Thursday, December 31, 2009

Don Schofield on "Harmony, USA"

I started writing what would eventually become “Harmony, USA” twenty-five years ago, while leaning on the hood of my brother’s pickup. We had just left Atascadero State Prison where our nephew was serving time (still is) for rape (second offense). I wasn’t writing a poem then, simply putting down notes, wanting to capture his words as precisely as I could. I tried several times over the years to turn those notes into a poem. I was writing free verse then, and I guess I had too much freedom to do justice to his voice. Whatever I wrote seemed off. I didn’t want a poem simply apologizing for, explaining or condemning the actions of a man I barely knew and had seen maybe half a dozen times as an adult. Yet I found his gestures, the way he spoke, the way he wore his denim shirt buttoned tight at the neck and open at the waist, how he explained himself and his day to day life in prison fascinating, disturbing.

Two things happened that ultimately enabled me to get this poem out: first, I visited Robert again in the early ‘90s, this time with the woman I had been with for eight years and, as it turned out, soon would be breaking up with. Second, after putting the poem aside for over a decade, I came back to it when I was trying my hand at blank verse.

As Dick Hugo used to say in his workshops when talking about form: “A poet does one of two things: he either starts in jail and works his way out, or he starts with freedom and works himself into jail.” Those words, plus the post-structuralist term “prison-house of language,” kept crossing my mind as I worked and reworked the various sections that started appearing. By choosing to write the poem in blank verse, and thus measuring the lines more strictly, I was, as Hugo would say, putting myself in jail. In this case that was exactly where I needed to be.

Once I was in jail, Robert’s voice gained power. But so did the poet in me. In jail I could give myself the freedom to bring in other voices, and thus frame Robert’s presence, so to speak, in various other events, places and perspectives surrounding that visit. Moreover—and this was critical to the poem finding its larger theme—once in jail I could break the rules. I had to break the rules of narrative if the poem was to find its true subject, which of course isn’t Robert.

In the end “Harmony, USA,” at least to me, is about desire, how we fantasize and express it, what and who we violate sometimes to satisfy it, how narrative—and language itself—aids and abets it, and how ultimately desire in our minds spans the gamut of impulses that must be kept in harmony. Which is where poetry comes in.


  1. I read your comment and then the poem, with great interest and appreciation. The poem is marvelous—so strong, at the same time so tender. The unrhymed lines are not at all "free verse" because they are so traditionally controlled in length and couplets or triplets or the more flowing
    speech-rhythms when the convict is talking. And I appreciate the way some lines are end-stopped while others are enjambed. Very nice! "Harmony" is a cruel title for the disharmony of prison life matched to the wild
    countryside outside. The point is clear.

  2. Peter,

    Thanks for starting off this exchange with encouraging, insightful comments. You understand well my effort at pacing the lines--I'm glad that works for you. Pacing is important in modulating the various voices in the poem. The layering and intermingling of those voices are part of what made this poem challenging to me. The extent to which those voices both come through clearly and distinctly, and at some point blend, is the extent to which the poem, at least for me, works.

    Since you also touch on the significance of the title, let me say a couple words about that as well. "Harmony, USA" comes from an actual road sign on California's Highway 101, one that identifies a town by that name. The title of course also refers to the effort at working with various voices I mention above. Though the mixing of those voices is contrapuntal, eventually they do attain a kind of harmony, at least to my ear. But, as I suggest in my introduction to the poem, the notion of harmony goes well beyond the interaction of speakers' voices. The poem (or "suite of poems," as a friend called it) attempts to harmonize several other contrasting elements: male and female, human and animal, freedom and incarceration, imagination and reality, reader and narrator, etc. So, while there is in this suite "the disharmony of prison life matched to the wild countryside outside," as you so well describe it, I hope that the reader by the end of the poem senses--or at least feels--a kind of tenuous balance in those various elements.

