7Upper: Writing from Rikers Island, EMTC, Through the Fortune Society

 Even the Stars Look Lonesome
-Maya Angelou

When Patrick Mathieu conceived of 7Upper: Writing from Rikers Island, EMTC Through the Fortune Society, he imagined a collection that would share with readers some of the magic that he has experienced over the years. Many moons ago, due to a misidentification, Mathieu found himself locked up on Rikers Island and then within the broader prison system. Over the ten years he spent challenging his conviction, Mathieu studied. He studied the judicial system. He studied the prison system. He studied the faces of those incarcerated beside him. He studied time. Mathieu was released in 2006, the same year that NASA confirmed the possibility of water on one of Saturn’s moons.

Since his release, Mathieu has continued his investigation. He explores photography and works on the book he began writing in prison. He also leads a writing workshop on Rikers Island through the New York Writers Coalition. Through these experiences, he developed a “thirst for history and truth about the reality of existence.” 7Upper was born. It is a magnificent collection of powerful voices. It is the most authentic view I have ever had into the world of those behind bars.

The poet paints the world through a solitary eye. Standing on its own, each poem looks through an independent lens. Images of isolation, home, injustice, strength, sorrow, family, regret and forgiveness come into view. When the honesty becomes almost too much to bear, the individual voices of poets gather themselves together. Their chorus is a symphony.

Having had the privilege of reviewing 7Upper, I had time myself to study the poems that make the music. The poets are my teachers

Consider the places you aren’t trying to get to,
Where the trains won’t take you.

The symphony’s first movement sets the tone. In the words of contributor Rebecca McCray, “it is our responsibility to make the invisible visible again by remembering them; by acknowledging that island and naming it on our maps.” Attention is called.

The frame is steel and rusted from heat and humidity.
I use my inner eye to see the things I love most.
Problem was I was nowhere to be found.
I build and destroy, destroy and build.
The feeling of being lost in my own thoughts.

With deliberation and agility, the symphony’s second movement begins a dissection. From materials harsh and square and tired, we construct walls around us. We believe we can think our way out of what we build. We might be lost. That is what the poets seem to be saying.

Money! Money! Money!
I ain’t got enough for all this stuff.
Slave to the system that make private bankers rich.
There is the good face of money And the love
And root of all evil money.

Then comes the third movement. Peaks and valleys and valleys and peaks. We watch “a show of dancing money.” Gloriously exhilarating.

My freedom – taken. My liberties – Removed
I tumble out of control, spinning like a top with no end.
Chose another, that one, the other, thinking,
Lost in time, lost in life, sacrificed it all for a price.
Looking back over the years.
A fool in an abundance of water, but still I thirst.

We are exhilarated until we are not. In those moments, we might ask ourselves, “was there light in the water when I fell in and drowned?”

What is love?
Love can be beautiful. Love can hurt as well.
A black so dark it was darkness.
As this very moment our present, soon will be our past.
What do you fear?
What I want humanity had already lost,
it doesn’t belong to ya any longer.
If you are wondering where you are, don’t bother.
Despite weather reports and warnings she carried on.

Sorrow filled this week’s news. Boston marathoners and those who love them watched unthinkable violence before their eyes. The rest of us could only watch from afar, desperate to do something but unable to act. The events brought many of us back to the attacks on the World Trade Center, bombings in our native countries and tragedies of war. We have so far become accustomed to Washington’s deadlock, but this week, it was painfully clear. The bill before them was something most everyone in this country agrees on – gun purchasers should be subject to background checks. The United States Congress was unable to pass that bill. We are worried that we lack the energy to trek forward through the sludge, and we are unsure where we are going.

7Upper’s reflections on love and persistence in the face of darkness are powerful reminders that this struggle is not new. We “thirst for history and truth about the reality of existence” and in these precarious days, it appears beyond our reach.

Am I angry or confused?
I still find myself a bit upset.
I want to make my path easier.
That’s when I started to listen.
You always find the right things to say.
The flight and freedom of a single dove.
When I was growing up you answered every call.

Some who are religious might find in these words the presence of God or gods or Buddha or the universe. Some who are not religious might see the same thing. What we can probably all agree upon is that somewhere in our lives, our journey has been eased by other people. Family, colleagues, parents, friends, children. Affinity groups. Our communities. It would be difficult to read this book and not feel, for a moment anyway, that if these poets can figure out how to combat loneliness on Rikers Island, the rest of us can too.

Sacrifice: comes with change
I wait for satisfaction of my hunger.
He had all the freedom in the world.
The freedom and the liberty that comes with the sacrifice of life
To be open minded to new & different things that life has to offer.
Freedom is what I must take back.

We are inspired. We worry about which way is the right way. How ironic that a bunch of men locked up on Rikers Island write so passionately about the beauty of freedom.

cherry and berry was on my ass
The hood…what it do!
These beautiful streets are where I am from.
A little of this and a little of that.
All these lost souls stuck in a well.
This is where I’m from.
All I know is that I am here.

Just as we begin to crawl too much into our minds, the book’s eighth movement brings us back to life. It is jazz. It is Bossa Nova. It is hip hop. It is classical. It is spoken word. These are the blues.

I’m your DJ.
I possess the power to save life.
The essence powerful enough to transcend suddenly surpass,
Translate to be understood.

In most of our lives, shackles appear only as a metaphor. We feel trapped by one thing or another, and so we struggle. The book’s overture comes with Lynk Santiago’s composition called “Hello.” It suggests how to live.

How far is happiness for me you ask?
In time.

Like most great works of art, 7Upper ends with more questions than answers. Its contributors do not claim to know for sure what our purpose is. But in the tradition of the teachers who have gone before them, they ask that we listen to what they have learned and they encourage us to go on. Borrowing again from Santiago, “at my command all goes dark or goes colorful as bright, beautiful as the rainbow, which raise from the dark right before your eyes just like a star.”

The verses above are composed of pieces from every poem and essay in the collection. Their writers are Hector Alejandro, Kevin Dingle, BG Da Don, Henry Figueroa, Jeffrey Haischer, Phillip Herring, Patrick Mathieu, Rebecca McCray, Pakij Kent Ochjaroem, Marcos Perez, Neville Redd/Storm, Mark Rivera, Anthony Rucco, Lynk Santiago, Bruce Teachy, Keith Whitley.

7Upper: Writing from Rikers Island, EMTC Through the Fortune Society is available for sale through the NY Writers Coalition’s Bookstore.