On Confinement by torrin a. greathouse
I sit across the table from my partner
in the atrium of the psychiatric holding facility
our hands churched into our laps. We are not allowed
to touch. The air between us thick as Perspex.
They tell me all the ways this place resembles a prison.
Everything a sterile white
so clean it could almost disinfect
Jeremy Bentham conceived of what would become
the most common prison design:
Intended to control prisoners through the illusion
that they are always under surveillance.
My partner tells their therapist
they are afraid of taking
their own life,
that they balanced on a building’s edge,
& three officers escort them from the room.
The first cop who ever handcuffed me
[was my father]
left me bound
till my fingers blued.
On the days when I can’t remember
he becomes the scent of
vodka & zip ties
the sound of
cuffs & a bottle
petaling into blades.
At the booking office they remove my glasses
& the guards blur into a procession
I bring my partner clothes & pads
when the hospital decides to hold them longer,
shove each shirt that could mark them
as queer back inside the closet & shut it [like a mouth].
The word faggot scrawls across
the jail guard’s lips like graffiti.
When I visit my partner
they insist on staying inside
the sky above
the patio cordoned
off with chicken wire.
I plead my sentence down
in exchange for: my face, my prints, my DNA
& ten years probation.
When I see a cop, I fear
even my breath
& when my therapist asks me
if I’m suicidal
both are a kind
Tear gas floods the street,
sharpens water to a blade
hidden in the orbit of my eye.
& just like this, a squad car
remakes my sadness a weapon.
If my partner snaps cuffs
around my wrists
[& I asked for this]
have they also weaponized
A woman in the facility
tells my partner:
I know what you are.
My partner goads her on,
babbles in false
tongues & is confined
to their room for safety.
Once, a cop dragged me
into an alley &
beat me like he knew
exactly what I was.
What does it say if sometimes
when I ask my partner to hit me
I expect his fist
tightened in their throat, his voice
bruising their tongue?
I am arrested & placed
[in the men’s jail]
in solitary confinement.
They tell me this is protective
custody. That they couldn’t afford
the lawsuit if I were killed. In this way,
they tell me I am a woman
only when I am no longer
The origin of the word prison
is the Latin prehendere — to take.
It follows, then,
that to take your life is to prison
the body beneath dirt.
suicide is a criminal act].
Balanced on a building’s edge, I imagine
some permutation of this moment
where to fail at death
would be a breach
of my probation.
We both weep for the first time
when we see the sky.
with a single helix
of razor wire & bordered
in sterile white.
© 2018 torrin a. greathouse. Today’s poem first appeared in the November 2018 issue of Poetry.
torrin a. greathouse (she/they) is one of the most innovative and startlingly luminous poets we have writing today. I remember reading “On Confinement” the month it first appeared in Poetry and being arrested by the following lines:
Everything in their poem suggests a limitation, a box the world would build around the speaker. Whether the prison is literal (the men’s holding cell in solitary confinement) or metaphorical (the actions and assumptions of people with the authority to categorize and strip away the dignity of the speaker), the effect is the same, which is to police and draw lines of demarcation around the ways in which marginalized people, especially in this case people who are queer and disabled, are allowed to express their humanity and exercise agency.
“On Confinement” also brings into stark relief the Othering Trans* people undergo when they try to access basic social services. Any facility serving members of the general public ought to be devoid of the homo- and transphobia greathouse talks about. Historically, the Trans body is often a site of both state-sanctioned and private violence, and for all our high-handed talk of equality and progressiveness, this is still largely true today. Anyone able to bear witness to these acts of dehumanization and look away from them places their seal of approval on the acts themselves. And shame on them. Shame on a world that makes someone live in constant fear of violence because of who they are and calls it justice. Shame on all of us.
*Trans is an umbrella term for anyone whose gender identity and/or expression in any way deviates from what was assigned to them at birth. Trans people may identify as transgender, gender fluid, gender-expansive, bigender, agender, gender non-conforming, nonbinary, etc. These are just a few of the identifying words Trans people may or may not use to express their identity(ies), but regardless of terminology all humans deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. It is NEVER okay to deliberately misgender someone or use their dead name.
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