‘Visiting Days’ maps the human toll of incarceration

Wednesday, April 3, 2019 - 4:52pm

In the next week, the Book Review will be featuring works from Willow Books, an imprint of the Detroit-based small publisher Aquarius Press. Aquarius was founded in 1999 by Heather Buchanan, a University of Michigan-Dearborn alum and former Poet-in-Residence at the Detroit Public Library. In 2007, Aquarius Press launched Willow Books, a project “to develop, publish and promote writers of color” that quickly became its flagship imprint. Willow Books publishes over 40 single-title authors a year and uplifts writers through an impressive network of funds and resources. Writers were recently recognized at Willow Books’s annual LitFest readings, which took place in Portland, Oregon on March 30.

Gretchen Primack’s “Visiting Days” is a collection of persona poetry taking on the perspective of people who have been or are incarcerated. This is a tricky theme to explore for an author who has never been behind bars, but Primack, whose career is in prison education programs, manages to create a coherent body of work that illuminates without exploiting.

Primack focuses each poem on one person’s experience, with most titles formatted as a name plus their cell location in parentheses. This editorial choice connects the poems, which vary widely in style, voice and content. It also serves as an expression of the depersonalization inherent to prison, a theme Primack addresses in a variety of ways. This feels like the purpose of the collection: To show that the massive, complex beast of mass incarceration is made up of individual prisoners, named and unnamed — complex, emotive individuals who push against attempts to reduce them to prison-supplied identifiers (crime, age, gender).

This mission is radical, and it’s fully realized by the compassionate strength of Primack’s writing. Each poem creates a tiny world, the particulars of which seem true even if they are not real. In “Damon (B3),” Primack writes, “It was a smaller sun than usual / so we stayed in bed tangled with skinny cats and demons.” This is the portrait of a free life about to become rationed and regulated, the moment of change made monumental through metaphor: “I burned high and red until / bracelets circled my wrists like small / moonlights, behind my back / where I can’t see them.”  Later, in “Marcus (B3),” Primack crawls inside another life: “Keeplocked, windows / are everything. / A kid, I ate in the dark. / A teen, I drank outside. / A teen, I came here and here / I am, a man.” Oof.

“Visiting Days” is at its best when Primack shies away from traditional forms. Most of the poems are composed in free verse, with short prose pieces sprinkled throughout. She writes on a frequency that’s hard to describe; it’s both specific and general, like thinking or speaking — half formed but inquisitive, a work in progress. “It went down when he was sixteen,” she writes in “Corrections.” “Something terrible. His brain’s rills weren’t done. / What lives did he spoil while they took / shape? / Now he is thirty-six.”

What a breaktaking series of lines: The brain as a set of unfinished grooves, fluid but frozen in a moment of destructiveness. Here, Primack’s devastating command of language is display. With very few words, she creates a scene and characters and then gently suggests a philosophy for making sense of this realm.

The before-after divide created by incarceration is one that Primack explores diligently. She is a linguistic magician, putting into words the speed with which a life can change drastically and permanently, how later that change will seem impossibly fast and also inevitable. The specificity of Primack’s language is heartrending, breaking down the vastness of prison by describing the lives that funnel into it.

“A whole government of fog passes / his window gate,” she writes. “The fog, the pen, / the notebook put wedding rings / on all his fingers. / Inside his head, / fists open onto flat hands, somebody’s. / They smell of blue burning. Of her / quinceanera. Of bitter copper and / browned bread nuts lying / on their sides.” These details swiftly deposit the poem into a surreal, dream-like limbo, creating a theory of reminiscing in which memory is the desire for a place that may not exist anymore. Primack proposes that the act of remembering while incarcerated necessarily manufactures an eerie region running parallel to reality, a terrain of unpredictable association inside which colors, tastes and smells become both amplified and inaccessible.