new creation can bring any kind of profound healing. Like Fanon said in “The Wretched of the Earth,” “Imperialism leaves behind germs of rot....” I would reckon that we will never really know the ‘truth’ about what occurred on Pine Ridge in the years surrounding the 1973 events. I can tell you though that the wounds are still raw there. There are many fractures in Lakota society. My own connections were mostly with folks belonging to the Red Cloud clan, who have had more than a hundred year feud with some of Crazy Horse’s people over the great Sioux war and some other property disputes. As a white man I did my best to stay out of such inter-tribal controversies. Whatever the evolving facts of these cases are, I think that Leonard did not get justice. That by most any measure Natives simply could not get justice in white courts, and I’m not sure that it’s that much better today. I am sorry for what happened to Anna Mae Aquash but I think it is impossible to ever find out the truth. Nevertheless, there are some important feminist issues that need to be reckoned with, not only with AIM, which has made some important changes, but a lot of resistance movements.

    When people ask me about what they should read to understand the history of the colonization of the Lakota and Pine Ridge in particular, i always tell them to start with Thucydides History of the Peloponnesian War. Then Fanon’s “The Wretched of the Earth." And then “Black Elk Speaks.” A close reading of Thucydides is the best place to start to understand this invention we call “america.” Blessings brother and I look fwd to reading more of your poetry. Obliged.

    *note. In Thucydides account we Sicilians were the 'Indians' who got trampled under the feet of the wars among the colonizers. Those wounds are still a bit raw too!

  3. I will take your syllabus (sp.?) gratefully. I have cherry picked all three but never as a chord or fully engaged. As a wise man once told me "Obliged."

  4. It’s been a long time since I read Thucydides, but something I always remember is an account of how the Athenians catapulted rotting severed heads over the walls of Syracuse in order to infect the people inside with disease. It was perhaps the earliest historical account of germ warfare and the use of a weapon of mass destruction recorded (even though they didn’t actually know what ‘germs’ were). Obliged.