  3. First off, let me state that Don, whom I've know for years, solicited comment from me. I don't roam the internet critiquing poetry. I have never been to this site.
    So the po': Robert's voice is terrific, especially in part seven with the line of asses, fingers probing, flashlights revealing and the brief bit of self love. The Goonies own your asshole, excellent. I very much liked the irony of the image in part eleven where you aim the car "away from maximum security."
    Right, on to the reservations. I find Pt one overwrought. "unseen depths" is redundant. Of course they are 'unseen,' it's a gray swirling sea. "pelicans drop bodily into surf" How else would they drop but 'bodily'? "No retaining that distinction." Why is that line in there? Who or what is not retaining? There's no horizon, nuff said. Pelicans catch fish, why is it "not expected, never meant." Of course it's meant. Unless you are trying to tell us that fish don't mean to be eaten. Seegah moray. The opening line of Pt four, yeah, I know you are setting up the concluding line of the section but surely it could be deftly incorporated into viewing Phil. I find the zebras too obvious but okay. I have never gotten a predator hit from horses and consequently don't think the transformation into a lion in Pt six works. Pt eight doesn't need that old trite pop psychology line "those fictions we depend on." I find the "breaking the rules" bit in Pt nine too self-conscious by half and disingenuous. What fucking rules? "in the prison house of language we're all innocent." Do you really believe that? How so? It would be easy to make the argument that innocence ends with the learning, the acquisition of language. In Pt eleven, "The motor's hum is not my heart, etc" Really? Later you ask whether upon awaking your companion would understand the meaning of the highway lines, which you then explain. Why wouldn't she unless she was dropped from outer space? I believe the poem should conslude with the penultimate stanza. You are not looking deep and pleadingly into the readers' eyes, excuse me, and it's a silly attempt at seduction to imply you are.
    Thanks for the heads up on this one, Don.

  4. Thanks for replying, Mark. I knew you'd shoot from the hip. I'll wait for others to comment on your hits and misses before I say more.

  5. What a pleasure to read your long, fine poem this morning--and also to linger awhile on the site-- enjoyed Mary Molinary's piece as well.

    I very much appreciated your memory of Richard Hugo's concept of the poem as a created prison or a flight from one--very smart. I admired the swerves of your poem, the way you entered the shadow side of male sexual entrapment, as well as the shadow side of language.

    I also wanted to ask about the prison-- is it the one near Gilroy or thereabouts as you head down the coast to San Luis Obispo? I've always been aware of a stretch of road with the sign "Do not pick up hitch-hikers." There's an energy in this area, very grim.

    Again, the poem is exquisite--a play of voice and a thinking through of difficult identifications of the self. Bravo.

    C. N.

  6. It was heartening to read your comments, Camille. Thank you.

    I’m pleased that you picked up on, as Peter did, the shifting voices and identifications in the poem. What you say about the poem exploring the “shadow side of male sexual entrapment” and how it links those inclinations to “the shadow side of language” are especially astute. “Harmony” very much wants to explore those darker recesses of sexuality, as well as the role language, especially narrative, plays in expressing, rationalizing, cloaking and throwing into balance such desires. That’s one reason my nephew’s narrative is so fascinating to me.

    Language is by no means an innocent, harmless medium, though at times it can be both. Writers spend their lives mastering various forms of narrative expression. And, given the fact that all of us, as is so often said these days, have our own “story” to tell, we are all, to one degree or another, constructing narratives. In this sense we are all manipulators and victims of narratives. Anyone who has consciously tried to shape a narrative from the array of events, people and emotions surrounding what he or she wants to “tell,” knows that much has to be left out if the story is to be coherent. But what we leave out is often as “telling” as what we leave in. That shadow side to our desires and self-expression is what “Harmony,” in part, is looking at, as you so perceptively observe.

    Regarding the prison, my nephew, until recently, was incarcerated in Atascedero State Hospital, near San Luis Obispo, CA, a maximum security facility for sex offenders. With the planned closing of that facility, he was recently transferred to Folsom State Prison in Represa, CA. He still has many years to go on his sentence.

