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Pamela Hart

Spring Snow Prison Pantoum

 

Wipers ticking against car windshield

While snow dissolves on glass.

March light widening like the nearby woods

I wait before class in the prison parking lot.

 

Spring snow dissolves, the glass is cold.

I daydream of shallow vernal pools

Waiting before class in the prison parking lot

And the potter’s field hidden by slush

 

Imagines a song of restive graves

One hundred names gone to ground.

The cemetery rouses its eager ghosts

Alert with beginner’s hungry mind.

 

One hundred names unseen by history.

My words unable to unmake 

the dead. Their stories awaken,  

Startling the daydream of vernal pools.

 

Words stutter and harden in the potter’s field.

Meanwhile, snow fades on empty branches.

Shimmer of spring on icy glass

Stories melting forgotten markers.

 

Winter escapes over tree and road.

March ghosting widely to free the names

I look with restless icy mind

As wipers click in the parking lot.



For Susan Z, 17, Who Escaped Bedford Women’s Reformatory April 1927

And Was Captured in New York City One Month Later Dressed as a Boy

According to the New York Daily News

 

Who threw herself under split rail 

running toward the stream – she’d heard

 

its hum – dodged the lights skipped over skunk cabbage

into a polyphony of oak and owl  

 

Among sugar maples she was no more Bedford no uplift

she’d keep her ruined self the body they’d tied

 

She was a tulip tree – headed for the city – 

tall resistant in pursuit of bliss not woe but mad

 

Who had waywardness and learned to sew

Cut her curls – hid them in quaking aspen – 

 

What of shame what of the murderous heart

Bolt bolt the train barked 

 

Who in the news photo holds hand to face

as if to recall its brief flight 



Noisy Sunday in Bedford: An Erasure

            From the New York Times January 1920

 

Women howling

rattling

the reformatory

their disorders

defied their keepers

we want

we want

we don’t want to stay here

The women

shouted

until 

they were exhausted



Salient Facts: The New York State Reformatory for Women, Bedford Hills 1926

Fragments from the Report

 

Because women

delinquent

 

from the great city

because foreign born

 

congested quarters

because economic

 

or social difficulties

prostitution

 

larceny 

receiving stolen goods

 

assault forgery burglary

life in the underworld

 

Because the hills

of Westchester County

 

three hundred farm acres

Mrs. Haley Fiske said

 

educational

for example training

 

laundry farming 

music athletics

 

the gymnasium

arts crafts

 

sewing

like children’s dresses

 

bath robes surgeons’ 

gowns brassieres


cooking including 

confections of a high grade

 

movies 

twice a week

 

Because women 

need discipline

 

not strait jackets

no handcuffs

 

though restraining sheet

corrective for the normal

 

the feeble-minded

neurotic taints

 

from a medical standpoint

Because women requiring 

 

specialized training 

to awaken their spiritual

 

consciousness

latent energies

 

develop strong 

maternal instinct

 

Because women in purity

of thought and deed

 

though stumbled 

temptations

 

in trades and occupations

restored returned

 

saved

to salvage

 

by the institution

consecrated among the hills

 


Mrs. Haley Fiske of the Board of Directors of the Bedford Reformatory for Women Reports to the Ladies’ Auxiliary of the House of Good Shepard April 1931

 

Consider that the reformatory is educational. No strait jackets or handcuffs are used. We are trying to educate. Studies of personality are made. Confinement for the girl who may need some disciplining. Deprivation of privileges. A girl may use a well-equipped gym. A girl may attend a dramatic class. There may be a restraining sheet for psychopathic cases. We are an educational institution. These sheets are used in all the hospitals in the state. We educate girls committed. 

 

Pamela Hart is writer in residence at the Katonah Museum of Art in Katonah, NY, where she teaches and manages arts-in-education programs in schools and correctional facilities. Her book, Mothers Over Nangarhar, winner of the Kathryn A. Morton prize, was published in 2019 by Sarabande Books. She was a 2020 New York Foundation for the Arts poetry finalist. She received a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts in poetry. In addition, she has served as poetry editor for Afghan Voices, the Afghan Women's Writing Project and As You Were: The Military Review and as non-fiction reader for Consequence Forum, a journal on the consequences of war and geopolitical violence. Her poems have been published in various online and print journals.  




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