Getting Back on the Horse: Alison Smith’s “What We Loved to Love About Prison on TV”

Time to get back on the horse.

backonhorse

A lot of great poetry has crossed my couch in the years since I started this blog in the fall of 2016. I took some time off from posting in order to finish the book (How a Poem Moves in print! Get your copy here!), and to focus on other projects, but here we are, it’s the fall of 2019, and I’ve got oodles of poems I want to tell you about.

One phenomenon of working on this project is that now, when I’m reading poetry, I often  say to myself (in addition to “wow that was great!”) something along the lines of “I could write an essay about that.” So the impulse to get back to this form has persisted. And when the occasion came to write on Emma Lazarus’ famous poem for The Toronto Star, I found the form still suits me. So I’m going to try to start this up again, probably at a rate of one essay per month. We’ll see how it goes.

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I first encountered Alison Smith’s poems at the annual Poetry Weekend that’s held in Fredericton every fall. In fact, this year’s festival is starting today. I don’t usually get to go because of teaching responsibilities, and because the Weekend usually falls right smack in the middle of the Jewish High Holidays. But I did manage to go last year, and among my discoveries there was This Kind of Thinking Does No Good, a whip-smart, funny, deceptively-subversive collection by Nova Scotian Alison Smith, published by Gaspereau Press.

 

Alison Smith, “What We Loved to Love About Prison on TV”

 

what we loved to love about prison was the radical separation

what we loved about the separation were handwritten letters

what we loved about letters was the first-person narrative

what we loved about the person was tragedy

what we loved about tragedy was a glimpse of gallows humour

what we loved about the gallows was revenge

what we loved about revenge were the rules about snitching

what we loved about the snitch was language, inside

what we loved about inside was the passage of contraband

what we loved about the passage was ingenuity

what we loved about ingenuity was the chance to win respect

what we loved about the win was ‘what they do to the pedophiles’

what we loved about what they do was adherence to a code

what we loved about the code was a saint-like purity

what loved to love about saints were the bones

 

– from This Kind of Thinking Does No Good (Gaspereau Press, 2018, used with permission)

I have two initial questions when I read this poem: first, how does she get away with it? That is, how does Smith manage to repeat the beginning of these lines “what we loved about…” so often and not seem repetitive or boring? The rhetorical term for this sort of repetition at the beginning of successive lines is anaphora, but the repeated phrases in anaphora don’t usually dominate the whole line the way they do here. And she does it fifteen times! “What we loved about” becomes a sort of mantra on the one hand, cataloguing all of the things “we loved,” and there’s a kind of progression to the way the poem analyzes the attractions of Prison on TV, almost the way a nursery rhyme like “The House that Jack Built” accumulates. But the poem has a weirder sensibility than most nursery rhymes, and the logical leaps it makes, off-kilter and rather dark, keep me engaged and curious about where the poem is headed next.

Which bring me to the other question: who is the “we”? This is the question I want to dig a bit more deeply into, because as I try to answer it, the poem becomes richer and more interesting.

First and foremost, “we” are people who love Prison on TV. I suspect that’s partly because the people who make up this “we” don’t have any first-hand knowledge of real prison. (Do people who are in prison like Prison on TV? I admit I have no idea, because I am not a person in prison nor am I a person who loves prison on tv. But I imagine that if the speaker of this poem, if the “we” being referred to, were in prison, we would have a different set of reasons to love Prison on TV).

You’ll notice one clever trick about Smith’s use of the “we” throughout – even as I read and try to explore the poem, I find myself going back and forth between including myself in the we, and referring to the “we” as separate. This give-and-take about whether a reader identifies with the poem is one of its pleasures. As I read through, I sometimes think, “Oh yeah, that is why we love tragedy!” with a shock of recognition. And at other times, I think, “Oh, that’s interesting that these people loved separation because of the hand-written letters. What quaint romantics they were.” Throughout, I’m rarely anticipating where the poem is going next, so that even when the sentiment (“what we loved about..”) isn’t mine, I find it engaging.

There isn’t space here to explore every logical leap the poem makes as it moves around its subject – which is not actually Prison on TV, but rather “what we loved.” Suffice it to say that what attracts “us” to Prison on TV doesn’t seem to be exactly what might be expected by producers of The Night Of. There’s something in here about how as viewers we repurpose and manipulate the art we encounter. The speaker on the one hand leans toward the romantic, and the self-consciously literary, but does not seem averse to enjoying the violence that often appears in these shows as well. In my mind I’m formulating a certain portrait of this group of people by their likes and interests.

PousseyNewBut I want to skip to the last three lines because they haunt me in a particular way. The “adherence to a code” is a familiar trope in all kinds of dramas that involve criminals. But for the speaker of this poem, “adherence to a code” brings up “purity,” which is not at all what I connect to the codes of behaviour we find in prison. On the one hand, I’m reminded of characters like Poussey from Orange Is the New Black or John Coffey, the saint-like character from the film The Green Mile, or maybe Morgan Freeman’s Red from The Shawshank Redemption (which we now mostly see on TV). But I’m wondering all of a sudden whether “adherence to a code” might have special relevance for this group of people. The romanticism at the beginning, the darker attractions in stylized violence, and now this interest in “purity” seem to me to point to a specific set of concerns I associate with teenagers.

So now I’m imagining a group of teens binging on Orange Is the New Black while struggling with the social norms of their high school. But just when I think the poem might give us a deeper hint about this particular social group, the poem sends us packing with “what we loved to love about saints were the bones.” The entrance of religious themes deepens my sense that what is at stake here is more than entertainment choices. Stories of saints often include imprisonment or martyrdom, and point us to beliefs and principles (“codes”) that some are willing to sacrifice themselves for. But “what we loved to love” about them are not the beliefs, but the detritus of those sacrifices – the bones. We transfer our conflicted emotions about the codes themselves into a passion for the concrete and even grotesque remnants of those beliefs. For the “we” in this poem, bones and prison shows are the only way to access values that might grant meaning and clarity in what might otherwise be a jumbled mix of influences and bad answers.

saints bones

Last point: all of this is in the past tense. The litany of things “we loved” is, apparently, no longer true. Something about this era has passed for the reporter of the poem. It makes me wonder how things have changed for “us.” My first suspicion is that we have grown up a bit, and perhaps no longer have the time or inclination to spend our leisure time watching Prison on TV. But more deeply, I wonder if the search for values and codes that connected the speaker to her love of prison shows when she was younger no longer has the romance or drama that it once did. The “radical separation” and “chance to win respect” that seemed so important long ago no longer have the same appeal. It makes me wonder what the speaker would “love to love” about her current entertainment choices. Or is “loving to love” something no longer so central to the equation? What have we lost or gained by shedding the passions of our youth?

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