SEEN is a prison portrait and poetry project. But more importantly, it’s a Minnesota portrait and poetry project. Through photography, video, and written word, we share the poignant brilliance of poets and prose writers in Minnesota state prisons, and work together to make the invisible visible, the unheard heard, and the unseen seen. Mass incarceration is dependent upon the ignoring and erasure of the human beings we cage. In collaboration with the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop (MPWW) and the thoughtful, intelligent, humble, and deeply gifted writers on the inside, WAAC challenges and disrupts mass incarceration by clearing the pathways for people behind bars to have their voices heard, faces seen, and humanity recognized–and for people on the outside to reckon with the inhumanity of our country’s mass incarceration mass disaster.
This page is dedicated to Zeke Caligiuri’s work. For more poets and essayists, check out the SEEN page.
Excerpt from Before I Was Anything
Before I was anything
I was an abstraction, sound waves
moving through glycerin.
Before the effigies of my generation
in orange jumpsuits started tattooing
cuffs on their wrists, bars on their hearts,
I was a red jumpsuit
running under evergreens
on the edge of a mountain.
Back then, I was a story
they would tell me my whole life.
Before I was anything
I was an open school education.
Cracks big enough to climb down into
strange fleeting minutes alone,
subterranean stairwells, where feelings
as vacuums consume
moving photographs of moments
compressed between years, bound
to one another––the ones they said
would come eventually and go away
That was before
City Center was Mecca
and kids made Hajj
stealing Girbauds from Dayton’s
and looked at all the people they knew
on the wall in the holding tank
in the basement.
I was a poem carved
in the glass on the backseat of the five bus.
That was before I became time,
stories, smoke accumulated in the walls.
I was still standing on that rooftop
watching tricks circle the block.
I was still on the bus,
behind a janitor’s uniform
and the smell of fryer grease.
I was already on fire.
Before I was anything
I was already something my parents
could never explain, dressed up
in imagined colors.
I became a blue shirt, guileless ghost
hovering through hallways.
And I am still sound waves
moving through glycerin
but it’s okay Baby New Year, on the cusp
of a baby new horizon––it’s okay
I’m still the abstraction
that will maybe write that poem,
or change the last one.
Tell the story
or write my way back to life.
A House, A Neighborhood excerpt, from THIS IS WHERE I AM
We came because it was South Minneapolis, because it was where my dad had grown up, because it was across the street from Powderhorn Park, just a few blocks from Granny. We came because my parents wanted to own a house. It seemed like a natural succession. It was not the mountains of California, but the disappointment in having to leave the mysticism of that place had to yield to this. We came because it was the 80’s and a whole lot of things I didn’t understand yet about the passing of time and not being able to eat off of myth and idealism. We came because of everything it was; now it was supposed to be home. We came because it was Powderhorn, the park and the neighborhood.
She was virtually bare; the rug and the coffee table in the living room were gone; just a couple of months before there was still a Christmas tree and the semblance of a home and family unit. Now, there were just the old wood floors that welcomed us when we first came to live there. One of my earliest memories was sitting with my mom while she tried to teach me our new phone number in the empty living room, repeating the same seven numbers over and over again. There weren’t boxes or furniture yet. There was just a phone, an ashtray, and a single blue-gray ribbon of smoke flowing up into the air from the end of a Merit cigarette. The sun poked through the stained and leaded-glass windows that had spanned many lifetimes of that house. Back then, our family was our religion, and over time the house became our church.
Everything is Everything
They all gather
at this moment.
The little ones hold eyes wide,
while gunpowder with red,
blue and green dust
tell stories in the sky–
They were the dirty kids
who started in the Hard Times parking lot-
at this moment they are an army;
celestial bodies in camo
and cargoes, bandannas wrapped
around faces, protection
from a wall of batons,
braided lines of riot shields,
and domes of tear gas.
Girls smoke bidis, enveloped
in fresh layers of patchouli.
The red-haired girl tells her story
that sounds a whole lot like
the Mumia rallies in ’95.
An East Indian girl with a scar
shaped like Alaska on her neck
says she’s not an American,
but she is America.
God bless her.
The man, tear-drop tattooed
under an eye that mostly just sees
razor-wire reproduce, starts to watch
the sway of the branches
of a single white ash. Starts to say something
about the hawks, swaying in rhythms,
circular over the St. Croix–the green
in the skyline, right before the lighting.
He says: one day it will strike him
as though it hasn’t already.
