Halide compounds hum inside the floodlights
pouring down lumens on the prison yard
across the service lane. Sleep is futile.
Antarctic breezes rattle loops of barbed wire.
Pairs of men in dark coats milled from rough wool
make laps of the yard’s fenced interior.
I lean out the window, into the brumal air
of tonight’s vision. The lifers carry on.
They walk their fates in thick woollen coats,
addressing each other inaudibly—
confessing and sanctifying their stories
with hand gestures, glowing tips of cigarettes.
You sleep. It is too late to show you them.
Their cold cells are a museum, open at 9 a.m.
This is poem 7 from a sequence called ‘Leviathan’ in The Lifers (Otago University press, 2020).
Jeffrey reads ‘7’
Jeffrey Paparoa Holman:
There is a whakapapa of prison poetry that links Michael Steven’s poem on men behind bars in The Lifers, his recent second volume from Otago University Press. The poems in this book have gritty echoes that François Villon would hear and feel; a deep well of humanity also that Oscar Wilde would appreciate, from his cell in Reading Gaol. Whether we are watching users scoring, thieves preparing a raid, a friend mourning the suicide of a kindred lost soul, there opens up before us a vision of brokenness elegised with compassion through an unsparing binocular lens. The poem considered here – Sonnet 7 from a series, Leviathan – captures precisely the cold realities of those sentenced to life for the most serious of crimes. The effect is so visual, it returned to me a memory of Van Gogh’s ‘Prisoners Exercising’, painted in 1890 while he was in the asylum at Saint-Rémy, suffering deep depression. Most Fridays, with two other poets, Bernadette Hall and Jeni Curtis, we take part in a reading group at Christchurch Mens Prison; I recently took copies of this poem and shared it. The silence that greeted its reading attested the truth Michael Steven has captured, from the inside. This poem – and the rest of his fine and developing oeuvre – invite your close attention.
Jeffrey Paparoa Holman is a Christchurch poet and non-fiction writer. His most recent poetry collection, Blood Ties: selected poems, 1963-2016 was published by Canterbury University Press in 2017. A memoir, Now When It Rains came out from Steele Roberts in 2018. He is currently working on a book chapter for a collection of studies on early 20th century ethnographers. He makes his living as a stay-at-home puppy wrangler for Hari, an eight-month old Jack Russell-Fox Terrier cross. Hari ensures that very little writing happens, but Victoria Park is explored and mapped daily.
Michael Steven is the author of the acclaimed Walking to Jutland Street (Otago University Press, 2018). He was recipient of the 2018 Todd New Writer’s Bursary, and his poems were shortlisted for the 2019 Sarah Broom Poetry Prize. He lives and writes in West Auckland. The Lifers (Otago University Press) was recently launched at Timeout Bookshop.
Otago University Press author page