Reviewed by Michael McIrvin
The Prisons, Maggie Jaffe's most recent poetry collection is hard to read, as the bleakest truths often are. The book is also hard to put down for the same reason, because this is the unexpurgated truth of the American prison system. These poems leave your nerve endings singed by the recognition that the collective American psyche has not merely warped unto madness, which the penal system represents at multiple levels, but that we have rationalized that madness.
Which is not to suggest that Jaffe preaches to the reader. The Prisons is a collage: artwork by prisoners (all bars and other inmates); a letter from the Justice Department acknowledging the author's protest of her prisoner/lover's treatment in quintessential bureaucracy-speak; quotations ("The more corrupt the Republic, the more numerous its laws" - Tacitus); a bizarre section of California Penal Code outlawing "salacious tattoos" for prison visitors; and the author's powerful poems about prisoners and their visiting loved ones, the bleakness of prison life, the capricious power of the state, and the suppression of art and artists through history.
Prison, Jaffe tells us, is "A machine invented to change people. / Which is why I want my Prisons finely / etched.... What else do I want? / To speak without electronic surveillance / and a guard who permits me to touch him [her lover]." Amen.
Michael McIrvin is the author of several books of poetry, including Optimism Blues: Poems Selected and New , published in January 2002, and a book of criticism, Whither American Poetry . J-Press Publishing published his first novel, Déjà vu and the Phone Sex Queen, in October 2001.
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