In an alley, on a block
somewhere between Franklin
and Lake St. pit-bulls,
a redbone and a black one,
both puppies just weeks before,
their only sins: loyalty, locked
several inches into each other’s skulls.
busted to the white meat.
Young, gap-toothed villains
on the sidelines
bet more than
they can afford to lose.
Heads up! Something whistling
in torn vibrations,
running in different directions.
How all the little pellets of glass
hop and bounce off of pavement
before anyone sees red.
The heathens tie knots and point fingers-
gather behind yellow tape.
And the explosions,
hang high and fall back down
just like everything,
that is everything.
The Last Visit from the Girl in the Willow Tree excerpt, from THIS IS WHERE I AM
I told her about what I was reading—Hermann Hesse and Jack Kerouac, Dostoevsky and Steinbeck, anything I could get my hands on I thought I was the shit, that I had become in 10 months the cliché of the convict that found himself in books during the grind of doing time. She had already read them all by the time I got to talking about them so she was amused by my sudden enlightenment. I told her I started reading the bible, and how I was mad at myself for ignoring it all those years. In the panic I had no idea what I was supposed to believe, I was just absorbing anecdotes and phrases as they flowed into my world. I used to show off when we were younger by puking out the small bits of Nietzsche I understood and free-styling off of the so much of him I didn’t understand. She told me in a letter a few months earlier that maybe I should’ve read Nietzsche after I read the bible—she was probably right. It was probably another example of outsmarting myself skipping a step to have what was on the other side, missing context while trying to nuance certain subtext. Before she left she would leave me a stack of books; Kafka, The Trial and of course The Metamorphosis; Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom, and Light in August with Joe Christmas. And she left me Farewell to Arms, there had to be the tragic love story snuck inconspicuously in the pile to be discovered.
Essays from Zeke’s memoir, THIS IS WHERE I AM, won the 2012 PEN Prison Writing Award
When They Come Back
They come back with a sack
of a junkie’s new clothes;
twitch-body, lower-lip loping
further out than the top,
Bobby Brown-jaw, missing
molars, baby teeth serrating, disintegrate,
grinding side to other side.
Words ping from the slingshot, one
then many pebbles building stories:
neon stories, too graphic noir
too Reservoir Dog-like. Eyelids
Hands flailing, whole body disjointed
motion like a motor revving up
these words, memories.
Toro twisting, fingers palsied
very much living tendrils, very much part
of these tales. Guns,
rusty needles and must sex in Kwik Trip
where sadness should live.
Because they’ve come back home.
These Songs Remind Me
These songs remind me
of rain clouds in my daylight,
when the rain used to swallow me.
Perfumed afternoons, the faint specks of sunshine
on the windshield of a cold and miserable life.
The darkened heart
that consumes men
with its serrated incisors,
inside great-big gaping holes of silence
in the middle of the night,
where there are still plenty of hours
before my dawn.
And my pen bleeds
just like me.
Just like me,
cutting just deep enough
to to leave a scar
to remember me,
because moments like these
melt like mercury.
And it was all so beautiful
until I fell in love with the grays
and blacks of rainy afternoons,
running around outside
in the monsoon.
And the chords in the song
play my life
in soft pitch,
with hovering homonyms,
Dr. Pepper bottle memoir
and gasoline mirages.
And it plays like the rain.
Beading like crowded beats
in loud streets,
from a fragile ceiling.
Sleeping in paradoxical puddles,
trudging through tributaries
in the truth.
But I love the rain.
We were those
wipe it on the front
of your coat kids
We Are the World
and the Greatest Love of All
at public school presentations
in front of exhausted public school parents,
working 60-hour weeks
for somebody else’s fortune.
They showed up with ready-made smiles
and instant tears.
But the music doesn’t stop
and the rain keeps playing
and their noses keep running
until the many-faced little monsters
fall in love with their cages.
They stare at the world
with bright eyes
in dim light,
that only see rainy nights.
But we love the rain!
We are the children
that used to be the future.
The dried brooks in a crook’s eyes,
absorbed by that oblivious sponge
inside the ordinary inertia
of being human.
Dreams that live and die
in a wet abyss
with broken fingers
at the end of clenched fists.
The social tsunami.
strangled in strychnine, paradigms
playing their instruments
and singing songs
about the way we were,
and always will be
From Turtles and Fireflies
I used to ice skate
in my living room
on hardwood floors
with plastic bags on my feet.
Living across the street
from the park and the lake
with that big-ass turtle.
