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Silence Was My Teacher

a review by Richard Silberg

By Heart: Poetry, Prison, and Two Lives, Judith Tannenbaum and Spoon Jackson, New Village Press, Oakland, California, 2010, 199 pages, $20.00 paperback,

This book has grown out of a beautiful idea: the criss-crossed memoirs of a Jewish, middle-class poet, teacher of poetry at San Quentin, and her student, a black, working-class man, a lifer, a convicted murderer, who, under her mentoring, has become a poet in his own right. The cover shows their criss-crossed photos, a smiling Judith Tannenbaum across from the smiling little girl Judith and an impassive, watch-capped, sunglassed Spoon across from his grave little boy self. We get to know these two engaging people through their separate memoirs, and the intrinsic interest in the lives of each is heightened by their common prison matrix and by their separate, sometimes contrasting perspectives on the same events.

Heart is imprisoned in this book, even as, at the book's weightless apogee, prison is enheartened. "Despite Mr. Chavez's prediction, I did graduate from high school. I graduated without knowing how to build a complete sentence, without knowing how to do simple fractions, without knowing how to read beyond a sixth grade level, and without knowing how to communicate with my fellow human beings…Not long after graduation, I was on one of my runs. I got caught up, was shot, and then killed someone. The killing was not premeditated, but it was totally my fault…I was ready to be judged and convicted for the killing I had done. But I did not expect the inherently racist judicial system that inflated my charges and determined my trial and conviction…During my trial, my mom and dad came to visit me…There were no magic sidewalks in the sky over the purple and red clay mountains to lead me away…This trouble made all the fights with my brothers, all the problems in school, and all the mean words irrelevant. This trouble left a cut, a big open wound, in our family. I could see in my parents' eyes that one of their own had fallen. My mom's eyes held a million words. My dad said one of the longest sentences I'd ever heard him speak—'Boy, you better pray!'…It was like I'd had blinders on during my first two decades on earth. My ears had earplugs. Even my heart was hidden. Hearing the guilty verdict I felt disgust for the jury. Those twelve white folks were not my peers, did not know me, and had no human right to judge me…After they found me guilty of the murder, I awaited the sentencing of life without possibility of parole or death. The jury could not choose between the two, so the judge gave me life without parole…At twenty one does not think he will do a life sentence. A life sentence doesn't sink in immediately. It can take seven to ten years to begin to understand…I sat down to breakfast, my first morning in prison…The noise and the mood of the place was maddening, like stepping into a huge, dark cave full of hungry bats. I could not find any familiar spot inside of myself able to relate to the bars, concrete, steel, guns, and to the guards barking out orders to hurry and eat." (pages 39–41) Can you feel that, the trap closing and closed?

Try this on for soul-squeeze—this is Judith lecturing: "First I asked each person in the audience to think of the worst thing he or she had ever done. 'Now imagine,' I instructed, 'that this act is all you're known for. Imagine that everything in your world is designed to treat you as a person defined by this act. Any other fact of your life—any act of love, creativity, compassion, intelligence, or joy—is irrelevant. You are only a person who has done this worst thing. That's it, that's you, from now till forever.

'That is the reality of a person in prison,' I pointed out. 'Whether you actually did that worst thing, or you didn't, whether it was an uncharacteristic act, or part of a sad series of missteps; whether you are still the person who committed that wrong, or someone whose spirit has grown—you've been convicted and you're thrown into a world where all you are is bad and ready to do bad.'" (pages 172–173)

Spoon Jackson is self-evidently someone "whose spirit has grown" during his more than twenty years in prison. It's the irony of his fate—one that is probably shared with some significant minority of prisoners—to have awakened behind bars. "The guards, other prisoners, and prison staff could not place me anywhere, not in any street or prison gang. They did not know that I had learned to despise violence and to love peace, that I looked forward to lockdowns and to all the silence, reading, and studying given by those long stretches of time…When the cell door closed, doors to other places opened up. Prison people did not know that inside me was a desert thirst for knowledge…Pre-prison, my life had never been one of words. I could hardly read, and I spoke as my father did to me, in one-word sentences, shrugs, or by nodding my head. But during the months I was on trial, I sat stunned by all the words the DA used…I started studying the dictionary in the county jail and reading all I could…Once at San Quentin, I checked out all the books I could get from the prison library and education department…I took all the adult high school classes…I took all the college classes…I learned a few new words each day and each one brought a geyser erupting inside my mind and soul…I dived into philosophy, religion, psychology, sociology, ecology, any 'ology' I could get my mind into…For eight years I had stayed to myself at San Quentin…My teacher had become silence, and through the wisdom silence brought, I had grown to feel happy and free inside…But my journey was about to change and my life about to have a voice. On a whim, I signed up for two poetry classes…Judith taught one of the…classes and she suggested I jot down my thoughts and feelings…She pronounced no 'shoulds' or 'should nots.' I did the exercises, but I kept the writing to myself. I sat in the back of the class with empty chairs surrounding me…I do not know how she knew to leave me in silence but still somehow include me in the class…She knew the books to turn each student on to, the exact book that would enlighten…I had heard Judith speak from the heart, nearly in tears, as some of the fellows in the group drilled her about her motives and reasons for coming inside San Quentin…For me, either I trust somebody or I don't. I trusted Judith instantly and trusted what she had to offer…What people are usually speaks like the sky." (pages 10–12)

Many astounding things are related in these two memoirs, Judith's and Spoon's, beautiful and terrible things, others that just click us into a cold understanding, but I'm not going to tell you what they are, because I don't want to give them away. I want people to get By Heart and read it, reflect on it. Let me just close with Spoon's first poem as they both tell it.