  7. I read Harmony a month or so ago when I received the BPJ and was immediately touched and affected by it—the vivid images from prison life, the detail surrounding the visit, the narrator’s fantasy. Since then I’ve had the chance to delve a bit more into it and am increasingly impressed with the way the poem is put together—the way the fog and the birds enter the prison in the form of the mural, for example, or the way the prison bride’s disappearance echoes the warden’s as the tv screen shrinks to a fading dot… All elements blend into a “harmony.”

    The poem is about desire but I feel it’s more than that, which is why I tend to disagree with some of Mark Sargeants’s comments. To me the poem is about limits and breaking boundaries—generated, of course, by desire. Boundaries, limits, guidelines disappear in the fog, and in the prison even the boundaries of the body are violated. The pelicans dropping “bodily” into the surf prepare us for that. Pelicans simply dropping into the surf are definitely not the same. So I don’t mind the “unseen depths” and “no retaining that distinction” which take the poem to another level. Isn’t the “moment not expected, never meant” another way of expressing surprise—again the breaking of boundaries of expectation. I could go on.

    I find the reference to Actaeon is so appropriate. It is said that the Greeks invented laws, ie. Limits, since their gods were so irrational, so volatile. Which is to say, the irrationality, the violence, the wish to exceed limits and boundaries, to violate someone or something, is in all of us

    Finally, isn’t the narrator breaking more boundaries in his “seduction” of the reader? I like the last stanza if merely for the fact that he tests limits once more and becomes a kind of Homer groping for a guide to what lies ahead.

  8. Laurel:

    Thank you very much for your insightful comments. Your foregrounding of limits is especially apt and makes me look at the poem somewhat differently. It occurs to me, after reading your comments, that “limits” are the flip side of desire: without both, attaining harmony would not be possible. Also I have to say I had not consciously made the connection between the disappearing bride and the fading warden. One is the object of desire, the other the subject. One is fleeing (albeit hesitantly) the power of those who desire her; the other pursuing his ruthless urges.

    You very astutely pick up on what I’m after in the opening section. I probably worked more on that section than any other, and still at times am not sure I’ve gotten it right, though your comments make me feel more positive. You understand well the importance of establishing at the outset the presence of “body” in the poem and the blurring of boundaries that the fog suggests. And you pick up on the surprise experienced by the speaker by the end of that stanza. I would only add that the speaker’s innocence suggested by that surprise is also necessary as a counterpoint to his “violation” of the reader later in the poem.

    I also had not consciously made the connection between Actaeon and the ancient Greeks as law-givers. You’re absolutely right, especially in how you frame the need for making laws as the ancients’ response to the “lawlessness” of the gods, though it must be said that the gods too had to follow certain limitations as expressed in the classical principle of ananghi, necessity. But that’s another conversation.

    You pick up on, as well, an important elements of the poem when you refer to the speaker’s seduction of the reader. But it’s also important to note that the speaker, like Robert, would pursue his desire no matter what the reader felt—another violation.

    Finally, I’m intrigued by your last observation, that the speaker at the end of the poem is still testing limits as he “becomes a kind of Homer groping for a guide to what lies ahead.” I hadn’t made that connection either. Since Homer, especially the Homer of the Odyssey, stands, at least for me, at the height of Western poetic achievement, he represents yet another boundary, one that so far remains intact.

    Thanks again—you’ve given me much to mull over, with pleasure.

  9. What a powerful poem! Its images have stayed imprinted on me since reading it a few days ago. The swirling together of separate elements/ stories, as in so many of your poems, is masterful - the whole (the result of inner 'headlights') helps dispel the 'fog.' Your introduction on how Harmony came to be written is as telling as the poem itself. Thank you for both!

