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.