artist painter

david galler & the prisoner poet

Blue and Black Wall (1994) on front cover of Collected Poems (1995)


            They had been told to treat him with consideration. So, after they’d pushed him into the cell and locked the door, it opened after a few minutes and a magic marker with fairly broad tip was tossed in, and, once again, the door was locked.

            He grasped the idea quickly, and after a few minutes began to write a poem, starting as high up as he could on one wall. A short rest, and then another beneath it. And so on, so that by the end of the day he was both tired and somewhat satisfied. Meals were of course slipped in through low-cut, small-sized sections that opened and shut in each of the four walls at different locations.

            The next day after breakfast he began afresh, and so on the next day and the next, until he either needed a new marker or all the walls were filled with poetry. One slightly malicious among his captors threw in a ladder one day so the poet could write from the very top of the walls if he so wished, and of course he did, for he wanted to preserve the poems below. So much so that he finally covered the whole ceiling as well with his flow of verses. The same captor then slipped in a note suggesting he write on the floor; and there was even one window they never opened, which let in the light until it, too, was written on.

            Then what to do? It was agreed he would be supplied with markers of several colors, simultaneously, so he would be free to choose which colors to use on different days or even the same day.

            It all went rather well for more than a year. The poet had never had so much time in which to compose; he’d never had the opportunity to see all his verses at the same time, and even in chronological order, until he lost track of the sequence, for finally he was forced to write over them – at first, in another color, and eventually sometimes not. One day he might feel he had written some of the world’s finest terza rima; another day he’d discover the beauty of fragment; another would make him feel en epic was in the making or at least the longest sonnet sequence ever managed; epigrams alternating with villanelles, blanks vying with rhymed couplets, the whole works. He even tried writing in different tongues, for he knew at least three, or would mix them up in the same poem.

            He felt he was actually happy for the first time, or at least truly fortunate, for some shred of his critical faculty remained. He slept well, whether on the floor, wall, or ceiling, for he couldn’t tell which surface his best or his worst poems now rested on – and many of both, he was sure, had long since been written over greatly.

            And so it progressed. His captors installed electric bulbs at irregular intervals and positions on all six sides of his quarters, keeping them small so he would have most space on which to write and yet be able to see. Once, he did feel his way around to try to find the window he had written over so many times, but he either couldn’t locate it or had to stop because his hands ached and were black and blue from pounding as he assumed the window was shatterproof; and, in any case, if he kept pounding he would so injure his hands he couldn’t write. By now he’d become ambidextrous, and also was possessed by the growing feeling he was less and less subject to gravity and could with no physical support, if he inclined, which he did not, write in any position, even upside down, as he was able still to resist the writing of any kind of free verse, even calligrams, which the spacings of the electric lights sometimes tempted him to try.

            He slept well each night. After some days, during which his captors heard no sound from the cell and deduced his trays were lined up like a train, within, and guessing by now he had tried and possibly succeeded in covering himself with writing, the door was opened and a sonogram specialist, a phrenologist, and finally a priest with a working knowledge of magic entered the cell to see what was what. And the cell had wholly to be demolished before they could bring themselves to believe that they had found him.

David Galler, 2002