  10. Don,

    Nice poem. It's long - and flexes true narrative muscle. There was a point though, where the poem, where the voice of the nephew failed to capture something. The part about touching his body at night, to reclaim it. It didn't ring true to me - and I confess, I've done almost a decade in prison, write a lot of poems in prison. Don't get me wrong though, the poem was beautiful, and the constant juxtaposes of your voice, and the relationship with the lady, with both his voice and the experience of the visiting room creating something that doesn't happen often in poetry about prison - the sort of mixing of worlds that is what we deal with in real life.

    I guess though, if I'm pointing out anything. If I'm mentioning anything, it's to say I wanted to hear your nephew. I wanted to hear him outside of the poetic talk of reclaiming a body - cause that seems so poetic. And I don't know what's real -some parts in their, the nephew's voice, sounds unbelievable real - what goes on at night, being a man with two bodies - but some of it fell into the exploration of sexuality and sex that verges on the voyeuristic (not because it is voyeuristic, but because it becomes what everyone expects to hear or learn about prison).

    Whatever though - the poem was good. I usually don't read poems that long. They kind of bore me and don't seem to be about anything. This was rich in meaning. I'll subscribe to BPJ because of it.
    Thanks for writing it.

  11. Hi Don,

    I'm happy to see your poem here, after having heard you read it -- what? a year or so ago. I love the momentum of the lines; for a long poem it moves very quickly which is a nice contrast to the enclosed (stopped?) moments of prison scenes, and Robert's more circular or entrapped thoughts.

    Section 9 gave me some pause; I realize you move here into some of the wider questions of desire, body as "convict, house, text...". The line in section 10, "I'm innocent.// We all are..." bothered me a little, in that "all" seemed a bit sweeping. But these are small quibbles. I really love the poem, it has wonderful tensions, and the title is perfect for braiding them into that single word. "Bravo sou" as we'd say in these parts.

  12. Natalie:

    Thanks for your comments on "Harmony" and the Intro I like the "inner headlights."

  13. Dwayne:

    Your comments are the best I’ve received yet on “Harmony.” I’m gratified that you liked the poem enough—and found it real enough—to comment.

    I guess you caught me out in Section 7. The voice does ring a bit false there. I reworked that part several times, trying to get that sense Robert has talked about at times—or at least hinted at--of not being his own person, not having ownership over his own body. True, he doesn’t say it the way I wrote it, and certainly never shared any such fantasy with me. But he definitely communicates a sense of the constant violation he experiences, having to submit to physical humiliation on a daily basis. His voice tenses up the most when talking about such things. I haven’t captured that voice yet, you’re right. Maybe one day, in a future poem.

    As for how much is actually true and how much not, I can say that there are three distinctive sources for the representation of Robert in the poem: Robert’s own words, my imaginings about his experience, and my own experience of incarceration as a juvenile and living in children’s homes. What seems to ring true for you comes from all three sources, as does what you suggest rings false.

    What I most wanted to avoid was writing cliches about prison life. Okay, I didn’t succeed completely in that regard. But the fact that you read such a long poem all the way through, and found it “rich in meaning” is gratifying. I’d like to see your poems some time. If you want, send something to me at .

  14. Adrianne:

    Your comments bring back fond memories of that reading. That was the first time I’d read the poem to anyone except Litsa. I don’t know how the audience managed to sit through such a long poem. Luckily for me, we were all friends and former colleagues, sipping drinks and enjoying a reunion of sorts.

    As for Section 9, the poem shifts to another level there, as you note. I take some risks in addressing the reader directly, but that became a necessary part of the poem, even if I don’t pull it all off.

    Though I usually avoid the kind of sweeping generalizations you note in Section 10, I feel in this case it’s justified since that is what Robert would (and did) say.

    The underlying issue here, though, is not what actually was said but verisimilitude. It has to feel true. I’m pleased that the poem as a whole does seem to feel true to you. I’m especially encouraged by what you say about the title. The "braiding" reference adds yet another dimension.

    Thanks for taking time to comment.

  15. I had a copy of Don's "Approximate;y Paradise" laying on the front seat of my car. While doing some errands the other day, someone broke into the front...and left another copy.

  16. Surely that's because you told people you wanted to read it twice.