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Tucson, February 2017

Taped to the wall of my cell are 47 pictures: 47 black
faces: my father, mother, grandmothers (1 dead), grand-
fathers (both dead), brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts,
cousins (1st and 2nd), nieces, and nephews. They stare
across the space at me sprawling on my bunk. I know
their dark eyes, they know mine. I know their style,
they know mine. I am all of them, they are all of me;
they are farmers, I am a thief, I am me, they are thee.

This is the beginning of ‘The Idea of Ancestry’ by Etheridge Knight (1931-1991), the American poet who began writing as an inmate at Indiana State Prison, publishing his debut Poems from Prison in 1968. I first heard a recording of the poem—in Knight’s unmistakable voice—during a lecture by poet Terrance Hayes, as he held his phone to the mic to play the recording: Taped to the wall of my cell are 47 pictures…

Hayes’ lecture began and ended with this poem, orbiting memory, black identity and the obsessions and anxieties of influence, describing Knight’s lifelong effect on his work. What I found most memorable from the lecture was Hayes’ splicing of cell biology with the literal space of Knight’s prison cell. Where the familial, biological aspect is embodied by the 47 photographs on Knight’s jail cell wall, Knight himself is the nucleus, a concentration of DNA and proteins, the cell’s ‘control center’. Surrounding him is the cytoplasm, a limited space, the environmental substance in which ‘family members’ are contained. This familial environment might function as it should, safely enveloping the nucleus, sustaining it with vital organelles such as mitochondria and ribosomes. Or, cell damage might occur, a result of physical, chemical, infectious, biological, nutritional or immunological factors.

Similarly, in terms of family, history, the state: we are not all born into structures that sustain us; we are not all equally equipped with means of resistance or defence.


Hayes’ metaphor extends the concerns of this season’s reviews and features, from the literally carceral to the restrictions placed on self and psyche by mental or physical illness, freedom of movement or its lack, national borders, and historically, structurally (or sometimes wilfully) ignorant domestic and international policy. Its title, a gray stone wall damming my stream, is derived from Knight’s poem.

The prison cell delimits and defines both how a prisoner experiences their own body, and how their body is coded in society. An animal cell has similar delimiting autonomy, but it is also a powerhouse, a concentration of energy. Could the same be said of legally constricted spaces? After hearing Hayes’ lecture, I added Etheridge Knight to a mental list of imprisoned poets and writers, past and present: Irina Ratushinskaya’s poems written on soap with a matchstick, to be washed away once memorised; Jean Genet’s glittering drag epic Our Lady of the Flowers written on brown paper handed out to prisoners; husband and wife Liu Xiaobo and Liu Xia, both poets, respectively imprisoned and placed under house arrest; others whose stories I am yet to learn.

Following this containment of energy, certain contributions to this season will focus on creativity—its encouragement or suppression—inside penal walls: reflections on Edmund Clark’s collaborative projects at HMP Grendon, the UK’s only therapeutic prison; insights from a novelist’s experience of teaching in various penal institutions; Jackie Wang’s Carceral Capitalism asks what ‘psychic toll’ the USA’s militarised carceral system takes on its residents, and offers an encompassing analysis of juvenile delinquency, predatory policing, the political economy of fees and fines, cybernetic governance, and algorithmic policing; Hatty Nestor contributes an excerpt from her forthcoming book (Zer0 books, 2019) which examines the representations of individuals within the criminal justice system. 

Other pieces respond to the restrictions of genre and its relation to representation. Isabel Waidner’s introduction to Liberating the Canon: An Anthology of Innovative Literature explains that: ‘historically, sociopolitical marginalisation and avant-garde aesthetics have not come together in UK literature, counterintuitively divorcing outsider experience and formal innovation’. The experimental works published in Liberating The Canon comprise a redressing of the balance, and new titles by art writers Maria Fusco (Give Up Art, 2018) and Jeanne Graff (Vzszhhzz, 2018) proudly assert a similar formal dissent, mixing up fiction, art criticism and reportage.


Writing an editorial titled a gray stone wall damming my stream under a flat Arizonan sun, it is impossible not to think of the much-discussed, potentially-actual ‘gray stone wall’ that would be located some 40 miles to the south, where the US/Mexican border cuts the Sonoran Desert in two [1]. Despite its open expanse, this desert—as with other land and seascapes such as the Mediterranean—is a space contentiously occupied by the necessary fugitivity of those hoping to cross, and the overlay of state violence that leaves a trail of death in its wake.

In the UK, 120 women are currently on hunger strike at Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre, demanding respectful treatment and protesting policy that allows for migrants and asylum seekers to be held indefinitely in nine detention centres across the UK.

The grey stone walls of borders and detention centres are built from fear and cast shadows of shame.


This yr there is a gray stone wall damming my stream, and when
the falling leaves stir my genes, I pace my cell or flop on my bunk
and stare at 47 black faces across the space. I am all of them,
they are all of me, I am me, they are thee, and I have no children
to float in the space between.


[1] Notwithstanding its future militarisation, this border has already divided the Yaqui whose traditional homeland spans the USA and Mexico.    


Daisy Lafarge is reviews editor at MAP