On February 4, 2020, about a month before the pandemic shutdown, First Tuesdays participated in PEN’s and The Poetry Project’s Break Out: a movement to (re)integrate incarcerated writers into literary community by hosting the second of two featured readings of the work of incarcerated writers. Two of our regulars, Henry Sussman and David Siller read poems by Peter Dunne. In the video, which is below, David reads first, and then Henry. Unfortunately, given the upheaval of the shutdown, I was not able to post the video of their reading at the time, so I am posting it now. Peter’s poems and his bio appear below the video.
One reason I decided First Tuesdays should join BREAKOUT, is that our open mic was, for a period of five or six years, the literary home of two formerly incarcerated writers. Neither of these men attends First Tuesdays anymore—their lives have taken them elsewhere—but each of them shared work with us that not only declared how important writing was to them, both in prison and out, but that also spoke eloquently about the strength they drew from knowing that they had in us a receptive, interested, and invested audience. The audience in attendance on February 4th was similarly receptive, interested, and invested, and it is unfortunate that Peter Dunne was unable to share his work and experience that audience for himself.
Love should not be written in stone but in water. —Catullus
Beneath a NO SMOKING sign, sat I, smoking a joint,
when you stepped out the bar, patting your pockets
as if you hadn’t been touched in years. I offered
you a light & my coat as a shield against the wind.
Your hair smelled of lavender & menthol. Shame.
You took a drag, the deepest I’d ever seen,
& grinned—a red sickle glistening in the night. Your eyes
dismembered me: I could feel a part of myself drifting
along your current, drowning in its riverbed; the other
parts reconvened to form a chorus of irreverent Marias
as you opened your mouth & a drunk driver
tried parallel parking but failed— setting off a refrain
of car alarms, all of which beeped in sync,
as if acquiescing to some unknown pulse. The silence
swaggered on &, no, I don’t think I heard a word you said
after ‘Got any more of that?’ because English is less
expressive than body language, the petroglyphs of skeletons.
The funny part is that I’m serious. Perhaps it was
the alcohol or weed inside our bodies, a song
that needed to be written down, or the dance
we shared by the jukebox, a mere audition
for the real thing, but if not then I can say in earnest
it was more than pheromones & a roseate dawn,
more than in flagrante delicto, two bodies, sun & moon,
swapping places, painting a picture so ugly it could be
mistaken for an avant-garde masterpiece. Call it ‘love’—
until the silence churned secrets, the ordinary not enough,
envy wedging between us like a remote in the sofa.
You became a cat-lady’s flashback stilled in the present
& I just wanted to be cast in another movie,
something less dramatic— a rom-com if the gods
were so inclined—though, as you loved to say, ‘Beggars
can’t be choosers, only chasers of sympathy’s backwash.’
My inner bum, I guess, was drunk on your fire water.
Unholy ghost. Speaking of which, I heard
that yours still haunts the same downtown dive,
except now it reeks of sulfur & regret. I hope
you find some peace. When I smoke I pray
we meet between the afterlife & beforedeath,
until spotting a lipstick-stained butt on the sidewalk
carried by the wind, which has a mind of its own,
&, faced with no other choice, I let go. Please
understand that I’d give anything, like Narcissus,
to stare a ripple into those sky blue eyes again.
Another night without you here I bleed
that venerable script of light, the sky,
and wonder if we tumbled through its void
too early or too late, perhaps on time,
as wounded beasts, receptacles of love
and pain, or lonely gods expelled from home,
enjoying their repose of eminence;
for what is heaven but a pointillist dream
of stars—an infinite fountain of fire
in which to dip this pen, to let my joy
and sorrow sing across this great divide
between us, like a canvas never touched?
The world still claims our secrets as its own,
my dear, foreshadowing without intent:
…a splendid morning sun will come and leave
its map of futile streaks, pangs of desire
inside our bedroom window, as our loins
turn numb with tears, grieving in lunar tides;
the moon will veil its blooming labium
of gold, with night’s grainy and ragged robe,
above a mountainside green as absinthe.
Such an involuntary slant would seem
fantastical at any other time
but ours. When I die bury me with coins
over my eyes—so you do not go blind
like Lady Shin—like yellow chrysanthemums
dribbling love honey. Let my shadow
outshine its face and cast its nether wind
through porous clouds, then call Persephone
and tell her Daddy’s coming home. Ignite.
Ink vomit on the day as if your voice
unleashed a requiem of crows on Times
Square’s neon inferno, aluminum
River—think Acherontic undertow—
and, yes, the Statue of Lamentations.
Sugar & Cyanide, Act One: Sky Queen,
enrapt in black, licking my heart of ice
until its melts, before ours lips conjoin
in Act Two, where (hoping for no third) I
return to earth a luminarium,
a corpse in rigor vitus as I roam
the city limits, high, perfumed in sweat—
CUT!—us, in prison, running out of scenes
while listening to cicadas pining
outside a barred window, to girls and boys
tantruming on the floor, trochees of time
unfurling to a chorus of questions
no one can answer. Hoshizukiyo. That this film is subtitle-free, foreign,
and raw makes of its actors a poesy,
supposing we arc nothing more than pride
and dust—human microbiota, voice-
less glimmers—like animated still-lifes.
To seal the space between your breast and tongue
I wrote you via airmail, and I quote:
Baby, we’ve always known that heaven lends
more than it gives, that it is but a dream
of death’s delicious thrashing in this life,
which we mistake for nature’s noisomeness;
so how can you live with the sacrifice
of my floundering heart, its fiery hum,
upon your flawless cutting board of stone—
releasing an ocean of animus?
The world, emptied of its cacophony,
still needs a maestro and a choir
to play its symphony, to brave The Void.
Tonight, outside my window, hail screams like
stars to the pavement. In Elysium,
this beautiful and fucked up world, we know
the Song of Silence, crying astroglyphs.
Follow the labyrinth of your heart; find me
at the center of its perfect design.
Let my body be your personal foy,
devouring this pulsing, boundless light:
envision a creature, slave to the sun
and moon, inside a cathedral of gold,
your womb, to offer praise en mirabilis.
The sweetest poison a man ever knows
is the eyes of his paramour, her nimbus lids.
Peter M. Dunne is the winner of a 2018 PEN Prison Writing Award. He is a poet and novelist, who, while incarcerated, earned a degree from Bard College (Bard Prison Initiative). He divides his time between tutoring, reading strange books, and working on new projects. Upon his release he plans on becoming a positive member of society by earning his MFA, gaining employment as an editor and graphic designer, starting an avant-garde literary journal, and establishing a small press catering to incarcerated individuals.