Big like unexplained phenomena,
big like large expanses of time-welded waterway,
and big like long days
of shared experience.
my mother would tell me
that my eyes glowed
and that I was the promise
of new life.
I promised her that new life,
before understanding how heavy a promise is
and before I made a hundred more.
Granny in a Yellow Dress excerpt, from THIS IS WHERE I AM
Regardless of my warning, she left her house, didn’t take the shortcut across the park, but instead took the long way up Elliot and across Thirty-fifth Street. I could see her coming from a window, an astounding sight, striding at her own leisurely pace in a yellow sundress, in tennis shoes and nylon bobby socks with lace sequins. She was coming to fight a house full of bees in a yellow sundress. She arrived and nonchalantly unlocked the door, just as she had once before to chase out a sparrow that was bounding off the walls of our living room. I peeked around the corner from the landing to see what she thought she’d be able to do about anything at all. She had a can of Raid in each hand–just plain Raid, for flies and cockroaches. I was afraid to leave the steps to help her, so I didn’t. She was on her own; I had told her how many bees there were before she came over, and she came over anyway with drugstore bug killer. I guess I didn’t know what I was asking of her when I called her, but I didn’t expect this old lady with six shooters of bug spray to take on an entire colony.
Without even a pause to register what she was seeing, she systematically started spraying clouds of poison at every individual, every cluster, every swarm. Granny when an inch at a time across the expanse of our ground floor knocking them down, some in midflight, some gathered along windowsills. As she sprayed, the intensity of the bees sped up; agitated and drugged, larger swarms fractured into smalls groups moving faster and more determined in looping motions. She kept spraying, though, ducking a dodging rather sprightly from the chaotic movements of the swarm. It seemed she would be mauled and stung repeatedly, even as she sent struggling bees down writhing to their deaths. And as she covered ground, moved her way through the living room and out of sight, more of them came, and the buzz that was a hum grew higher and sharper. She called for me to come downstairs; she told me most were taken care of, so I came down reluctantly. I trusted her protection but crept a good distance behind her. The whole house smelled like chemicals, so I had my shirt covering my nose and mouth. When I looked up there were still errant bees circling her, but she had her two cans of spray and was standing over a huge chunk of drywall in our dining room that had fallen from where the wall meets the ceiling. There was a huge gap there, where the hive had expanded its limits and pushed their way into our house. As fast as she killed them, fifteen or twenty more would fly in from the new back door of the hive. It seemed an endless task to fight an army that just kept regenerating, and it seemed stupid for me to be standing anywhere near the hole in that wall. And it seemed stupid for that little old lady in a sundress and bobby socks was walking right into the crescent of the fire.
Sometimes nature just dominates because it is far more savage and indiscriminate than we can prepare for. It was a good fight, and she won huge points for courage, but some forces were just too great. It was time for her to accept that she could have killed bees for hours, but along as that hole lay untouched and out of reaching our dining room, there would always be more bees, more agitated and confused than the others. She had cleared enough space for me to get downstairs and out the door, and that was enough–she had done her job–so I tried to convince her it was time to leave, it was time to spend the rest of the afternoon at her house. But like when I tried to speak with her ten years later about Reagan’s detachment from the poor and lower class, she couldn’t hear anything I was saying. Next thing I knew, she had one of the dining room chairs pressed unto the wall and got up on it, spraying bees that had drifted out of reach. Then she maneuvered the chair just under the chasm of wall where the entire problem was coming from and got back up on the chair, her head two feet from the ceiling. I was still in the living room with the fly swatter, whiffing at the stragglers still trying to hold themselves up with all the poison in the air. Granny reached an arm upwards, exposed and unprotected, and started spraying into the hive. Almost immediately there was a gust of escaping bees that blew into the house to avoid their extermination. There was a cloud of commotion around Granny’s head. No bee stings, though–instead just more Raid in the hole. When one can was empty, she got down off of the chair and started spraying up into the hive again until bees stopped coming into the house. There were still a few, but the main torrent was over. And I was happy she was finally willing to escape to the front yard with me. I was still a little light-headed from the cloud of poison I had been walking around in. Granny didn’t have much of a response. She just said, “That was really something, wasn’t it?” Then she asked me if I was hungry. She said she had Tombstone pizzas in the deep freeze. “They were on special,” she said. As nonchalantly as she disregarded her conquest of the bees, she had shown me what I already felt but didn’t quite understand: that she was one of the invisible forces in the world, protecting me from the harshness of life, intending to protect me until my skin had hardened to armor.