The Poetry Project

Active Rest

George Wilkerson

i am surprised only four of us made it out.
maybe we are the survivors; the rest
are casualties of inactivity induced by The Pandemic:
staff shortages had languished us on our pod since Christmas,

a month of gloomy gray air
since the dayroom lights stay off. most guys watch
our two TVs flicker narcotically—nonstop
weather, game shows, reruns, soap operas. not me.

though all it takes is an extra pair of hands
on duty to remove the giant slumber-boulder
blocking death row’s rec yard door, only four of us
clamber out, like miners. our yard is drenched

in shadow, except for a strip of warmth glowing
on the basketball court. i stumble toward it, squinting
in the light, start walking figure-eights in that tight
space. more like a straight line. sun on face, pivot,

sun on back (facing the others), pivot, sun on face…
fifteen seconds each way, dodging goose shit with every step
on uneven concrete cracked by tufts of crabgrass
and orange anthills sprouting up like dusty magma.

we have thirty minutes and are prohibited to touch
each other or the snow that lies inside the wall’s shadow.
a semitruck rumbles past beyond the perimeter wall
and a chilly breeze slants down out of bright blue sky.

i notice Lyle, a northerner, grinning like a kid and chomping
on a huge egg. i wonder where the fuck he got it—did he raid
a goose nest?—until i realize it is snow. energized, he climbs
onto the exercise apparatus, cranking out endless reps

of pull-ups, push-ups, sit-ups. i pivot, take sun on face,
hear little birds zip by, tweeting happily. i pivot,
see Vinnie jumping rope like a maniac for a few seconds
until it tangles in his ankles. his boxer’s body is flabby, clumsy.

i note Jerzy in the guard’s chair, imperious, silent
for the first time in weeks—smug and defiant, as if daring
the guard to tell him to get up. the guard turns his back
and i, too, pivot into the sun, walking side-by-side

toward the wall. the guard hollers up to the guntower
guard about the upcoming Super Bowl, while i start
writing this poem in my head, trying
to get as much mileage out of recreation as i can

as i stomp up a sweat. it might be another month
before i touch sun again—maybe less, maybe more—
so i breathe and blink in the light, i listen
to the sky, the road beyond the wall. toward the end

of our time, i let my body go
wide on the loops, less pivot more swoop, expanding
my laps, loosening my lines. suddenly i see
Vinnie break toward the snow

with only seconds left of recreation, so i too veer
onto damp and muddy grass
before the guard can stop us. we scoop up contraband,
the first snowballs we’ve made in decades

of incarceration, and launch them like spirits in a high arc
toward the prison’s brick exterior
as our bodies swagger and skip

I am climbing the stairs…