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An Essay and Poems

by Patrick Nolan

This article appeared in the March 1996 issue of M.E.N. Magazine

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Patrick Nolan is a life prisoner in California.

Buried In The Rubble

Beneath this weight of gray

solitary souls count off days

carving diligently, notches

into the rib of the beast,

and slowly,


dance the tired shuffle

of the yoke.

I knew a face once

long ago:

freckled innocence

with red curly hair.

Who is this skull

with eyes ringed in darkness?

Where is the hero

of forgotten times…?

Discipline. If one were to pose the question of discipline to my stepfather, I can't help but imagine his response being a raised, partially clenched, gnarled fist. For as long as I can remember, I have hated my stepfather and how he came to be the ruling tyrant in my "broken home." I keep thinking of the time he entered the bedroom I shared with my younger brother, sitting down next to us the way a parent will when tucking in a child with warm, soothing words and possibly a bedtime story. Rather than a story, though, he handed me a large, wooden-handled kitchen knife and said if I wanted him to leave, I had to kill him. I held the knife in small, white-skinned hands. I wanted to plunge the knife deep into his steeped-in-whiskey heart; instead I cried. It was in that instant, I think, my stepfather lost any chance of having respect for me. He stood up and turned his back on me as he left the room.

Have you ever hated someone so profoundly that the only way to fall asleep at nights was to fantasize mindscapes with visions and images of pure violence? Only now, in my 32nd year, am I able to close my eyes at night and ebb into gentle slumber. No longer is my mind ripped asunder by the red rampage running through my veins. I attribute this to the natural process of life and growth; also, to the conscious effort on my part to find and stick to a medium capable of channeling the torrential strains of psychic pressure that go with psychic growth.

A year or so before my mother died, I went hunting rabbits with my little brother, my stepfather and his father, and an in-law. It was deep winter and snow lay heavy and white. The maritime woods where we hunted were gray with dawn's light, but as the sun rose, the trees, encased in ice, began to glisten. Two rabbit hounds we had with us tore about the woods in baying pandemonium. One dog, our family pup, "Porkchops," was out on his first hunt (like my brother and me), so his wild plowing of furrows through the snow, sometimes burrowing deep inside snowdrifts, was more play than anything else. My stepfather had me carry the old break-barrel 12 gauge shotgun that was as tall as I was back then, while he carried a sleek 18-shot, .22 caliber Winchester rifle with adjustable telescopic scope. I was the first to spot a rabbit. Hidden in a dense bush frozen over with snow, it peered out at me with pleading, terrified eyes. I could see the rabbit's quivering body vibrate to the pulse force made by its pounding heart. Slowly, with both thumbs, I pulled back the shotgun's tight hammer, raised the shotgun up to my shoulder, resting my cheek on the hard wooden stock, and made contact across the distance bridged by the long barrel. I had the rabbit dead in my sights. All I had to do was pull on the trigger. I couldn't bring myself to squeeze the trigger. Instead, I called my stepfather and, like Judas, I obediently pointed out the hiding rabbit. With one shot to the head that cracked an echo throughout the woods, the rabbit lay lifeless for me to retrieve after I received a backhand to the cheek for not uncocking the shotgun.

Hunting Rabbits

With Step-Relatives

The snow is deeper when you're ten,

holding a 12 gauge on a rabbit a few

feet away.

It knows you know its heart pounds

in the melting snow around its body

as it waits for that moment when all

is silent.

The wind has pierced the trees

to the bone; two small thumbs cock

back the hammer.

Why isn't the rabbit home with its

family, out of the cold and sights

of things that want it dead?

I did a lot of reasoning that cold winter morning. I told myself I didn't kill the rabbit because the blast of a shotgun at such a close range would have left nothing but fur and bloody gore splattered against the snowy ground and bushes. In my heart I knew different. I also reasoned that I had the opportunity to turn the shotgun's gaping bore upon my stepfather and blast him, claiming hunting accident. For years afterward I dwelled on this, not taking the opportunity to get that bastard out of my family's life. I'd fantasize how much happier we would all have been without him. My mother might even be alive today if only I'd have let the shotgun's hammer drop on his life. As the eldest son, I once again failed in a duty I felt was mine. All the beatings I received-punctuated with statements like "you're no good, worthless, a liar, a thief, a shame"-all became real for me in that instant.

Realized Pronouncement

In a field

Dead horses

Graze on my grave.

I am a crumb

Falling through

Cracks in the universe.

In the trees of a wooded place

White crows pass judgment to the wind.

A doorway is locked.

Behind my eyes

Its sign in bold

Black letters.

Count me among

The denuded dead.

I can't find my key!

I am a crumb

Falling through

Cracks in the universe.

I look back on my life now from the confines of a prison cell as I serve a life sentence for taking a man's life-not my father's. He died drunk, falling eight or nine stories off an apartment balcony into the parking lot below. I was 19at the time, serving time in the city jail for two counts of drunken assault. A couple weeks before his death, I had written him a letter saying I wanted to talk with him, that our family had fallen apart since Mom's death, that our family needed him and me to make things right. I forget what I said exactly. I know I apologized for all the heartache I caused. I told him I hated him, that I also loved him, but he never received the letter. I attended his funeral under escort, dressed in blues, wearing handcuffs and shackles linked to a link bolt fastened around my waist. A family friend returned the letter. Said it was a beautiful letter and my father would have loved it if he had received it.

