Two poems by PCAP member Nina Levin

About the guest blogger: Nina is a senior at The University of Michigan studying Comparative Literature and Environmental Sustainability. Last fall, she became involved with Professor Buzz Alexander’s Engish 310 course which subsequently lead into The Prison Creative Arts Project. Through the class and the organization, she has participated in a creative writing workshop with six young men at Thumb Correctional Facility. She is excited to start a new workshop in Macomb this spring. 

Both of these poems were written with the young men in the PCAP workshop at Thumb. The prompt for the first poem, “Kerrytown looks so closed,” was to describe the experience of entering prison. Practicing detailed description and colorful explanation, I wrote about the physical process of entering the prison for workshop on a weekly basis. Kerrytown is the name of my charming, Ann Arbor neighborhood. I titled it that because of the feeling it gives me every time I re-enter the world after workshop. The prompt for the second poem, “Metal free cage,” was to write about something that imprisons you. I chose a figurative kind of imprisonment, grief. I wrote about the loss of a close family member and how the vestiges of memory remain as a kind of trap.

Kerrytown has never looked so closed

Park your car beneath the security camera. Acknowledge the warning on the bricks asking you if you’re sure you’ve locked your car. Assure yourself you have; a prison parking lot is under heavy surveillance, after all. A sleepless hawk spies you from its metal nest at the top of every lamppost.

Greet the rising sun and stretch from the lengthy, speed-unlimited drive that  takes you from dark to dawn. Your eyes pass over the curly, barbed rooftops, glittery and sparkly in the dewy light. The diamond studded fences glisten with morning, an innocent metallic shimmer. In the distance, the grass is pastoral and dotted with orange flowers. No, not flowers. One hat on many heads, playing with one orange ball on a block of pavement.

Observe the grand silence that swallows the brick buildings in its vacant throat. It is serene; peaceful, but you are unnerved.

Enter double doors, they welcome you so willingly

Present identification. This is who I am, I have plastic proof. The gatekeeper holds me to the light to determine my veracity. A luminous bear shines through the plastic California and I, for

the first time, discover a mitten in my own identity. Please let me go in, please let me come back out.

Stash your things. No scarves, no keys. Two note books, two pens, and sometimes colored pencils.

Take a seat in the sterile waiting chairs. Scratch your nails along the course blue plastic and hear the scrape echo in the metal that binds them all together. Look away if a prisoner passes through, clenched by metal that binds his hands together.

No other visitor awaits a prisoner. Once, a woman in working slacks and a soft sweater clutched her purse and crossed her ankles beneath her seat. She chomped a vended pack of M&Ms to sweeten the wait, a convergence of aging skin between her eyes showing her concern. For who?

Open your mouth, pull up your hair, spread your legs.  A clinical, flat, un-gendered hand presses my sternum, my ankles, my pockets. I pass.

Button your alarm to your hip but don’t press it; cling as tightly to the pink paper than the invisible ink does to your palm. 

Hurry down the hall because 90 miles an hour isn’t enough to get you there by nine. Notice (but don’t show it) the men in puffy blue jackets; one orange stripe squeezes the shoulders. My coat is blue too, but for a different reason. They are sweeping, strolling, pulling weeds, and holding the door for us.

Say Thank you.

Avoid eye contact, right?

See the man with the white hair protruding from beneath his cap and wonder whether he is an old prisoner or old and a prisoner. Was his hair white the first time passed through the double doors? See the man in the wheel chair scooting along the sidewalk and wonder how he could commit a crime- or did he sit down once inside?


Pass the barber were razors are bussing, smocks are shedding. Pass the gym where rubber is screeching and scuffing. Up the yellow stairs that clang beneath our stomp. Pass the library where older men are reading and typing and peering through the windows.

Unlock the classroom door.

Tables to the walls, chairs to the middle. A circle of eight, we wait. The chairs fill, one by one as writer by writer enters and take to their seats. We greet each other and ask how ours days have been.

At last, we open our notebooks, put pens to paper, we begin to write. Our experiences of entering and exiting the prison of our selves becomes a voice, shouting, whispering, whimpering, or laughing from the pages within. Our voices; written. Our voices; heard.


 Metal free cage

 A prison of grief

                        is its own


                        shapeless, metal


His shoes, still in the coat closet

with the heels pushed down

            by his flat, yellowing feet

Next to my rain boots,

            rubbery and bright and impossibly happy.

His shoes imprison me.

His tooth brush.


            frothy from the last time

the bristles scraped his creamy teeth.

            A mirror with only one face instead

            of four

            looking, not back at me

            but at

the back of my head

            I tilt the jade medicine

cabinet to show a thousand infinite

heads, tunneling into an abyss

            of me’s.

No face


            is his.

            His toothbrush imprisons me.


The odor of his sweatshirts

            and the way they wear

            stiff upon my shoulders as large as his

the stale smell of a teenage boy

            that last he was

            is woven into the sleeves


the very thread carries his skin

            in stitches stitches

I wear his sweatshirts

            when I sleep

His clothes imprison me.


His handwriting

smeared by the heel of his

left hand, left handed,

scooting across the page on a train

of ink, his pen a wedding gown

            his inky words a trailing cloth of silk.

            Math worksheets, grammar worksheets,

Letters to his friends and thoughts

            on dying

his handwriting is in boxes


in my basement


spilling out from plastic lids,

                        vomiting from the bookshelves

            that claim his baby photos,

            prom photos, nauseating memories.


            His handwriting imprisons me.

            His photos in prison.


            It is only when I resist

            his vestiges around me that

            I feel


                        but his spirit

            his bodiless memories

                        in me


that I am free.