"Some spirit, muse, or magic moved me…one Christmas Eve…I sat on my rusty bunk on Bay Side, in West Block, at San Quentin looking out of the bars at the ocean, so close, yet a million miles away. I thought of Christmases…and of not having had one for over ten years…I let go of my mind, thoughts, and pre-conceived notions…Some force, some sweet realness engulfed me…I wrote the poem on a Friday night and I would not see Judith until Monday…I caught Judith in the hallway of the education building and handed her my poem. I had been in Judith's class, shades on day and night, in silence, for over a year. When she read the poem, all she could say—with tear-filled eyes—was 'outrageous.'" (page 81)

"One afternoon, I walked into the education building, and Spoon appeared from some seeming nowhere. He quickly handed me a poem and then disappeared…I loved Spoon's words, images, use of sound, and flow. But it wasn't only 'No Beauty in Cell Bars' as a poem that caused me to cry that afternoon. No words attached to my emotions, but the words I'd use now are: I felt as though I was witnessing a birth. Elmo had come to our class already a writer and every one of my students had written at least one fine poem. But reading "No Beauty in Cell Bars" felt different…Spoon's poem seemed not only the work of a poet who had developed the craft to shape an inspiration, but also the expression of a man who'd discovered something important about himself…never before had I sensed that the poem I was reading revealed a person waking up to his calling…Writing is often an act of hurling words against the void. Spoon's words didn't feel hurled, but seemed instead to arise from a comfort with silence. Not the silence dictatorships demand of their citizens, the kind Stanley Baranczak wrote about, ironically in relation to life in Communist Poland, 'If you have to scream, please do it quietly.' Spoon's silence was closer to the silence Czeslaw Milosz called upon in his poem, 'Dedication.' Writing in 1945 Warsaw, and dedicating his words to 'You whom I could not save,' Milosz tells the dead that he has no 'wizardry of words.' Instead, he writes, 'I speak to you with silence like a cloud or a tree.' " (pages 52–53)

So that's the crux of this book, a prison poet and his teacher, the acts of love by which one person helps another to be born to poetry. We should care because the U.S.A. has the biggest prison population in the world, and California has the biggest prison population in our country. That hurts us, all of us. It sucks at our tax money and our souls. But that's practical, political. We're poets and lovers of poetry. So in a soul sense Judith Tannenbaum and Spoon Jackson—two very real, specific people—are also writing an allegory, the coded story of each one of us.

Here is Spoon Jackson's poem, "No Beauty in Cell Bars," followed by one of Judith Tannenbaum's poems:

No Beauty in Cell Bars

by Spoon Jackson

Restless, unable to sleep

Keys, bars, guns being racked

Year after year

Endless echoes

Of steel kissing steel


Constant yelling

Nothing said

Vegetating faces, lost faces

Dusted faces

A lifer

A dreamer

Tomorrow's a dream

Yesterday's a memory

Both a passing of a cloud

How I long

For the silence of a raindrop

Falling gently to earth

The magnificence of a rose

Blooming into its many hues

Of color

The brilliance of a rainbow

When it sweetly lights up the sky

After a pounding rainfall

Picnics in a rich green meadow

We saw the beauty in butterflies

We made it our symbol

Tiny grains of sand

One hour glass

A tear that may engender

A waterfall

The memories

The dreams

Are now

Love is now

There's no beauty in cell bars.

This poem originally appeared in Longer Ago, poems by Spoon Jackson, available on

Under Low Ceilings

by Judith Tannenbaum

Count's cleared and the guard says,

"It's late, class is over, you can go

back to your cells. Good night."

This is the moment   faultline

slide of two plates.

Some shift I can feel

but not yet quite see.

This is the moment

dark screen descending.

This is the moment

cleave of an ax:

what came before   and now this.


            in that basement

buried room two flights down.

We're blind but we touch

something whole.

Call it poems.

Call it life.

Call it

we breathe

and we're human.


            their way to the right.

The mural, barbed wire

North Block, Death Row.

Their walk in that dark

I can't see beyond.

And my turn to the left.

Past Four Post, the garden,

three chapels, three gates.

Outside to the car

where I sit frantic, desperate,

driven by light —

bridge lights and town lights

and stop lights and shop lights

and the light of the lamp

I've left on at home.

So much light and still

I can't see,

can't catch sight

of a shape

I might understand.

All I see are the stairs of a fortress

where light cut by grating

hits concrete in squares.

All I see is where we throw

what we don't want to look at.

Under low ceilings

way out in the bay.

This poem was originally published in Bottomfish magazine, and appears here by permission of the poet.

Richard Silberg is associate editor of Poetry Flash. His most recent book of poems is Deconstruction of the Blues. He co-translated Korean poet Ko Un's The Three Way Tavern. He teaches the Poetry Flash Poetry Workshop.

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