I make no secret of it. I was born in a federal prison. I was born and lived my first year in the same West Virginia prison, long after Billie Holiday served one of her sentences there, also for heroin addiction and related crimes, like my prison mother.
I honor my Prison Mother for her strength and courage to fight and keep me for that year. Rather than a tragic beginning, I sense my time in prison as cozy slumber party. Just imagine 200 women…and me. I expect I was pampered more than most infants.
IN THE WALLS, DID YOU?
(for Billie Holiday)
Billie, did you sing to me through haunting prison walls when I was too young
Did you draw me into slumber with your grieving blues and
did God Bless the Child when I was rocked in sad, and bliss,
When I was cradled in strong light-mahogany arms that tightened their wrap
as I inhaled humid stale prison sweat in the crook of my mother’s neck on shoulders
that braced me to her own blues?
Billie did you feel my moments of adagio, the smooth lyrical flow of hopeless
time while we all waited, I didn’t know for what and
Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child.
Still, I hear your lullabies like you wrote them to sing simply to me, alone.
Billie when I hear you now, sounds of your voice sweep me on my knees inside
as I squint to recall my prison mother, myself, hundreds of inmates,
hundreds, I can’t quite unravel,
did I hear you then?
In the walls, Billie, did you sing for me?
NOTE: Written around 1995, when I returned for the first time to the prison of my birth to address the inmates. I’m now preparing to go again back to West Virginia for a line-up of five different presentations.