At San Quentin, the little arts classroom faced a large courtyard fenced-up into small enclosures—these were areas where death row inmates and inmates segregated because of their violent tendencies would exercise. The fences in each area are covered in canvas so that no one can see out or in, and there is a catwalk for the guards running over the exercise area, and over that, an aluminum roof. (The roof has a number of large holes in it—an inmate explained to me that they were from warning shots fired by guards). The sides are open, though, and vast numbers of birds flew in and out of the area. I was entranced—the birds were amazing, fluttering around, chirping, singing.
I thought of a poem by Isaac Rosenberg.
Returning, We Hear the Larks
Sombre the night is.
And though we have our lives, we know
What sinister threat lies there.
Dragging these anguished limbs, we only know
This poison-blasted track opens on our camp -
On a little safe sleep.
But hark! joy - joy - strange joy.
Lo! heights of night ringing with unseen larks.
Music showering our upturned list’ning faces.
Death could drop from the dark
As easily as song -
But song only dropped,
Like a blind man’s dreams on the sand
By dangerous tides,
Like a girl’s dark hair for she dreams no ruin lies there,
Or her kisses where a serpent hides.
The situations of this poem from the Great War and the reality I witnessed at San Quentin are vast, of course. Yet for me there was that same unexpected intrusion of natural beauty into human desolation, jarring and intoxicating. But song only dropped….
An inmate pointed out that many of the birds only had one foot. The missing feet are damaged, supposedly, when the birds perch on the razor wire. I assume they get by hopping around on one foot until it too gets sliced up, and then they die.
Note on birds: I saw crows, song sparrows, some sort of tern, and some unknown little dark things that were chirping madly. I emailed the Marin County Audubon Society to see what kind of birds might be hanging around San Quentin this time of year, but they have not yet responded.
Note on photos: We weren’t allowed to bring cameras in, so the only photos I took were from outside the prison—a shot of the wire and a guard tower, above, and a shot of the bay looking out from the prison, below. The physical location of San Quentin is incredibly beautiful.