I can still see him vividly, lying in an open casket looking artificial in make-up that wanted you to believe the dearly departed found peace. I hope he did. Standing before him, I felt a great sadness, for we both shared in the loss of my mother.

He handed me,

when I was three,

a kitchen knife

and a choice:

kill him, or take him

as my father.

I chose a stepfather.

At nineteen

the choice was mine:

I chose a father

too late. He died

walking the rail

of a nine-story free-fall.

I started wondering what in his life could have twisted him up inside with so much rage. I then remembered an experience that occurred a day or so after the memorial service for my mother. My brother and I were informed that we would not be attending the burial, that we were being shipped out to summer camp for a month. I refused to go, screaming angrily; I forgot what happened exactly. My stepfather's dad slammed the cast he had on his arm into my face and ordered me into the car. My stepfather's family on his mother's side were upper-middle-class English. His mother married his father during the Second World War. Emotional displays were a show of bad breeding. As I stood before my stepfather, I realized he, too, was a victim of a tyrant's hand. I said I loved him, that I would never forget what he did to my mother, but I could forgive him, and I did.


I have tasted

the explosion

of my father's

knuckles, in youth.

I am the boy

staring at the sun;

only, my intensity

is real.

I want to please.

The salt on my lips

is red. His creased

face my pain.

By the hand.

I was raised

by the hand

of my father.

I think it was Joseph Campbell who said that the only difference between murder and suicide is that one is directed outward and the other inward. I took a man's life, and nothing I can ever do or say will change this fact. Prior to taking a life, life was meaningless; my life was meaningless. It took taking a man's life to make me realize just how priceless life truly is. I don't lament that my life is sentenced to confinement. I owe a man my life. I could give over a meaningless life, exhausted by chasing escape routes out of the reality of this world, but then nothing would be settled; rather, two lives would be wasted. Giving up on life is pointless; I have done it, and countless thousands do it every day without even realizing it till it is too late, and they burn up or go off in a sudden, excruciating flame. Others, after years of suffering can no longer be endured, either become so numb inside the soul feels dead, or in one or two directions, inward or out, they give up. I don't kid myself in thinking that I will ever be able to set the scales straight, but I want to go out trying. I honestly believe all life has meaning, that we must find that meaning in our individual lives. I want each second of my life to mean something.

Some people see my acceptance of my incarceration as giving up or having become institutionalized. Maybe both opinions are right, or maybe I believe life can be experienced to the fullest, even in prison. "Discipline" no longer stirs up the bad associations it once did for me. Michael Meade, drummer and storyteller, says that "through discipline comes ritual." He also says that "an elder is someone who has endured inner fires and survived." Writing in general became the medium of which I spoke earlier, particularly the writing of poetry. I still burn inside, but my process allows me to endure the suffering fires that are a necessary part of my growth. In continued practice of discipline I have created rituals that help bring meaning to my life, such as waking up in the early morning hours to write, study, meditate or pray.

I also maintain a comprehensive journal. Being aware of my center and moving out from it into the world, being open and receptive, I am taking responsibility not only for my actions but for my thoughts. Inner work is never easy, but it is the road I choose to take. On this note I will close with two poems.

To What Does Life Give Meaning

I can see the mailman

believing he is a service

to society, that his work

is appreciated. And when

that meaning is shattered,

what then: a rifle in a tower?

Some seem to survive

finding solace in the superficial

shine of superfluous things.

"A break down

in progress:

5150 on the loose

and on one."

"Teenland gangland

murder carried out

in vendetti style

execution: body

of a boy of eleven

or so found dead

from a shotgun blast

to the back of the head."

Men and women chasing Death

down back alley streets strewn

with human waste. A vice just

one more deceptive face worn

by the Deceiver who deals death

wholesale: a life for a life in

Nirvana's fragrant flower garden,

and then goodnight, out goes the light.

I found meaning in the dark

depths of a prison cell. What

was meaningless to me, life;

my life, resulted in my taking

a man's life. It was only then

did I come to realize how precious

life truly is-in taking life

I found life's meaning.

I think of Viktor Frankl who was

confined to the death camps of Germany

with those countless others, breathing

in the rancid stench of decaying flesh

because he and they were Jews, or some

other non-desirable social parasite

deemed unworthy to breathe. Yet he

found meaning; meaning

not only to survive, but to live

and flourish with creativity,

becoming a flame for further

combustions, like mine.

D-33947 (Prison I.D. Number)

Working the keyhole

with filed down comb,

the effort is futile;

yet still, the white-haired

man, biting tongue gently

with what few yellowed teeth

remain, continues:

It isn't about getting out

for him: in his heart of defeats

escape would be useless, pointless:

escape to where, to what? The only

home this man has known, and what few friends

are all within prison, or dead.

No. Escape is not what he seeks as he curses

softly at the key's hole: but to send a message

to the kid three decades his age sitting on

the upper bunk alone and afraid: "I could'a

gotten out once … now its too late."

Patrick Nolan is a life prisoner serving his sentence at CSP-Sacramento. He has been published in Psychological Perspectives, Poetry Flash, Poetry: USA, The California Prisoner, and various other literary journals.

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