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Smuggled pencil stubs.

Wyn's best poems, written secretly and forbiddenly in prison, came sallying forth in a great rush during those last four days on Death Row, following the murder of Maurice Bishop.... Though he was shrewd enough to keep his verses hidden from the prison guards, scrawled on toilet paper or scraps of linen, they knew he was up to something. So they went to sadistic loony extremes to baffle Senator Wynston, to trick him into believing his brain was zapped. There was not the remotest trace of light in Solitary Pit, so little basis, then, for him to guess the time of day, much less how many days were passing; but to disorient him still more, his jailers, thinking he guessed time by arrival of such paltry meals as they dispensed, shuffled the schedule, delaying one meal by an extra half day, then serving the next an hour later, never following the same time lapse pattern twice in succession. And it worked. He grew oblivious to time of day, didn't know a day's from a week's passage. Even in those last weeks before Bishop's assassination, when Wyn was sent down to Death Row, they started to noticeably tighten the screws on the Senator--what had they to fear from him, a helpless tottering skeleton of the man he'd been?; perhaps they could sense the elation of heart and spirit his poems had burgeoned, but they could never have surmised the source: his creative scribblings were too well concealed, the papery snippets tucked away in thin knife-blade slits of his fiber mattress. He was allowed to receive visits from family for brief stints, but only if he was docile and subservient. Should he try--as was even his sleep daze bias!--to discuss philosophy or religion, much less politics, with any of the guards or fellow prisoners (they eavesdropped on him at all hours, to run periodic checks on his irrepressible bouts of bombast and rant), they'd cut him off without meals altogether, then turn away his would-be visitors, saying he was too sick or distraught to see anyone. And today, those inanities loom largest in his fading memory of worst final weeks of prison life. Even then, his poems, which he crooned in whispers to himself, gave him constant succor.... Prison, it seemed, had sprung the poet from the political animal. His art fife began as wordless visions, dreams of romance and freedom, yet he'd always startled back from the intensest free flights of spirit to the fatal chill of his blank prison walls. And now, he rekindles those surges of rhapsodic discovery: "Oh, how much we take for granted unearned daily givens, when free. To witness Nature, fish, birds, trees in the gale, stars on a clear night, all these cost-free gifts, most precious, precious, be taken from us by prison walls." But despite the deprivations numberless, he felt, absurdly, nothing was lost: there is no dying, no dying, except death of the Soul. As never before, his free spirit felt limitlessly alive and awake. His first poem, "I am awake," erupted whole from a hauntingly beautiful recurrent dream. Whenever he drifted off to sleep, his dormant self came to, robustly, in the dreamscape, chanting, I'm awake, I'm awake. He'd memorized the six brief verses, and kept murmuring this upbeat refrain over and over in cell dark, when grief or rage or pain seemed to be nullifying him. Ah, the poem's strange energy and unfailing power lifted him from the slump of despondency. No doldrums could sink him for long. He composed other poems, one by one, reciting the whole slow-growing repertoire to himself, his verbal powers of improvisation blooming richer the more he exercized his gifts; much as Messiaen, while incarcerated in Nazi labor camp, wrote his unearthly classic chamber work, Quartet for the End of Time, highlighting the birdlike voice of the clarinet. Though Wyn's gravest loss had been his body's utter severance from the world of Nature, since he was never permitted to lay one foot outdoors, his senses magically recovered what his body had lost--in time, he learned to hear the very air currents gusting around him sing. The breezes that swirled all about his cell bespoke wonders to him, no stopping those gale force winds from blowing through wall vents; while more and more, he trained himself to differentiate a wide range of bird warbles, mouse squeaks, rabbit and chipmunk stutters, diverse scents of pollens, flowers, changing, however subtly, with the flux of seasons. They gave voice to his heightened pickup. Never before had he known such alertness, such receptivity, to Nature's every slow nuance as now--which was transmitted to him at the caprice or fine whimsy of the companionable gusts (didn't his jailers guess his joy? no way to squelch free flow of Carib trade winds).... But in his dark moments, it was an agony to Wyn to have his head be buzzing and effervescing with keenest messages, yet no paper or pencil to transcribe verses that invaded his ear more quickly than he could hope to retain them by heart, though he'd already committed to memory some hundreds of lines. At last, his friends outside conspired to wangle pencil stubs to his cell, where he cunningly hoarded strips of toilet paper and tagends of bed linen--and thereon, he scratched his piecemeal & bounteous song.
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Author:Lieberman, Laurence
Publication:The American Poetry Review
Date:Jan 1, 1993
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