Poetic Justice Builds on the Dignity of Women in a Tulsa Jail

01/04/2016 02:28 pm ET Updated Nov 21, 2016

Oklahoma imprisons women at double the national rate. About 80 percent of them are locked up for nonviolent offenses. We don't just incarcerate a higher percentage of women than any other state. We're number one in the entire country.

The time is right for Oklahoma and rest of the nation to listen to the women we imprison. A great starting point is Poetic Justice: Poems by Women at David L. Moss Criminal Justice Center. Compiled and edited by Ellen Stackable, Claire Collins, Hanna Al-Jibouri, Maggie Lane and Jenna Jones, the best poetry authored by 400 women yields insights into the full diversity of the human experience. It is merely the lack of space that prompts this post to focus on their themes of motherhood and sexuality.

The collection begins with "Noninstitutionalized," by O.J. She writes:

This morning when I woke
I was perfectly flawed and beautifully scarred

Seeking wisdom from fleeting sages
Sublime and transcending
Though held by man's cages

O.J. ventures into both motherhood and sexuality in "Dearest Olympia." She advises her daughter:

Make all your mistakes loudly. Drink more SoCo. Stay that extra week in London, kiss your girlfriend before they send her away. Take no one's advice but your own. Keep listening to your mother. Bleach that Mohawk platinum. Go to the Police about rape ...

Learn to curse quickly, to walk on your hands, to slow it down some.

Love,
An Incarcerated You

L.J.H. also voices ambiguous feeling about maturity and needing to acknowledge that, "Boy, I'm Old," but her "Ode to Music" emphasizes energy and humor:

I'm shakin my ass, not too much
I'm a lady, not a slut.

M.G.'s "Things I Learned at David L. Moss" previews a world of complexity and contradictions:

The mental escapees, dykes, human traffickers, pregnant woman, barely legal girls, drug makers, drug dealers, women seeking recovery, women doing drugs, some selling drugs, escorts, thieves, hot dates, corrupt detention officers, false accusations, bitches hating, commissary hoes, commissary pimpin' ...

One of the most intriguing insights into range of emotions prompted by prison, as well as the conditions that tripped up these women is found in C.M.'s "What You'd Find in the Dirt at My Daughter's House:"

Dog shit, and dog hair, cigarette butts; way too many for a house of non-smokers.
Chew toys and chew bones, spoons left from digging worms, holes in the ground ...
Skateboard, skateboard ramps and rails, footballs, a flat basketball, hair-ties and huge blobs of bubblegum, half eaten cheap lollipop, an orange plastic jack o' lantern

... Two Pomeranians; Baby girl and Yiddle, and Yiddle's waiting rock, where he waits for his momma to come home.

On the other hand, C.M.'s "Dear Lonely Princess" leaves no room for ambiguity. She tells her daughter:

If you ever end up raped and bloody, the baby kicked out of your stomach; if you ever look in the mirror and see a black eye or two, or you look at the person you lay next to and hate them but are scared of being alone, LEAVE.

J.H.'s message to her child, "Until We Meet Again," is just as blunt:

Until we meet again ...
I will cherish every day you were growing inside of me
And the 19 hours of labor pain.
Until we meet again
I will never forget
The two hours they gave me to share with you.

Some poets, like C.A., foreshadow their travails by recalling their youthful innocence. She contemplates "these hands of mine dressed my dolls and combed their hair ..." Others, like J.S., complete the cycle of life and reflect on: "What's It's Like to Be Old and Gay."

I am happy and content with myself
It's like being a notch in the middle
Of the Bible Belt.

D.H., in "What's It's Like to Be Me," touches all bases and she does so with an equally sardonic twist:

I'm a good listener. I'm a lonely stoner.
...
I can't help but tell you how I really feel.
Blame it on my A.D.D
...
I'm bisexual, but at the moment I'm anti-men. I sin.
...
Poetic Justice is what it's like to be me.

Such wry humor is interspersed throughout the anthology. Perhaps the best way to close this introduction to Poetic Justice is to wrap it up with the poet who introduced the collection, O.J. In "What's It Like to Be a Flamboyantly Gay Latino Man Trapped Inside a Sardonic Black Woman's Body (For Those of You Who Aren't)," she writes:

It's the desire to walk into a "black" church
Without feeling like I'll be struck by lightning.

It's having strapping thighs that don't jiggle
But a bouncy ass with just enough wiggle.
It's loving sexy men
It's hating sexy men, but having sex with them anyway.

... being stuck between a rock and an exceedingly hard, swinging paced place
And loving every rhythmically abrasive minute of it,
Damn it.

Mostly, it's never being seen for the truest me
And really never desiring to be.