Charles Kell’s poems resist and critique the prison-industrial complex in his debut collection Cage of Lit Glass. These poems illuminate the seemingly endless cycles of violence that perpetuate government-sanctioned surveillance and incarceration, particularly on working class young men. The aftermath of that violence long reverberates; for the speakers among this collection, there is no escape, only the writing and telling of their stories, their intimate struggles and desire for vindication within trauma.
The repetitive hopelessness of incarcerated life begins with brief, truncated tercets that comprise “In the Penal Colony,” where the speaker, who serves as an inmate janitor, has learned to use “a softened piece / of wax to plug my ears against // the din.” He muses that, if another man finds his way to this place, “I will give him a name, / show him where to begin, / show him how to put the wax in.” Time and place become warped for the speaker, who is desperate to keep his wits intact by ignoring the sounds of the prison, yet he denies that he is also trapped inside. Despite his pain, he wants to share the smallest bit of solace he has been given with others; his humanity, in sharp contrast to the harshness of his life, is still present.
A man’s humanity is questioned and refashioned in the intense multi-part poem “Eyes Composed of Fine Particles that Drift Away,” which gives harrowing glimpses into incarceration. Even when the speaker’s father is present, the speaker notices how “He stares through my body / as the ball bounces, echoes / ricochet off the rocks. . . .” The child learns to fear himself, with this insidious thought fermenting across the child’s life. While the child talks to his father in prison, whose “voice on the pay phone / sounds like the drift of sand,” the child thinks, “What scares me the most is me.” This variation on self-fear continues across the poem, which uses fragmented narrative elements that provide glimpses into this father-son relationship. The brief, brutal images, like the speaker’s arrest, are paired with the theoretical, like in the phrase “[a] discursive assemblage consists of strands and / segments of prose that connect and reconnect.” This exercise in sense-making is most illuminated in the speaker almost obsessively attempting to describe the father’s eyes through metaphor:
His eyes are “do not resuscitate.” His
eyes are simultaneous eternities. His eyes
are prisms of plastic. His eyes are black
glass. His eyes are forty-seven
Wings. Echo chambers.
This repetition repeats a violence: “Places thought safe are the exact opposite.” As the speaker occupies his own cell, whether literal or figurative, he becomes himself a shell, an empty, lost child.
Alongside the father are poems that examine constructs of masculinity and imprisonment. The speaker observes the figure of “The Robber” in the collection’s title poem. The robber “walked / back & forth in the cage of lit glass,” the interrogation room where the man is questioned, where “His words are wheels / working to be set free.” The poem’s tight, controlled quatrains, with lines that vary between four and six syllables, illustrate the tension between this man and what hems him in. Likewise, the “you” in “Repeat Offender” is trapped. “Again, this old architecture / sutures you in [. . .]” the speaker intones, with their words turning into directives. “See this face in the mirror— / how one offers a self // up until it’s gone,” the speaker observes. The language of the criminal justice system defines this figure, who exists only in repetitions and reflections, losing any sense of self.
These men disappear behind prison walls, even as the poems in Cage of Lit Glass try to preserve them. In “Drowning in a Shallow Creek Bed,” the speaker recalls memories of men who are gone, who idealized a world different than the one that currently exists. For one, Mark, he imagined “a place we / can stay, there will be light, people talking, / all of the air in the world ours.” In the poem’s final lines, the speaker admits, “His name is written on every / page of this book. The book is sinking / to the bottom of the lake.” That sense of marked invisibility enacts another haunting, where the reader is forced to reckon with the ghosts whose names are ever-present if not read as an act of remembrance.
Even after release, the effects of imprisonment, and its failure to enact meaningful and lasting change in individuals, is evident in “Rimbaud,” where the speaker, in withdrawal, remembers the letters his mother sent. “I write to no one: / I made it out alive, finally. The walls / either move or sit still, always where they’re supposed to be.” And yes, despite the stillness, the speaker imagines himself as Rimbaud who “ran through the jungle at night, seeing all.” As the speaker sings, they imagine “Running / and running, like Rimbaud, eyes wide/open, everything in front of me.” In the sonnet “Enclosures” the prison is “four stone walls, a physical / manifestation of my mens rea. More / precisely, a copy of a copy of no copy.” The “you” tries to project out of their cell in a way to deny imprisonment, transforming their cell into “no place.” Incarceration continues to torment these men, who cannot escape the prison that’s been constructed in their psyche.
Through keen portraiture of those who have lived and continue to live in prison, Cage of Lit Glass is a sharp critique of a flawed American criminal justice system wrapped in legalese and labyrinthine laws. “Sarasota Affidavit” captures the official language of the law and all of its constraints. Terse, almost disjointed lines and stanzas begin to paint moments of violence in prison: “I’m kept by / a shadow with / no name. // It uses me as bait.” The final, clanging lines mimic the sound of metal doors clanging shut, with a sharp defiance even in its sense of totality as the poet summons his own last name:
I don’t believe in hell.
My last name
with jail cell.
Kell’s brief, abrupt poems hold the unsaid just as much as what they reveal, serving as a living document that preserves the memory and horror of American “justice.”
About the Reviewer
Alyse Bensel is the author of Rare Wondrous Things, a poetic biography of Maria Sibylla Merian (Green Writers Press, 2020), and three chapbooks. Her poems have appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, Gulf Coast, Poetry International, and West Branch. She is the poetry editor for Cherry Tree and teaches at Brevard College, where she directs the Looking Glass Rock Writers’ Conference.