Poets are on a quest to find a word that is worth a thousand pictures.
I don’t know if there’s a poetry gene, but there’s connective tissue joining poets. Even before I know a writer is a poet – a poet is a writer, but a writer isn’t necessarily a poet – I feel simpatico with him or her. When I met Jan A. Nicometo, and she’s another amazing poet and kind soul I met through PEN America’s Prison Writing Program (PWP), I immediately felt connected.
Jan and I, often called upon by Bell Chevigny when she was the Chair of PWP, would show up at PWP events honoring PWP Award Winners, and read their works. It was at one of these events, more than 15 years ago, Jan said something I’ve never forgotten, and what I think is the best description of “reentry.” I don’t know if this came to Jan in the moment, but it could’ve been a Eureka! moment, at least it was for me. Jan, in describing reentry, rhetorically asked the audience if they were familiar with the sci-fi movie, Stargate. Returning from prison, she said, is like walking through the Stargate. I have written elsewhere that prison doesn’t change one’s DNA, but it fundamentally alters something in the brain and the body that science can’t explain. I imagine going through the Stargate involves molecular changes. In any event, Jan described the event, and I went through the Stargate with her.
Since then, my thinking around crime and punishment has evolved. Still, I hold Jan’s reentry description in my mind, and recently I began to refer to prisons as planets, prison planets. Anyone ever in the prison orbit can feel its powerful gravitational pull, but that’s a much longer dissertation-like conversation.
As stated in the beginning, poets seek to find a word that is worth a thousand pictures. In that one word, Stargate, Jan captured the essence of reentry. As a footnote to Jan’s description of reentry, one of my Eureka! moments came while reading William Safire’s “On Language” column in the Sunday Times. This column was on quantum physics. Safire quotes a physicist, who gives a definition of a quantum jump: “going from one state to another with nothing in between.” That, I said, is the perfect description of reentry! Who would’ve thunk that quantum physics would perfectly describe reentry?
Reentry has pulled many people, providers, and the people they serve, in the reentry industry, down a rabbit hole. I invite you to come though the prison portal Jan and I created for a deeper, out of this world explanation of the phenomena of reentry.